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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hello, fellow horse lovers and enthusiasts! :wave: Since there was so much interest in me starting a horse journal, I was only too happy to oblige :giggle: There's so much I want to share with everyone here about my horse Tessa and our journey together. I think I'll start with an introductory post and then expand on things later (most of you are probably wondering what in the world Dressage is).

Okay, so I've been a horse lover all of my life. My parents hoped I would grow out of it and turn to a less expensive sport/hobby but it didn't happen. So they started getting me regular riding lessons when I was 12. I rode western for about a year and a half then switched to English when I leased a sweet little mare. I learned to jump on Maggie and would've bought her had she been physically able to keep working (she was very old). We found Tessa the summer I turned 15. It was truly a dream come true and an answered prayer. Anyone will tell you that there's no such thing as a perfect horse, but Tessa matched my depiction of a dream horse down to the star and snip on her face. Red Dun Tobianos are fairly rare so I didn't ever consider having the chance to own one...yet Tessa's listing popped up and there she was! She is an American Paint Horse (my favorite breed as well). However, when we expressed interest in her there were already 4 people in front of us ready to pay cash for her. But the owners liked the idea of giving her to me so we got to take home this amazing girl!

We didn't find this out until much later (in fact it took her bucking me off and breaking my wrist) but she was actually in a lot of pain. She had a lot of body issues that she was dealing with that she kind of just covered up. She was unbalanced, her muscles were tight, she had a gastric ulcer, and all around uncomfortable when asked to perform movements. And so I stepped into the world of horse bodywork. I got to know our horse masseuse very well. She showed me massages, stretches, and physical therapy exercises to do on Tess to keep her limber. My trainer focuses on the development of the horse and rider as a whole, from the core muscle all the way to the tilt of the shoulder. She gave me exercises for myself and groundwork for Tessa.

While my wrist was healing and I couldn't ride, I uncovered a new realm I had always wanted to try but hadn't stepped foot in: Liberty. Anyone who has seen the show series Heartland will have an inkling of what liberty looks like. The idea behind it is that there is no pressure or ropes tied to the horse...she can choose to stay with you or not. This is also where I introduced the clicker. Many of you have probably clicker trained your budgies, but I carried it over to my horse:001_tongue: The concept is the same: click to mark the desired behavior and then reward. Tessa blossomed. She gets so pleased with herself when she figures out what I want and I LOVE seeing the gears turn in her head. I can now ride her tackless and she knows a handful of tricks like bowing and the spanish walk. She will canter free at my side and loves every moment of it.

I also brought the clicker into our riding. As I mentioned above, I do dressage with her. It wasn't always that way, though. I wanted to turn her into an Eventer. This is a 3-day event with one day dedicated to show jumping, one to cross country, and one to dressage. I always thought dressage was going to be easy...oh how wrong I was. Turns out neither Tessa nor I are geared toward jumping but the graceful dance of dressage appealed to both of us. We have started showing this past summer and are looking toward another one next month.

I tried to link my other threads of Tessa floating around (mostly consisting of a photoshoot of some sort) but my computer wasn't cooperating. I'll try again later...but you can find them all under my profile. :)

I will talk about dressage in the next post probably. I'll try to expand more on liberty and tricks and whatever else too. Once that's all accomplished, I'll use this for periodic training updates.

For those of you wondering what a "Red Dun Tobiano" is and didn't just google it, you are in luck! I'm a genetics nerd but here's the quick rundown: a regular dun horse is tan with a black mane, tail, legs, and a dorsal stripe running down its back. Think Spirit from the best movie ever, Spirit Stallion of the Cimarron. A dun horse is then bred with a chesnut, the generic brown horse with brown...everything. This results in a peach colored body color and a dark red dorsal stripe, mane, tail, and legs. So there's the red dun. The tobiano part is specific to Paint markings. A Tobiano is a white horse that has patches of body color, as opposed to an overo which is a horse that has white patches on its body color. Put it all together (the pictures below should help) and you get a red dun tobiano!:clap: If Tessa were solid she'd have a dorsal stripe all down her back and all dark red legs. So she just has a small dorsal stripe and one dark leg where the white paint markings don't cover.



Just a couple miscellaneous pictures since this post is already super long




Also, you'll notice her bridle looks different than most. It's specifically designed to avoid pressure points on the horse's face which matters a lot to my sensitive, opinionated girl.


What's known as "in-hand work." Essentially I replicate everything I'd do on her back on the ground. Reminds me of my XC days, except I'm running laps and helping support a 1000 lb animal. She can now walk, trot, and canter in-hand with me at her shoulder. I'll post more on this later as well, since it's super fascinating.
 

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What a great story and history you have with Tessa, she is a beautiful horse. I am sure that the two of you have a very special bond. It's so rewarding to be able to have that bond with an animal.
 

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I'm loving Tessa's story and will be looking forward to learning much more about her, your events and your very special bond! :)
 

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Katie, that was very interesting to read! Thank you for explaining everything. :) I’m really looking forward to keeping up with this thread :D. Beautiful pics as always!
 

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Tessa is such a beautiful girl! Very interesting reading about your journey with her. I did eventing for a while with my red bay quarter horse, Hammer. He HATED dressage :laughing:
In fact, I made him go too slowly (at least to him) in the cross country field one time and he bucked once to knock me off balance because he wanted to run! Horses have such great personalities :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
What a great story and history you have with Tessa, she is a beautiful horse. I am sure that the two of you have a very special bond. It's so rewarding to be able to have that bond with an animal.
Thank you! And all the struggles we have gone through has given us a wonderful understanding of each other. She's my willing teammate and I wouldn't ever trade that :)

I'm loving Tessa's story and will be looking forward to learning much more about her, your events and your very special bond! :)
Katie, that was very interesting to read! Thank you for explaining everything. :) I'm really looking forward to keeping up with this thread :D. Beautiful pics as always!
Thank you! I'll try to keep this as updated as possible :p

Tessa is such a beautiful girl! Very interesting reading about your journey with her. I did eventing for a while with my red bay quarter horse, Hammer. He HATED dressage :laughing:
In fact, I made him go too slowly (at least to him) in the cross country field one time and he bucked once to knock me off balance because he wanted to run! Horses have such great personalities :)
Haha yes the horses need to be as invested in the sport as the rider. They are full of personality and each horse has a unique thing to teach. It's why I love the opportunity to ride as many horses as possible; it makes you well-rounded rider.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Dressage

Okay, time to explain this wonderful term. "Dressage" comes from a French term that literally translates into "training." It is often considered the highest expression of horse training. As a horse moves up in the levels, it becomes more physically demanding. In fact, they have a minimum age (7 years old) for horses competing at the top level. I've mentioned some of this in the first post but going to restate before delving deeper. Dressage is all about initiating both the rider's and horse's core muscles so that every external muscle is relaxed. This gives the horse freedom to move and the rider should look like they're "just sitting there." The better you are at dressage, the more it should look like you're doing nothing when, in fact, you are doing everything.

Even though dressage is often referred to as Horse Ballet, it originated on the battlefield. As you can imagine, riders didn't have time to wait for a horse to understand and held weapons in their hands (making steering with the reins difficult). They learned to ride from their seat and get so connected with their mount that they would respond almost before they asked. If they didn't, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Okay, I'm going to post some complicated-looking diagrams to show some of what you want to see in a horse moving correctly and correct posture as a rider. These photos are from Google Images.

First, the rider. The idea is that as a rider you are able to maintain steady seat bones and allow the horse's motion up and down through your hips. Your front seat (abductor muscles-see picture below) should always have contact but never locked. It serves to make minute adjustments such as asking the horse to move their shoulders slightly or move to the rail. The seat bones are always engaging forward while staying in place...this gets more challenging the more motion the horse has. Tessa's trot is bone-jarring so it has taken me a very long time to be able to sit her trot effectively. There are many analogies that help a rider learn to use their core, but I will share what has helped me. I imagine a string attached to my belly button that is lifting me up (losing any arch in the back or contraction from the saddle) and forward up the horse's neck. I also think of the tailbone constantly being pulled up and to the outside shoulder in a turn or circle. There are so many things to share about riding figures but I'll save that for another day :giggle:


Externally, you should be able to draw a straight line through the rider's ear, shoulder, hip, and heel. The more muscle and balance you gain, you should be able to drop your stirrup length more and get a longer leg. You never use your lower leg if you can help it; instead, it should drape and all the steering should be from your seat and core. Another way to check a rider's position would be to take the horse out from under them and see if they'd land on their feet. If they wouldn't (say, leg is too far forward) there's something you need to correct.


Okay, time for the horse! Dressage is really about recapturing how a horse was designed to move. In the wild, they'd all be moving like this. However, when a person's weight is added to their center of gravity and so influential over them, a horse develops coping mechanisms. They hollow their back to avoid the bouncing of the rider, they tense their jaw to avoid the pinch of the bit, they throw themselves forward from the front end as the rider's imbalance forces them to do so.

What I love about dressage (well, one of the many things) is that moving correctly feels good for both the horse and rider. I used to have imbalances I wasn't even aware of. Because Tessa is so sensitive, she was a great teacher and uncovered all of them. For example, if I was leaning an inch to the left, she would counterbalance and lean 6 inches to the right. A horse is a mirror of the rider...you can't hide anything from them! But once the horse starts to understand that it doesn't hurt them, they will use their core to lift themselves up into the rider's weight (called a round back). They will seek the comforting contact of the rein (called on the bit). Dressage is all about riding the horse's hind end. It's their motor and shock absorber. This is why it's so important for the seat bones of the rider to be steady- it encourages the horse's hind ends to connect and engage with the rider.


A horse should be "carrying through." Meaning, the energy from the hind end should be allowed through the rider's hips and travel up to the poll (which should be the highest point), resulting in a relaxed, dropped head with a soft mouth engaging with the bit. This is often why dressage gets a bad reputation; people take shortcuts and throw harsh bits into their horse's mouth and force them into what's known as a headset. It may look pretty to the unobservant eye, but they are often behind the vertical and locked in place. For a horse to be on the vertical, they must be balanced enough to move from their core and hind end, allowing the front end free motion. The horse naturally uses their head and neck for balance, so when they are balanced enough from their core they are able to drop their head. They should be able to flex (bend in direction of turn) and counterflex (counterbend/ opposite direction of turn) independent of the rest of their body. In the picture I used to describe a rider's posture, follow the arrows to see how the energy travels.


Let's talk about some uses of tack. I already mentioned the bit, but I would like to add something to it. You never, ever want to be pulling on the horse's mouth or bracing your hands. This pulls on the bars of their mouth and is very unpleasant for them, leading them to avoid contact. Instead, contact with the bit should be like holding hands with someone...always there but not constricting. It enables the rider to make subtle corrections and aid in softening the horse's jaw. Steering is all done with the seat, but a little sponge with the outside rein can serve for the horse to think about going to the outside. Many people think, understandably so, that to turn a horse you pull the rein in that direction. Yeah...not quite. You can have a horse's head pulled all the way in one direction and they could still move another. As I've said, reins aren't used to steer the horse. When you do use them, it's all about the outside rein (so, if you were going to the left your right rein would be your outside rein). The reins can serve to flex a horse or counterflex, as well as soften the jaw, etc. In a flexion, the horse should bend from the poll (like a hinge) and do so without leading with their nose (a cop-out on the horse's part). Below is a horse correctly flexed to the inside.


I'm going to try to bring this post to a close with a few last tidbits. In a dressage test, a 60% or above is considered impressive. As a student that gets upset with anything less than an A, this has been a learning curve for me.
Below are some of the things the judges are looking for, taken straight from the USDF (United States Dressage Federation) website.


While 3 gaits are utilized in dressage (walk, trot, & canter) there are innumerable ranges in each one. You may be asking a horse for an extended or collected trot. Or perhaps you want a leisurely lap around the arena, or a medium walk, or a free walk...the possibilities are endless! A rider allows more or less motion through their hips and this tells the horse to the degree they are asked to move.

I'll end it there as if you made it this far I'll be impressed :) Below is one of my dressage heroes, Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro. His extended trot has to be one of my favorite gaits.
 

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I made it to the end, it's fascinating and the physics of it make perfect sense.
Thanks for posting it, looking forward to the next edition.
 

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I made it to the end and then went back and read it all again.

All I can say is "WOW"!!

Very impressive and quite enlightening to someone who has/had no knowledge whatsoever when it comes to dressage.
I love that the rider and horse become so much more "one" in this type riding.

Thank you so much for the explanations. :yes:
 

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Wow!! :) I loved reading all about Dressage, the history of it, and the biomechanics behind it.

As with anything, there is so much more to the sport than meets the eye, and I can see it’s quite involved and takes time to learn. This is so fascinating for me to read :D.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 · (Edited)
Clicker Training

Thank you everyone who read that and replied! I love reading through the comments!

My goal was to update this on a weekly basis but the breeding thread/senior project has been sucking up that time. And applying to colleges, teaching lessons, school, etc. I am happy to say I still get to ride Tess 4-5x a week in the midst of this craziness. Looking forward to what will probably be the last show of the season at the end of this month.

Okay, this post isn't going to be as long as my last dressage post :giggle:

This one is going to be about something that is likely familiar to many of you on this forum: clicker training! Granted, clicker training every animal is different. Clicker training my puppy has been very different than clicker training my horse, for example. And if you clicker train your budgie this will look very different.

So I've been trying to figure out how I want to divide these subjects. Clicker training translates into dressage and liberty and tricks. I think I'll just summarize and explain the benefits of clicker training then post a video from one of my training sessions with a rescue mare.

Horse training is divided into two main categories: positive reinforcement (R+) and negative reinforcement (R-). For much of the horse world, riding and training are all R-...not even going to touch on punishment. You so often hear something like, "you need to show his horse who's boss...give them a swift kick in the side." I have discovered that horses aren't stubborn or aversive for fun; they always have a reason. If we take it down a level to general riding cues, you add pressure for aids and take it away when the horse has responded. That is probably the most common form of R-. Now, I will admit that while I try to do as much as possible with R+ I sometimes use light pressure that isn't uncomfortable for the horse to aid in communication. Dressage is all about connection after all. Connection of mind and body, and sometimes that means the horse feels the contact of the bit. As long as it's comfortable for them, I don't have any issues with it.

Before I go down too much of that rabbit trail, let's go back to the why behind clicker training. It is one of the most common applications of R+ because it marks a behavior. You click when the animal performs what you were requesting and reward...most commonly with food, though sometimes a scratch or verbal reward can be used just as effectively. It allows you to let the horse know which specific behavior you are rewarding for, especially if you can't give them a treat soon enough. Now, especially with horses, you will need to teach some manners regarding food. I'm not really going to get into that process but if it really interests you or you have an equine friend you'd like to try it on, check out TWE's blog: https://www.thewillingequine.com/single-post/2017/01/07/Clicker-Training-How-To-Get-Started

Depending on the behavior you're trying to teach and the animal itself, you may reward different variations of that behavior. Like when I wanted to engage Tessa's mind more in dressage, I would reward every thought or attempt of understanding a cue. As the horse understands, you can request more and reward less. Again, this is a process depending on individual situations. I've incorporated clicker training into every session with Tessa; it is my means of communicating with her (and riding horse is all about communication between horse and rider). She used to have an aversion to being saddled, so every time I made a move towards saddling and she remained calm/happy I rewarded. This works much better than punishing any behavior I don't want to see. She likely had had pain when saddling before I got her or some memory tied down. Punishing shuts a horse down or forces them to take drastic measures to communicate their stress or displeasure.

Teaching lightness of aids: most teach a horse to respond to the lightest cue by asking lightly, then increasing pressure until it the horse responds. Because of the discomfort caused, a horse will respond right away next time. I kind of feel like this is forcing a horse to do whatever we want...this isn't the way I want riding to look like. Tessa shuts down whenever there is too much pressure and will get downright cranky if you so much as press against her sides. To train lightness of aids, I request with my seat and if she responds by a very slight movement or the thought of the movement, I reward. I continue doing this until she is responding right away, and eagerly. Much better way to go about it in my opinion.

The same process goes for liberty and tricks, but I'll get into that when I post about those. Okay, below are some video clips when I was working with a rescue mare. When I started, she would run away as soon as she saw the halter. Now, purely by positive reinforcement/clicker training, she will nicker and run to greet you. R+ was especially beneficial for her since she had been abused and forced into situations that scared her. By removing the pressure and allowing her to do everything of her own accord, she blossomed. Now she eagerly comes to "play" instead of "work."

Video #1: This is one of the first introductions of positive reinforcement with her. I rewarded every time she made a move with her nose toward the halter until she ended up haltering herself! If she got a little nervous and took a step back, I would step back from her and she would come back to me of her own accord. As you can see she became much more confident. Actually edited these clips but it was the first time I got the halter all the way over her head!

Video #2: unedited except for trimming clips. I don't realize how much I cooed to her and don't like the sound of my voice on video (does anyone?) but this way you can hear the clicker and whatnot. My goal on this session was to encourage her to express herself and show she's not going to get punished for it. Tessa needs no encouragement to do this and I'm normally working to show her how to express it safely :giggle: She'll buck, rear, and kick to play with you until the cows come home. When Sioux started trotting after me and responding to every change in my body position it was HUGE for her. Still trying to tap into this energy more and more. The video is pretty crummy since I had to prop my phone on a fence post and as you can see it chopped off the top part. The other is so bumpy because I'm jogging. But hopefully it helps give you a visual of an ordinary training session :)


EDIT: Sorry about that! Got 2nd video working now
 

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Katie,
I loved your explanations about training with horses, thank you.
The first video was great but unfortunately I could not view the second one. I got an error message when I tried. I'll try again later to see if it was on my end.
This thread is awesome!
 

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This post was just as fascinating as the last one :D. Good to hear the horse world is adopting newer training methods. Who is Sioux? Love the markings.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
This post was just as fascinating as the last one :D. Good to hear the horse world is adopting newer training methods. Who is Sioux? Love the markings.
She's owned by my trainer/barn manager (who is amazing). I work with Sioux in exchange for getting money taken off of my costs for Tessa. I've mostly been doing confidence building and fostering an eagerness to work with people again. My trainer has done work with her before, but this situation works well for all of us! Our hope is for me to able to ride her under saddle eventually but we're taking it at her pace.
 

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Great post, I feel like I am actually getting to know Tessa. You are very fortunate to be able to interact with the horses as you do.
 

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That sounds like a good arrangement with you working with Sioux :). It sounds win-win for everyone! Plus a nice sense of accomplishment when you get her to the end goal! Positive reinforcement for Katie too! :D
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·

Okay I have my reasons for disappearing, I promise :giggle: Basically, I was at a kind of crossroad in Tessa's training. I've been spending these last 6-something weeks researching, experimenting, and talking to other trainers. I feel like I'm cemented enough in this new journey to write about it (finally). This post will also be quite video-heavy as I feel like that's one of the easiest ways to relate what it looks like during ordinary instances. Oh, and enjoy the Mamma Mia music ;)

This new training I've been exploring is taking what I'm already doing...one step further. It centers around two very important concepts: intrinsic motivation & horse autonomy.

Intrinsic Motivation says that moving properly should feel good and be reward enough in itself to encourage the horse to keep moving that way. I've talked about this before on my Dressage post, but now I've been testing it. If a horse is doing a movement because it feels good, they should always be seeking to do it...unless there's an underlying problem, however small. And that's what I've been discovering with Tessa! She shouldn't be doing a behavior to "just get the treat" nor should she be doing a behavior to escape the pressure of a cue (think the ask-tell-demand model we hear about so often). If you ask a horse to do something and know that if they don't you'll keep demanding it in a more insistent/uncomfortable way until they succumb, was the first time a genuine request? Or was there a threat of "do this or else?"

Turns out, you can still be controlling a horse even if you're using positive reinforcement. A horse can be so food-motivated that the pressure to get the treat overrides the joy of performing the movement or causes them to push themselves too far physically. Once I opened this can of worms...I learned a whole lot about Tessa girl. She gets anxious around food, which turns into aggression. I'm not talking about biting/kicking aggression, but more about frustration seen in movements. I would start to worry she was going to run me over in the frantic guess at the desired movement to attain the treat. I put a safety barrier between us (the fence) to keep myself safe, but it's clear she is still frustrated.

You'd think that this would mean it was time I stop using food rewards.
Actually, it's the opposite. In order to overcome this anxiety, I need to devalue food through two means: 1) provide free hay when working that is always available and 2) use a "less tasty" treat given in smaller amounts (I now give her a handful of healthy treat crumbs). I have to say, it feels good knowing that Tessa is now doing whatever I'm asking because she finds it rewarding to do what I ask. Whether to satisfy her curiosity, joy of interacting with me, or because it's intrinsically motivating, she's there and she's doing it. While I taught her basic food manners while introducing the clicker, I've taken it one step further and now have her back up out of my space in order to get the treat. It is also helpful in encouraging her to raise her poll and drop into her hind end. I love utilizing this in her hilly paddock; she learns balance as she backs up and down hills of her own accord. She is starting to back up now as soon as she hears the clicker without me asking her to.

Notice how much she's relaxed in this video compared to the first one now that she has easily attainable hay

Now, this next term overlaps with the first so I'll address it here: Autonomy. Basically, it means that you allow a horse to say "no" in their training and you won't keep needling at them to say yes, increase pressure, or reprimand them for doing so. I first had visions of horses not budging once during the entire ride or running rampant if they were allowed a say in their training. This is an idea I've been researching for over a year and have been grasping a fuller understanding of it during that time. It's a continuum and now I'm just taking the next step in this training.

I've learned that it is actually safer to allow a horse autonomy. They won't be forced to do something extreme to express their discomfort (i.e. bucking). As the trainer, I can catch the smallest signs of pain or fear by allowing her to refuse a movement without punishment. This builds confidence and trust, as well as a decrease in injuries (she won't be forced to do something too physically or mentally demanding).

Also, Tessa has quickly become more eager now that she knows I respect her choice. I've mentioned this before, but she always has a reason behind choosing to do a behavior or not (no such thing as just being stubborn). So if she doesn't trot after my light squeeze, I don't give a harder cue. I ask again later with the same light cue and if she still doesn't respond, I drop it. Later I can uncover the reason behind her refusal and I'll often be surprised. Still taking the trot example, she now offers it before I even ask. It's her least favorite gait, so that is a definite improvement from having to chase her around with the whip. Just that shift of perception has changed so much in her training! I figure she knows her body better than anyone else, so why not let her tell me what she needs?


When I first started offering Tessa free hay during our sessions, she was so worried about the food disappearing that she'd ignore me the entire time and just eat. That was especially hard for me to stand by and allow to happen; who wants to have food chosen over them? I took to taking a book so I wouldn't be tempted to keep asking her to revise her clear "no." Just yesterday, I opened up my book expecting to spend the next hour or so reading (which is actually peaceful), but Tessa left her food to investigate the book and lay her head across my lap! It feelsso wonderful to see her so happy! She's starting to meet me at the gate (I've always had to go retrieve her from wherever she was at) and will leave hay along the walk from her paddock to the arena without a tug on the rope, but just from a whistle from me.
What a change only 3 weeks makes!


I've introduced two "games" to inspire greater intrinsic motivation.

The first is Chase the Bag: I found this from a Natural Dressage website. Horses naturally collect while they're playing- no need for them to use the rider as a crutch to help them along! Even though horses are prey animals, they still enjoy tracking something down. And, hey, plastic bags have now gone from scary to fun in Tessa's mind. It will also encourage her to sit on her hind end to lighten her front end enough to strike with her front hooves at the bag. Additionally, it helps her stretch! All of these benefits plus the fun of the game and joy of seeing your horse enjoy moving again. Clips below are from the first 3 times I've worked with Tess on this. For now I'm just letting her get comfortable with the bag and understand the concept of following it. I don't want to rush this foundation, but I look forward to getting some fun movement from her (allowing her to be creative and make up her own movements is so rewarding! She does it on her own time too :giggle:).

The second thing I'm working on is core stabilizers. It's the equivalent of a crunch for a horse. I'm looking for her to lift her back, raise her poll, or contract her underbelly muscles. These are all things we've worked on while riding or during in-hand work, but I want to step back and let her figure it out on her own. This method forces her to deliberately think through and put her body through physical exercises. She's not mindlessly moving away from pressure presented through a cue. What we do in dressage should carry over into how she moves without me, but I believe having her understand these will accentuate that even more! I'll also know how her body is because she's completely honest: if it gets too hard or painful, she just walks away. This will be especially important coming into winter; don't want cold, stiff muscles resulting in injury! The clips below are from our second session working on this. It's not much yet, but I'm rewarding every thought toward engaging her core and these little things will result in big, amazing things :p

 
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