Brain Training

Brain Training

So Amber came back from the trainer wired and wild where jumps and poles were concerned, which wasn’t exactly my hoped for outcome …..  the basic conclusion was that she is not suited to an amateur and should either be competed by a pro to add some value before selling on as a more established horse competing at a higher level, or kept permanently on schooling livery on a pro’s yard to be ‘kept sweet’ so all the education that was put into her over the 8 weeks didn’t just unravel again.

That triggered a couple of days of sobbing, soul searching and a roaring return of my ‘I am not good enough for this horse’ confidence crises. But I have known for years that I am not good enough for her and have made my peace with that. She’d obviously do much better in a more experienced home and I’d probably do rather better with a more experienced horse. Green on green is never a great plan. But the bottom line is I adore her. She’s my partner and my pal. So I’m certainly not selling her. And I have horses in my life to have horses in my life. My every day life. Not just for weekends and holidays so having her on full schooling livery would not suit me either.

So she’s going nowwhere. And I am going back to the drawing board to try and find a way forward for us both.

The C word has obviously thrown all plans into chaos but thank God for horses because I can still see her and still ride. 

To fill the clinic, camp and lesson vacuum I have downloaded Noelle Floyd’s Equine Masterclasses and resurrected Nicola Smith’s Dressage Rider Training online programme. So each day sees rider workouts in the front room and Rideability 101 in the arena or the farm fields.

And if I do have to be confined to barracks well now is a good time, because I need to find a way (again) to ride. I can’t dominate her. I can’t boss her. I have to find another way at the same time as recognising that I DO need to be able to direct her. I personally react better at work when I understand what I have to do and am guided politely towards doing it than I would be if people just shouted at me or pressured me. I think Amber is the same. Plus, the fact is I am simply not a good enough rider to dominate her. I can’t cope with her tantrums and  I can’t hold her if she wants to go. So I have decided to keep trying to use my brain to influence hers. Mainly because my brain is better than my unskilled, wobbly body and Amber’s brain is more amenable to my control than her wayward, forward body!

And step one of ‘brain training’ is to go back to basics and make things very simple and obvious and then add complexity 1 small step at a time. So I have spent a few weeks going right back to Rideability 101 trying to re-embed her obedience chip. Endless poles in walk and trot till she stopped rushing and could pop through raised poles, on a bend and on the buckle without changing rhythm. This week I have been able to extend and collect the canter in a big open field with slight shift in weight and half halts. I can halt -canter- halt. I can canter 5 strides, trot 5 strides, canter 5 strides. So surely we were ready for canter poles?

Today I decided to find out:  During one of Amber’s early introductions to canter poles she attempted to jump them all in one go, landed in the middle of them and took off galloping for several laps of the arena. It was not the best learning experience for her. My fault totally of course but I was a guinea pig rider having a free assessed lesson by someone very experienced wanting their coaching qualification. When she put out the poles I thought ‘help that could go wrong’ but also felt that arguing with her might look bad to the assessor so I just decided to do as I was told. Which ironically then looked a hell of a lot worse to the assessor but hey ho.

I discovered then (and many times since then) that Amber’s default position to anything in life that she is either keen on or unsure of is to launch herself at it with total commitment. Either in a YIPPEE – LET’S GO way or sometimes in an ‘EEEEEK – CLOSE EYES, ENGAGE TAKE OFF GEAR, LAUNCH’ kind of way. The latter is what sees her taking out strides and jumping 3 times the height she needs to. (Which was fun (not) when we were first learning to jump into water!!)



We have done countless hours over the past 3 years getting her comfortable and confident around poles so that even though I still have Amberish Yeehaa moments, we have not had anxiety driven launch moments for a long time. Until I tried to pop her over a X-pole just before she came home and she grabbed the bit and accelerated. Again and again. Sigh. Since getting home I have discovered that she launches at trotting poles too, never mind canter poles.

But with my weeks of rideability 101 work in the bag I felt ready to try again. So today I put out 2 poles 72 feet or 8 strides apart. Popped up to canter on a small circle from walk then approached pole one. WHOOSH she took off. She did the ‘8’ strides in 6 and that was trying to collect! The words of various trainers ran through my head – move the bit, body back, half halt, make her listen, she needs to wait. Tried all that. 6 strides. Circled before to get a good rhythm and then tried to lock that rhythm in– but she launched the instant she saw the first pole until she was over the 2nd. So I came to halt, and sat in defeat staring at her beautiful neck and thought WHY? If I can collect and extend when the poles are not there, then why won’t she do it when they are. Why do the poles make so much difference?

I decided it’s not an obedience or communication thing. She undertands the aids to collect and listens to them. But learning is situational. Horses don’t generalise very well so for whatever reason she thinks poles = acceleration and speed. So was it a fear thing? Well no because she could happily walk over, trot over and stand astride the poles. But maybe it started as a fear thing and has become a learned behaviour? Basically a habit that she now thinks is the ‘right way’ to canter over poles or approach jumps.

Who knows how horses  and process stuff or how she could believe that despite me hauling on her reins she is supposed to be tanking through the poles like a loon. But I swear the more I tried to slow her down the more annoyed she got with me. She was more or less shouting ‘what! I’m doing exactly what I am supposed to do. What’s your problem’.

So how to tell her that I did not want that? That I wanted her to be calm, slow and responsive? I decided to walk over the first pole and halt. Then trot and halt. Then canter and halt. Repeat 3 times and on time 4 I just allowed the canter to continue. 4,5,6,7, 8!! Hurrah – lovely, calm, pingy canter. 8 rhythmic 12 foot strides. And no arguing. Repeated the canter – halt a couple of times so she was never sure if she was carrying on or not. Pinged through one more time and ended there with a huge grin and a tearful cuddle. (Yes I’m pathetic.)

Such a small achievement. But in the context of our 3 year struggle I feel like it’s HUGE! So we might hit dead ends, take detours and we will certainly be limited to my pace not hers, but we will get there. ‘There’ being where-ever we end up which will be a lot further on than ‘here’. And we will have a lot of fun on the way.