I keep looking at my calendar and double checking my math. Saxon arrived in Kentucky on December 20th. Here it is, just about three weeks later and I feel like we've accomplished three months worth already. Nope, it's just three weeks, the math works out no matter how often I question it.
We are beginning our ascent up the hill of knowledge, if you will. We have cruised through the foothills at the beginning of our journey, mastering such basics as accepting the saddle and rider, standing still to be mounted (yup, we've got that one down pretty well now), and walking, trotting, and turning on command. Saxon has picked these things up incredibly well, showing that he is intelligent and eager to please. For the first week or two, I felt like we made a HUGE milestone nearly every day. But here's where the learning curve starts to get a little steeper and the milestones get less discrete and farther apart. Now it is not quite enough to simply go walk or trot when asked - now is when I start directing him HOW to go forwards, HOW to carry his body and his head, asking him to yield to the bit, and asking him to change his tempo. Now, it isn't enough to just turn right or left - now I want him to start using his body and bending around the turns. Now, I have started to ask him to turn on the haunches or forehand - isolating one portion of his body while yielding the other. You can't ask for or expect this all at once, but it happens a little bit at a time and you have to reward the little efforts.
Sometimes, we really get it, sometimes we sort of get it, and sometimes it's just not quite there yet. Case in point is bending - he can bend nicely to circle, but isn't really working off leg and seat yet, and the magnetic attraction of the barn and/or gate often makes our nice inside bend falls completely apart as our circles become decidedly lopsided in those regions. (He's no dummy - he knows that the barn = food, rest, and comfort.) He actually has turns on the haunches down fairly well and will often cross over himself. Usually, I would expect the turns on the forehand to be a bit easier, since horses naturally carry more of their weight on the front end and the proprioception of crossing over takes a while to figure out, but for him it seems to be the opposite.
That brings me to showmanship. For the un-horsey, showmanship is a horse show class judged on the handler's ability to present and handle a horse from the ground. They must execute a pattern together where the handler is judged on how well he/she can direct the horse's movement. I used to hate showmanship. I found it both frustrating and boring and thought it was silly to be judged on how I lead my horse. I have acquiesced since then, since I think it helps establish attentiveness and obedience on the ground which can then be carried over under saddle. This is especially true with youngsters who are just beginning their riding careers. Legs used to share my sentiment for showmanship. She'd fidget and make faces and generally be disapproving of such silliness. I truly think her four legs aren't actually at each corner. Squaring her up is like doing the Hokey Pokey. You put the right foot in, you put the right foot out. You put the right foot in, and back out, but never even with the left... In the last few years, she has finally given up, consenting to do her pattern and stand square(ish) and still if I stop harrassing her after that.
Saxon, on the other hand... If I didn't know better, I'd swear this horse already had some showmanship training. He actually squares up pretty well when asked, and is quickly figuring out which feet to move and where when I ask. He also trots off in hand quite well. Most of the time. The first time we worked on it specifically, he trotted off great. Except for the fact that he did so while pinning his ears and shaking his head at me, trying to provoke me to race and play with him. Evidently, he thought I was a herdmate and it was a game. While he wasn't fast enough to make a racehorse, he sure can trot a lot faster than I can run! Other times, he'll just be lazy about it and walk with his nose dragged out, like a lot of horses do when they don't feel like putting up with your silly leading game. The solution to that is a dressage whip in the left hand to tap them on their side as you ask. (Or better still, a dressage whip with a grocery bag on the end. No touching required! That got his attention and made him abandon his lazy ways!) There are plenty of little opportunities to "train" your horse at showmanship without a marathon training session. I like to make use of the little moments before or after I ride, or when leading him to/from turnout to practice little things like trotting off, squaring up, pivots, and backing in hand. With this added practice, he's stopped pinning his ears when trotting off (maybe he figured out that four legs are faster than two and I'm no competition). Of course, I've been bragging on his showmanship abilities here, and I'll guarantee you that the first show we go to, he'll be too busy gawking around to do all this cool stuff he's learned. But you have to start somewhere; if he can't do it at home, I certainly can't expect him to do it in a new place.
That brings us to our next learning achievement: lunging. There is some controversy concerning lunging horses, especially young ones. I won't get into the whole argument here, suffice to say that I think it can be useful in moderation (not hour long marathon sessions) or for special circumstances (eg evaluating lameness for the vet, teaching beginner riders, or getting the edge off a fresh horse before riding when turnout is not an option) and I think it is a skill that every horse should at least possess for those reasons. Saxon figured out lunging in one session. He may have done it before in the course of ground driving to be broke to harness; some trainers do it, some don't, so I'm not sure if he has. He still occasionally tries to go straight when he should be turning (especially to the left - I guess the phantom racetrack still beckons from time to time), but for the most part he stays out on the circle at the specified gait. So the second time I had him on the lunge line, he was trotting along so nicely I thought what the heck, let's see what happens... I kissed to him, said canter, and flicked the lunge whip towards him. Within a few strides, he had picked up a pretty darn nice canter. A long stride, and strung out, but with a nice even rhythm and no paciness. I let him go half a lap before he started to lose his coordination and boy did he get a lot of patting and praise when I stopped him. After a short break, we switched directions. J came out of the house so I told him "Watch this." I kissed, said canter, and J said "He's not going to... Hey, nice canter. When did he learn that?" <GRIN>
Since Saxon is rather lazy overall and seldom practices in the pasture, I figured that occasional lunging at the canter would help him improve his coordination and strength for cantering, and provide a good transition between my vocal cues and picking up the canter in preparation for doing it under saddle. We did our second lunging session with a brief canter two days later and he figured it right out again. So during my ride, I thought, what the heck... I kissed to him, said canter, and his neck arched up and both ears shot back at me with full focus (it was the exact same thing he did when we asked him to trot on his very first ride). He sped up his trot, so I slowed him down, rebalanced him, and asked him again. As we exited the corner of my tight arena, he just glided into a nice canter. It was surprisingly cadenced, smooth, and unhurried. While it wasn't collected by any stretch, he wasn't diving on his shoulder, running wildly, or flailing about like many green horses. We took about 9 or 10 strides before I stopped him and practically smothered him with hugging and praise. We did it one more time (just to prove to myself that it was real), and my redheaded overachiever got extra peppermints back at the barn! Ordinarily I wouldn't have pushed him if I didn't think he could do it, especially not in the tight confines of my front yard, which doesn't afford a lot of room for an experienced but unfit horse, let alone a green horse still figuring out how to balance his own body and a rider. I just couldn't help wanting to know if he could do it. And I LOVE the answer he gave me! We followed it up the next night with a ride out in the big back field. At it's conclusion, I asked him to canter about a dozen strides each direction, and was THRILLED to find that he has two clean leads (and they're both smooth)! And on top of that, he's completely sensible about picking it up. He doesn't lose his head or buck or go wild at the expanse of the pasture stretching out before him. He just rolls into the canter from a trot like a sensible horse. What a HUGE milestone! I'm not saying that it's a perfect collected canter or that his canter departs are top notch or we can do lead changes or anything yet, but it's FANTASTIC to know that he has a great natural ability for cantering both directions (with the right lead being slightly better than the left) that I can develop as we progress, and I don't think it will take him long to become very proficient.