Three years ago, when I purchased Tonka, I did so thinking that he and I would be trail partners, and for the first year, walking through the woods was what we did.
His previous owner told me that Tonka was good alone or with company and that proved true. The trails here are mostly rocky and narrow. We walked. That was fine with me. I’m not one of those riders with a need for speed. Tonka is never in a hurry, either. In fact, when we go out with friends they note how slow Tonka is. I like to call it steady.
After that first year, I got a hankering to do more. Tonka wasn’t as balanced or responsive as he could be, and so we started dressage training. But we still went out on the trails. We still walked. I like to say that we meandered.
Our dressage training has progressed. Tonka is getting into first level work, which requires him to carry more weight on his hind quarters and to engage belly and loin muscles.
My trainer says that the best way to build up his physique is to canter up hills.
The first time that I asked Tonka to change gears on the trail he was surprised. Really? You want me to canter? he asked. He said that he was concerned about uneven footing. He cantered a few strides and stopped. We tried again. We trotted on straightaways. He gained confidence. We cantered up small hills, and then longer ones. He seemed to be having fun.
The other day we were walking in the woods, slowly, as usual, with looped reins. But I didn’t like how Tonka was going, he was walking in way that is called downhill, his back a bit hollow, his weight heavy on the forehand. Ergonomically this isn’t so healthy a way to move when there’s a rider sitting up there. So, I shortened the reins, thinking that I’d rebalance him by bringing his head up a bit and engaging the rear legs. It’s something that I do in the ring, that Tonka responds to every time. But out on the trail Tonka felt the reins shorten and interpreted that as GO!
I have inadvertently taught him that when I pick up the reins that we’re going to ratchet it up a few gears.
On the one hand, it’s impressive how quickly he connected a shortening of the reins with the fun of cantering. On the other hand, it’s humbling that I’m slower to make connections than my horse.
It goes to show that the cues that you think you’re training aren’t necessarily the ones that your horse thinks are important. And, just because something that you do is understood in one context (i.e. in the ring) doesn’t mean that it’s interpreted the same somewhere else (i.e. on the trail.)
Yesterday, out in the woods, I began the process of reworking the GO cue. I picked up, and then released the reins. I let Tonka know that rein contact is something I’ll do for many reasons, not simply before galloping off. I’ll be doing that throughout my rides to come. He’ll learn that the contact in our dressage work is the same as the contact on the trail. Then I’ll be able to add the canter cue, and it’ll be the same as what we do in the ring. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake, but I’m hoping to catch up to my horse!
Have you taught something inadvertently? Let me know in the comments.