In most aspects of my life, settling for good enough is not an option ; but with horse training, it can make the difference between getting through to a horse or sending them down the wrong path of resentment. Every time I lead a horse out to the arena for a training session , I remind myself to look for the moment when it's "good enough".
What is good enough?
It's like a cameleon that changes colors, camoflaging itself into the landscape or like an late afternoon shadow that races past you before you realize it. "Good enough" in horse training is always in motion, it changes day to day, sometimes moment to moment.
For the last couple of sessions in the arena with JB, I have had to really pay attention to that phrase , or take a chance of going too far with him. I am working JB through a few "sticky " spots in regards to softness and gettting more with less. I found myself slipping into wanting more when it's good, but not good enough....
JB can be a deceptive little horse because from the outside he often looks calm and quiet, but to the unattentive trainer, a storm can be brewing just below the surface. He will not wear his heart on his sleeve, no, he is much too proud for that. His typical M.O. is to give me only the slightest signals when something is amiss with him. Rarely , if ever, will he be so obvious as throw a tantrum or buck..
Traveling to the left, JB tenses into the corners of the arena, falling onto his inside shoulder, rib cage stiff. I ask for a bend with a little sqeeze on the inside rein and a suppporting inside leg at the girth. My outside leg remains soft and is a bit behind the girth to encourage him to maintain his impulsion. JB tenses more, rushes through the corner, falling heavy on his forehand. Arrgggg...failed attempt.. we have three more corners yet, so we'll try again. Down the long side of the arena, I ask for him to lengthen his stride. We'll try again at the next corner, not making a fuss about it. Here comes the corner again, again he quietly ignores the cues I am giving. His left ear flicks back to me in a fleeting moment, as if to say, "Yes, I hear you, but it's awful hard to focus at the moment". His reluctance to soften and the flick of his ear is his signal to me that something isn't jiving for him; Nothing more, nothing less.
While this excercise is nothing new for JB , today is a different day and today , he is struggling a bit. Each time I ask for him to ride into the corner as opposed to stiffen and cut the corner, his head comes up a bit, his pace quickens . he becomes unbalanced because his hind end is not engaged and he is heavy on the forehand. A rather common , fixable problem.
Since I know he understands the cues for for what I am asking, I need to change something in how I am presenting it to him and this usually means breaking it down into smaller pieces, setting it up so I know he can have some success.
I ask him into a walk and work on a spiraling in and out of circle traveling to the left. I give a little feel on the inside rein, and little squeeze at the girth with my inside leg, timed with his inside leg, just prior to when it pushes off the ground. This will encourage him to step bigger underneath himself. He responds with a softened ribcage and he is now traveling on the circle. He chews the bit down, softening his back. I let the reins slide through my fingers as he reaches down further and further, encouraging him to reach and stretch down. I work him through each corner of the arena doing this excercise and after each corner we travel down the corresponding long side of the arena with soft contact and a nice working walk. He is making his grunting , soft blowing sounds he often makes when he is letting go and relaxed and he feels light and responsive. The stiffness I had previously felt through his body is no longer there. He feels more like maleable clay in my hands and legs. Much better.....We spend a few more moments on a couple of lateral excercises like shoulder in, shoulder-out, etc. JB is responding softly and quietly to everything I am asking.
At this point, I have to consider, do I stop here? Is this good enough?
Yes, it was indeed good enough. In fact it was more than good enough. My decision to stop at that point was based on his experience. I had chosen a place to stop where he was feeling good about the session, which builds his confidence, which will lay the groundwork for the next time. There is no need to drill an excercise in order to get what I am asking of him. He already knows the cues and for this particular day, doing this at a trot was more than he could manag. Instead of going back and risking failure, we got it good at the walk and left it at that. He was responsive, soft and mentally in a good place. Why get greedy?
I think this is a tough thing for trainers to accept. We often have these things called "agenda's and get caught up in them. The thoughts of " I must have this horse jumping 3 and 1/2 feet in a month to be ready for that show" or " I must have this horse doing flying lead changes next week for the dressage show".. etc, etc..
I have found that when I adjust to meet my horse at the half way point and work with him from where he is, instead of where I might want him to be at any given moment, it comes back to me twofold and we get further faster . My horse then looks forward to our sessions and is willing to try harder for me.
Waiting a little longer in order to accomplish that effortless Leg Yield, and more importantly having a happy horse, is well worth it in my opinion.