How you end matters... Let's say you're asking your horse to depart from a trot into a canter with a little kick from your heels. Let's say he does it and you carry on down the left side of the arena whistling a happy tune. Now let's say that you show up to a clinic with your favorite instructor and your instructor asks you to demonstrate trot to canter transitions with ease and mastery. Only now... you're confused by your horse's response. Sure, he does what you ask but it seems like he's not himself, like he's giving you an extra challenge for some reason in front of everybody. "He does fine at home," you think to yourself. "What's his problem here? Why is he so resistant?"
Alas, you have fallen into a trap. The trap of complacency. In your practice at home, you find you weren't practicing at all. You were just doing, just riding, and your horse was getting sloppy in the transitions because you didn't know you shouldn't allow such poor performance. Or... you misread your horses' response as a good response because you didn't have the contrast of a great response to compare against. Or... you prioritized the quality of the canter over the quality of the canter transition. Lots of people do this. It's a common mistake. They think the gait is more important than the transition into the gait and fail to work on the transition multiple times in each session in order to score better on that aspect. In Mastery Horsemanship we carry a principle called "You Get What You Allow." Meaning your horse's performance on a regular basis is directly related to the quality of response you allow or end on every day.
So herein lies the three biggest problems people face when trying to advance their communication or riding skills with horses:
1. People often don't practice until they get better scores. That would be like taking a test, getting a "D minus" and leaving the room without making sure you learn something from the test. It's better to stay in the room, even retest until you get a better score, "A+" would be nice, then leaving on a good note.
2. People often don't have contrast. They think what their horse is giving is good enough because they've never felt better. But believe me, there is better. Mastery Horsemanship explores what better is. When you get a response that does not require any extra pressure from your leg, not even a kick or squeeze to get a canter departure, that's a whole lot better than a lower level signal like kicking. But you have to believe it's possible. When you see a master ask a horse to stop without pulling on the reins or exaggerating his or her body language, you start to see that your suggestions are big and obvious, perhaps even inelegant. Certainly not masterful, and therefore giving you a lower score than what's possible within that task. Sure you may be doing better than in the beginning, but don't fall into complacency. There is more magic to behold inside yourself if you are willing to explore the contrast between your own signals and the signals the masters use to get the same simple task.
3. People often prioritize the wrong aspect of training. Sure cantering is important, but what comes before the canter is more important, in a stepping stone fashion of progress. We always recommend mastering the simple, pre-task portions of any task before tackling the main event. For instance, don't push your horse into a trailer, instead, teach her to stand in front of the trailer with mastery, then ask for forward into the trailer. Or don't ask for vertical flexion while trotting, instead ask for vertical flexion while standing still, then from a halt to walk, then during the walk, then from a walk to trot, then while trotting. The same concept goes for lateral suggestions, patterns, rollbacks, flying leads, you name it, the principle applies. There are always preparatory tasks that can be done well before asking for bigger things. People who grasp this idea are the only ones on the path to mastery with horses.
And herein lies the best solutions to those three problems stated above:
1. Score every transition, every response, every question. Use the most simple version of grading we all understand.
A = perfect, masterful, elegant, invisible, needing no supporting signals.
B = great but room for improvement.
C = passable for safety but needs a lot of practice over the next few days.
D = near failure and requires immediate practice to improve.
F = total failure, also requiring immediate practice and leadership.
Always demand at least a "C" score if you're just going to ride for pleasure without improvement in mind. But if you want to improve, demand an "A" response, proving that you don't need your stick or spur or heavy hand to support your idea. If you end on an "A" each day you can reach the pinnacle of mastery in any category you choose.
2. Explore contrast. Don't settle for what you've got. Look for people that inspire you. There are thousands of inspirational videos all over YouTube that demonstrate cool, sexy, elegant, sensitive, light responses to simple suggestions. Here's a short inspirational, older home video, my wife did nearly a decade ago with a horse that didn't have a great life until he met her. Click on video after you finish reading. You should see her now. It's even better.
3. Don't miss or bypass simpler pre-tasks because they are boring, tedious, seems to take too long, or seems too difficult. Did you know it's actually harder to get a good response from a walk to trot, then it is to get a response while trotting? It's actually easier, for instance, to force flexion on the horse while in motion than while transitioning into motion. Lots of trainers misuse and mistake this 'easy factor' as a reason to bypass the related pre-tasks. Don't fall into that trap. If you want to teach flexion in preparation for dressage or collected riding, teach your horse to score well on flexion while standing first, then transitioning, then walking, then transitioning, then trotting, etc. Follow a path, don't skip steps, don't be lazy. Be precise and thoughtful, and measure your responses. Before long, you will notice how you soar above your friends regarding your quality and progress with horses. You might even inspire them :)
In conclusion. Looking back at the original story about not performing well in front of your favorite instructor, you must become the kind of person that judges the quality of the transition from trot to canter on a regular basis and settles for no less than an "A" or "B" score before continuing on with the canter. Had you been paying attention you would have noticed the regular poor "C" or "D" responses because you had to kick your horse to get the canter, and not allowed them to be the end result that day. If you follow through to a great score, you would never again struggle in front of an instructor who asks you for higher quality responses.
I remember a famous quote by Tony Robbins, "People are rewarded in public for what they practice for years in private." That means, if you want more than just casual riding experiences, you must endeavor to practice. And what better way to practice than to use a simple scoring model. Try it for yourself and reply to this article with a comment below on how this has helped you. Share it with a friend and let's make the world of horse training a better place for horses and people.
Thanks for reading and God bless :)
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