Today Dandy and I went through one of Warwick Schiller’s foundational routines, called the “Left/right exercise”. Ray Hunt said something along the line of “each time you prepare to do something with a horse you need to have a very clear picture of what you actually want” (can’t remember the exact quote, but that’s the idea anyway). Many other horsemanship masters have said similar things. In other words, we need to get rid of the “white noise” we often, unconsciously and unvolontarily produce on horseback (or on the ground). If you put energy in your reins, namely, you must want something to happen. The left/right exercise does just that. It makes your input become very meaningful for your horse. The general idea is this : you set your horse forward, looking straight ahead, on a totally LOSE rein (you don’t steer, you don’t micro manage, you don’t interfere). As long as the horse keeps going straight, in the direction that he started in, you LEAVE HIM ALONE. Young horses tend to be very wiggly-wobbly. They duck and dive and lean, pulled by a desire to go towards the gate, other horses, or pushed away from the “scary” parts of the arena. When your horse starts deviating from his course, wait until he went off by at least 45°, then pick on one rein and ask him to turn the other way. As soon as he’s overcorrected by at least the same amount, let go and just keep riding, with no more rein action. He’ll usually stay straight for a few strides, and start veering again. Wait until he’s way off course, and bend/turn him into the opposite direction of where he was going. You can do this at the walk, trot, and even lope, once he got the idea and if you’re confortable with some pretty hectic ducking at first.
I tried this on Dandy today and we had a blast ! There were 4 or 5 horses total in the arena, which, for a super green horse recently gelded, can be a real challenge. But I decide to really play the game and see how that would go. And it went beautifully. Within only a few minutes we were cruising at the trot on a totally lose rein, navigating between other horses with good focus and response. While we have very good lateral flexion on the ground (and it was his first time in a side-pull), and in the saddle at a stand-still (which has saved my butt more than once), Dandy doesn’t know yet how to bend softly while staying in motion (he thinks he needs to disengage his hindquarters and bend to a stop). So today we worked at getting a slight bend while keeping on going. I’d keep my rein action as long as it took to reach a slight flexion, then immediately let go and leave him alone, until the next turn was needed. By doing this I enforced the idea that picking on the rein *means* something, and that once the proper response has been reached, there is total peace (which is exactly the idea we want to convey to the horse, full time).
Once that was going well at the trot, and after one horse had left the arena, leaving us a bit more space, we tried it at the lope. Boy, that was fun. By that time Dandy had found that the open door leading to the barn aisle was concerning, and that the opposite fence was also scary. So there was much ducking and diving to avoid those places, at the lope, and also some sharp turns needed to avoid bumping into other horses. It was a little chaotic, but it also helped to enforce the GO ! that has sometimes be challenging with Dandy. I did have to apply the dressage whip I ride with, which didn’t create any major protest. Once I was content Dandy tried real hard, I let him rest, and a few minutes later my 7 yr old daughter got to ride him a little. He looked slightly puzzled to have a new human on his back, and a very light one at that (I’m the only one who’s ever ridden him so far). Though he was unsure about it at first, he took good care of her and trotted on the line nicely for us.
For a first time doing the Left/Right exercise, in busy arena, Dandy did very well and I can’t wait to try it again. Stay tuned for our next report !