Dante is now being repurposed as a ridden dressage horse. The career change has not been without its challenges. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? With careful planning, the answer is a resounding yes. You take what is familiar and fold in what is new, combine it with consistency and exercise patience, and the end result is learning.
Understanding Dante's personality has allowed me to better tailor the training to match the horse; a "one size fits all approach" fits not all, just some. Dante is a quintessential Metal horse (reference the blog, "The Water Horse"). He thrives on hard work and mental challenge. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy; he bonds through work, not play. No games for Dante, he cannot understand their appeal to Decadance. What works for Decadance fails miserably with Dante.
Think of the qualities of metal. It is strong and durable, cold and rigid. Metal horses are not overly social, they are calm and orderly. They prefer a set routine, and do not like to deviate from it. They learn best when things are presented one step at a time, and once they understand a lesson, they will not forget it. If they get confused or don't understand, a Metal horse will brace through his whole body. Metal horses internalize stress; they seem quiet, but are actually highly sensitive.
Conventional wisdom expounds that your horse should be ready for anything. He should be in front of your leg, on the aids, all things should be available to you at a moment's notice. I agree. Dante has a slightly different opinion. He does not like surprises; he prefers to know well in advance what is coming. Careful preparation is an integral part of communicating successfully with Dante.
Usually, I do not believe in practicing the test. Dante, however, is much more comfortable if he knows exactly what to do and when. I work on familiar patterns, improving the quality of the movements within the pattern. When he gets it, he gets it, and I ride the movements in different places and in different sequences. But, during the conscious learning process, it is far easier for him if it's the same way in the same place every time.
Enter the counter canter. The counter canter has been the biggest training hurdle to date. Dante was convinced for the longest time that I did not know my canter leads. He could not understand why I wanted him to do something wrong. Confusion led to bracing led to deterioration of the gait and eventually complete failure to communicate.
How to train the counter canter in a way that Dante could comprehend? I started with the pattern. A shallow loop to the quarter line and back, in the trot, with no change in positioning. Is there such a thing as counter trot? If so, we schooled it, over and over again. Then, we did the same thing in the canter. When he understood what was expected, we expanded on the concept. We rode a shallow loop to the center line and back in "counter trot". Transition to canter, emphasizing the lead, and ride the same pattern. And, all of sudden, he got it. Months of struggling melted away, and he understood. Each step combined in a logical sequence and led to learning.
Routine is very, very important to Dante. I was reminded of this the hard way at our last competition. It was well beyond hot and humid, and I was careful not to overwork him. I kept the warm up fairly short, and spent a good ten minutes before our rides allowing him to cool off under a tent. A friend fed Dante ice cubes as we waited for our set time. At the designated time, we went in the ring and rode the test. Using this routine, our first three rides of the weekend netted us three blues. However, before our fourth and last ride, I hurried through the process. The ring was running early, and I went straight in front of the judge from the warm up without any cool off, foregoing tent and ice cube time. That routine was an essential part of Dante's mental preparation, I should have known that. I did not finish the test.
Should it have made that big a difference? One things not, but one would not be thinking like Dante.
By using his Metal horse desire for order and structure to optimal advantage, Dante has been able to transition from driving to dressage with forthright determination. Dante has embarked on a new career at an age when most would be slowing down, and he's done it quite successfully. Useful and productive, this Metal horse is comfortable and content.