The first year of training –
Wills lacked confidence. He had been a total failure as a racehorse and he knew it. There are not many Two Punches (his sire) that can't run, but he was big and extremely sensitive. Some would say he had no heart. I don't agree, but I do agree he had no heart for racing. Wills cared very much what I thought of him. He didn't really trust me, but seemed to like me. His gaits were huge and he had a lot of trouble navigating a 20 x 70 area. 20 meter circles were a struggle and the canter - it was an exercise in patience for both him and me.
Wills did not like to longe at all. I expect this in the initial stages with any horse because it is difficult and physically demanding. I kept my sessions short and at the walk in the beginning. After about a month, we progressed to the trot. He struggled at first but when he found the correct tempo and stopped running, he began to enjoy it. When we began canter work, it was an entirely different story. The canter unearthed all of his self-doubt and lack of confidence. Wills’ great big stride made navigating in this small area seem impossible to him. He especially didn't want to go to the right - at least not on the right lead. While it was frustrating, I knew I had to wait it out. His confidence, even more than his physical ability was holding him back. I expected him to make the effort, but wasn’t worried if it didn’t go the way I wanted – that would happen with time. I wouldn't be successful if I tried to push him and “make” him do it right. It is easier to canter on the inside lead on a circle, but lots of horses want to get on the outside lead – I believe it’s in the quest for balance. I kept the canter work short, less than a complete circle for a long time. I let the longe out to the end so the circles were oversize to about 25 meters. I quickly progressed to the "canter - walk" instead of a repetitive 20+ meter circle. The canter-walk is an exercise I use to warm up every horse I longe. I introduce it as early as possible, but not before the horse is able to find at least a bit of balance at the canter. Instead of standing in one place I walk from C to A (the length of the arena) and back again, allowing Wills freedom from repetitive circles. Many times he threatened to run away, but did not. Many times he broke from the canter and I quietly asked him to regain the canter with a quiet “Git”. He would regularly pick up the wrong lead. At this stage of training, if I ask the horse to canter and he does, I reward. He will figure out in time that the inside lead is easiest. If they cross canter I ask for a downward transition and ask for the canter again. I do not like my horses to practice cross cantering. Counter canter, yes, cross canter, no. There were lots of times Will halted on his own, and if he had had arms would have put both hands on his hips, faced me and said, "What the Hell?" As time went on, he slowly began to figure it out and gained a little confidence with each small success.
Confidence is always something to be addressed with performance horses. Those like Wills, need to build it. The horses that have confidence need to keep it. I always set up each session with the goal of challenging the horse no more than he can be successful. I want every interaction and training session to end with success for the horse. If I find I have asked too much, I ratchet back my expectations for the day rather than push the horse into a stupid fight that even if I win, nothing has been won. Some trainers will assault the confidence of an over confident horse in order to “knock him down a few pegs.” I do not believe that is a good approach. An over confident horse just needs to be challenged enough to find he needs to rely on his rider - partner. I may ask more of such a horse, but I will never try to take his confidence away. After all, I am sure I will need it one day to get us out of a jam that my human imperfection has caused.
The longe work took months to perfect, but when he finally grasped it, he was perfect. He completely relaxed and enjoyed it. He responded to my commands as I was saying them. During this period I also did a lot of hacking around the farm. He was tentative at times and would begin to become uptight, but always believed me when I told him it was okay. I loved this but I felt the weight of responsibility to never be wrong. He believed me and took great comfort in that. If I made a mistake in judgement, would I lose all the trust I had built?
Wills approached trot poles with the same suspicion he approached most things. “Make me a believer.” seemed to be his motto when introduced to anything new. I began as usual with only one pole on the ground. I hand walked him doing the walk halts in hand until I was certain he was in sync with me. We then approached the pole together. He readily stepped over it with quite a bit of doubt, but it did not attack him so when we approached again, he walked with purpose. No pole was going to beat him. This was the successful beginning of jumping. Several days later, it was two poles set 4 ½ feet apart. We tackled them before I got on him and then again after. I worked hard to keep him straight so he would not fall onto one shoulder or the other as he stepped over. It wasn’t long before we were trotting those poles. Wills seemed to gain both confidence and enjoyment from these exercises. Along with the training under saddle, I free jumped him every week. It appeared we had found something Wills very much liked to do. I was very careful not to get carried away by his new found enthusiasm. Wills had already told me he was a horse that needed time and with that time came confidence.
Wills was “mastering” trot poles and I introduced jumping with a rider astride at some logs that are placed around the farm. First he stepped over them and then we were trotting and he popped over them. Then we tried it in the ring. I always begin the same way. Walk then trot a pole on the ground, then put up half a cross rail (one diagonal pole) about 6” in the middle, walk and trot that and then put up the other rail to complete the cross rail. Wills had already seen cross rails, verticals and oxers by this time during free jumping. He LOVED it! This was good, but in no time flat he loved it too much. He wanted to go faster. Probably because he was a big horse with a big stride and he needed to regain his balance, but at least part of it was joy.
Jim Wofford engrains in his students that the reins are accelerators. Do not pull!!! With a horse such as Wills you set up gymnastics to address the running problem which is what I did. I have Jim’s book, Gymnastics: Systematic Training for Jumping Horses. It’s my bible. If you don’t have it, you need to go get it if you are planning on training any horse to jump. It has beginning gymnastics starting with poles on the ground and progresses to address specific problems such as running at fences. With the introduction of the gymnastics, Wills’ slowed down and I could be the intelligent passenger I needed to be, but once he got his confidence, his mantra became “faster is better!” The day came when I introduced one of Jim’s exercises that I was sure would send the message to this more than happy horse. It consisted of a two bounces (10 feet between the jumps so the horse’s landing is the start of the next jump), then two strides to a vertical, two more strides to a vertical and finishing of with two more bounces. You must set up the jumps one at a time, putting a rail between the standards to before putting it in the cups to let the horse know what is coming. Eventually you have the entire line up. It worked wonderfully! He was figuring out on his own that going faster was not the way to jump and I wasn’t interfering or pulling. I was so proud of both Wills and myself. Once he figured the exercise out, he decided to try the faster is better approach again. I did not pull and I have no idea how he pulled it off but he went through there like a rocket – leaving every pole up. I put a placing rail (rail on the ground after a fence to encourage the horse to land where he should) on the ground after both two strides which worked for one trip and then he had mastered it and went back to the “rocket ride.” I asked a volunteer to video tape it and sent him through again. I wanted to show this to Jim. Back through he went with the same “flair”. Unfortunately, my volunteer did not catch it.
With time and good gymnastics, Wills did figure out that rhythm and a relaxed pace were the correct way to jump. I was so proud of him and myself because I had stuck to my guns as hard as it was and didn’t pull. With those fantastic gymnastics and classical dressage flatwork, we had gotten to a good place.