Over my years of having project horses and babies, I’ve come to notice that when you have a horse that is green or lacking confidence, but is also very willing, a simple “good boy” or a reassuring pat can be a very powerful thing. This has been especially true with Henry, who will turn himself inside out to find the right answer and is very sensitive to the idea that he might ever be in trouble. Like for real, even just trying to do transitions in semi-rapid succession made him think he’d done something wrong, and he would get upset.
I’ve always been pretty quick with a pat and a Good Boy when we’re jumping. He does a lot of ass-saving, after all. When he was but a wee baby event horse going around his first BN and N XC’s, and even his first T, you could even feel the effect that a “Good Boy” had on him. He might be a little unsure about a jump or about the woods or whatever, but you’d sit and put your leg on and he would go, and he’d get a big “Good Boy!” on the other side. You could practically SEE his little brain going “Oh my gosh she’s right, I am a GOOD BOY!”. His confidence would grow and grow as he went along.
Henry’s first ever helmet cam video is a good example. Gah he was cute at BN. So many feels.
He’s still very much the same now. The jumps are bigger, he’s way more seasoned, and he’s got a pretty high amount of self-confidence about jumping, but still if I feel him take a bit of a peek at something, or if he makes a good decision, I always try to be quick with a “Good Boy”. I don’t have to say it as much as I used to, where it was more a reassurance to him – now it’s more of a confirmation to him that he did the right thing. It’s important to Henry, because he’s THAT sensitive.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as good or quick with praise for the flatwork as I have for the jumps. In the past I mostly just took the pressure off and went back to something easier, so his praise came in the release or the rest. Which is a totally valid training method, and one he also understands. But when the flatwork gets more complicated, and things start coming at him more rapid-fire, sometimes the pressure has to stay on for a little while before he gets to rest. The “reward”, in that format anyway, isn’t as immediate as it used to be.
In the flatwork, when he doesn’t get a quick reward, he starts to think he’s done something wrong. If you repeat a transition several times in rapid fire, he becomes increasingly convinced that he was bad. That means he gets more and more tense, more and more over-sensitive to what’s happening. But we also can’t just avoid rapid fire forever. It’s time to step it up a bit. The key to this seems to be twofold: 1) immediately put him to work after a transition, be it shoulder fore, or a leg yield, or anything that gets him using his brain to move his feet rather than using it to get worried. 2) Praise. Immediate reassurance that he’s done the right thing.
That might be in the form of a “Good Boy”, or it might just be a quick touch to his neck with my inside hand. Something, anything, so that he knows he’s fine. I’ve learned in the past few weeks that while we’re stretching his comfort zone and increasing the pressure, I have to be very quick and obvious with the praise. It’s almost like BN XC Henry again, but on the flat. He needs the reassurance, and his confidence grows a little bit with every Good Boy. In retrospect, I’d gotten too slow and stingy with the praise when we weren’t jumping. In the flatwork I think it’s easy to demand a little more and a little better, without always recognizing the effort that he did give. He’s not the kind of horse that can take that. I don’t need to take the pressure off, I just need to do more to reassure him that he can exist under said pressure and still be ok.
Yesterday we were able to execute a string of trot/canter/trot/canter transitions in rapid succession without him getting worked up or worried, so that’s a big step. They aren’t necessarily always good transitions, but as long as he’s responsive, I’m giving him some kind of praise. If he’s trying, I’m rewarding. So far it seems to be helping. There’s still pressure on him to do more/better, but he’s relaxing into it and learning to accept it a bit more.
I am 5+ years into this horse and he’s still teaching me something and making me better every day.