I’d like to start this off by stating that I can’t possibly write down everything that Trevor and Tara taught during the clinic. In fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t even hope to capture everything I was supposed to have learned there. The best I can do is try to convey my interpretation of what insights I may or may not have gleaned as a result of spending two days playing with concepts in a clinic setting. It sounds pretty vague, but that’s about the best you can expect, I think, and about the best I can deliver.
In level 3 and 4, we work on refining everything we learned in levels 1 and 2 until it becomes seamless. We call it unconscious competence. The operative question is “how little can I do and still get the desired result?” If we do too little, our horse won’t understand—too much and we are shouting. And if we do just a little, but we do it all the time, we are nagging. We have to learn to give the signal as quietly as possible, then go to neutral and stay there and let the horse be responsible for his actions.
Tara spent part of the first morning having us play with this concept of neutrality. She began by demonstrating with Amy, a Percheron mare. She used the game “don’t make me pick up the stick” on a circle. Only now, in level 3, she was far more particular about what she expected from Amy. If she sent Amy at a trot, Amy was to go at a trot. If she asked Amy to slow to a walk, she explained that Amy must do so within one quadrant of the circle. (Later, you would refine this down to an eighth of the circle, then even less as the horse improves.) If she asked Amy to canter or make any other transition, she must do it within one quarter of the circle also.
Each time Amy didn’t respond within the allotted time, Tara would pick up the stick and wiggle it (in the case of a down transition) or spank the ground (for an up transition.) Then she would disengage Amy and bring her in, then send her right back out in the other direction and ask the same thing. This kind of correction only makes it more work for Amy every time she doesn’t respond and gives her incentive to respond faster next time. The idea was that if Tara had to “come out of neutral,” Amy would have to disengage and change directions. She explained that she always sent Amy in the other direction because it was more work—you might not need to change directions with a different horse, but you would always disengage.
So off we went to play with the concept. It became immediately obvious to me that I come out of neutral a lot! Only when I come out of neutral, it is far more subtle than what Tara had to do with Amy. Dolly is so responsive, that coming out of neutral for me can be as simple as picking the tip of the stick off the ground or moving one foot forward and lifting a hand. (If I really spanked the ground on an up transition, Dolly would be in Utah before I got her disengaged!) I kept making these little movements and then realizing that I had come out of neutral and should have disengaged Dolly and oops, now it’s too late and, oh dang, I just did it again! It was very awkward. But I was becoming aware. Tara also pointed out that I was picking up the stick to ask for the down transition, not asking first, then picking up the stick when she doesn’t respond. Hmmm…
To add to the fun, we were in a large pasture/playground area and the grass was wet. We had to make a smaller circle than usual between the “toys” and Dolly was afraid she might slip on the grass. (She wasn’t the only one—I had my heart in my teeth a couple of times thinking about vet bills!) It occurred to me that I was making these small movements to try to “help” her when really I should just shut up and let her figure it out. In the end, the result would be the same. By trying to help her gain confidence in going forward, I was only making noise that would begin to desensitize her to my signals. So at that point, I sort of gave up on that and put it in the points to ponder file.
When I finally had time to play with this idea again, we were at home in our non-slippery footing and on our big circle. I resolved to pay close attention to the question of what specific actions constitute “coming out of neutral.” It felt much less awkward. I found what I already knew to be true. Dolly consistently gives me up transitions within a stride of asking, but the downs aren’t so good. We spent a lot of time doing trot to walk. First, the body language and then wait for my quarter of a circle. Still trotting? Wiggle the stick, disengage, bring her in, quick pat, send her back out again at the walk (after all, the walk was what I wanted.) Ask for the trot. Try again. After about the fifth time, I could see the question in her eyes.
“Really? … Because you just disengaged me and brought me in and now you want to do it again? I didn’t even make a full circle! Is this really necessary?”
Bringing her in became work because she knew she was going right back out. She started trying to solve the puzzle. By the tenth or twentieth time, the look became more disgusted. Finally, she figured it out and began to do the down transitions off of my body language. At that point, I brought her in for a good long soak.
We played with this again the next day. I still have work to do on the down transitions. All this time of being noisy first, then asking for the transition later has taught her to ignore my body language. However, it didn’t take nearly as long for her to figure it out the second time. I’ll let you know when we get around to doing canter-halts!
And all this was just the second half of Saturday morning. You can see why clinic notes are a slow process for me.