Last night I finished watching "Shaping on a Point of Contact", one of Alexandra Kurland's DVDs from the middle of her series. Somehow I had a hole in my collection and was missing that one until just recently. Not surprisingly, after watching the DVD, I found corresponding holes in my training!
The DVD stars Keri Gorman and her 3 year old Oliver. In it, they work on the mat and the transformation that Oliver undergoes in this 3 day clinic is astounding. He starts out as a typically gangly 3 year old with legs all higgledy piggledy as Alex says, and ends up standing foursquare and well balanced! All from the mat work! As I watched, I had several ah hah! moments...although I'm not sure it really counts when Alex points these things out in plain English. Sometimes my ah hah! moments require someone else shining a bright light and using a loudspeaker I guess :)
What I saw, since Alex pointed it out, is how Oliver finds his own balance during these sessions. While Keri consistently "suggests" that he reposition himself and try something different, she never molds or pushes or holds him in any spot. He rocks back and forth within his stance as he rebalances himself, all the while experimenting with his body to find the balance point. And find it he does. He is absolutely stunning standing there at the conclusion.
The other thing Alex pointed out is how critical it was that Keri was using rope cues to achieve this, as opposed to direct pressure or whip cues etc. She said this ties in to gives of the jaw and will carry over to riding. Now this point I'm just going to have to trust her on because it blows my mind to think that a rope and halter can actually soften a jaw, but I've had my mind blown several times by this stuff, so trust her I will. And Keri was so amazingly soft with her rope cues and quick to release as soon as she got a response, I was inspired.
So filled with these new found morsels, I headed out to the barn this afternoon and gave it a try with three different horses: 3 yr old Ande, 12 yr old Elly, who has had very basic dressage training and didn't enjoy it, and 12 year old Zoe, who has had more extensive dressage training....and doesn't really enjoy it! I have not done any mat work with Ande, I have done quite a bit with Elly (see other blog posts here) and minimal work with Zoe. Having seen the video, I now focused on whether Elly was square with her hind feet since I had been focusing solely on her front feet...using that as my determining factor for her duration work. I could see how she too, was gently rocking forward and back, looking for her balance. She obviously enjoyed this break from "just standing" on the mat and after a bit, I proceeded to having her target her hind feet to the mat. I really got to play around with the rope and see how much I could accomplish with just that as a cue and it was quite amazing.
Since Ande had never done it, we began with the experimental bang bang of his hooves which was 3 yr old fun. But he quickly progressed and soon we were doing the same thing and my little Quarter Pony was looking pretty impressive. But the bonus to all this? The ears were not pinned as we walked around betwen time spent on the mat (see yesterday's post!) Somehow, I had his attention and his interest and he was more interested in listening to me than in charging off. This had clicked with me while watching the DVD as Alex predicted that horses will learn that the mat is where treats get delivered and will anticipate and try to drag you there as you approach. She explained that you have to remind the horse that you have to go there while listening and maintaining connection with the handler. That was a beautiful bonus for today!
The only mat work I have done with Zoe was last winter (a full year ago) using a doormat. Today I did not actually use the mat with her, just used the feel I had gotten from the other two to adjust her stride as we walked. Zoe can walk out and leave others in her dust and she likes to do that! So after some head down to relax her, we headed out across the paddock with me focusing on a methodical, relaxed walk. If she got out ahead of me, I tried my best to slide down the rope smoothly to stop her and ask her to rock back. We played with this all the way to the round pen and I was pretty impressed with how well she responded (considering I have spent a fair bit of time practically jogging alongside this mare at events just to take her for a walk!). I took her into the round pen and again, she was quiet and very responsive as we walked around, changed directions, stopped for head down, etc. She was better at the head down than she's ever been.
All in all it was a great afternoon and I wanted to get it written down so that I can re-read it and recapture it again!