I've heard a lot of horses being described as 'complicated'. I was watching one of my rented DVDs that was narrated by Lucinda Green about the top 20 eventing horses up to the mid '90s. While some were praised as being forgiving, kind, well mannered chaps, there were others that were described as 'complicated'. It sure wasn't a compliment. Of course, being complicated is acceptable when they're jumping around Badminton or Burghley.
I'll never get over the images of Murphy Himself just leaving strides out everywhere with Ian Stark just hanging on for dear life and trying to make any of the steering or brakes work. I almost feel like I can sympathize some days when my princess decides she's going to do it her way and you need to just shut up and hang on.
Fi is complicated. I've dodged that title for a long time, but my trainer has been pretty blunt as of late. Fi is a worrier that will sometimes try so hard that she stresses herself out and just has to mentally check out. It's not mean or nasty, she just can't handle situations where she doesn't think she's going to get it right. While she's a saint on the flat with a justified reputation for being a rock steady trail horse, jumps worry her. Ground poles worry her. She's got a little switch in her head that flips and she goes from being a sensible, clever mare to being a panicked fire breathing dragon. This is why she's not really an ammy ride. She's so nice and calm and sensible until she's not.
Our jumping lesson on Friday was so bad it was all I could do to not cry. Lunging at fences and bolting afterward, completely refusing to go near the itty bitty bounce, just not at all rideable. I was ready to just quit and go back to her stall and never put the jumping saddle on her again. At the end we managed to settle her enough to do a decent round of crossrails, but it was far from a success. I had no choice but to hit the brakes hard with her just to avoid an accident. Of course, that stresses her out. Coming into fences feeling like she can't power up just makes her panic more, but I can't release because she's dangerous like this.
On Sunday, with the ring all to myself, I decided to try something new. All the classical stuff sure wasn't working. Circles and transitions and grids and all the recommended stuff just makes my mare into a shaking, stressed out wreck. Time to think outside of the box. On went the hackamore and I loaded up my pockets with treats. Fiona clearly can handle jumping without me (as seen by jumping out of the dang ring), so let's see what can be done to get her to be calm about jumping with me on board. I set the fences down to about 10" high verticals.
I wish there had been a video camera. This was probably a riot.
I then proceeded to run and jump next to Fiona. This is why they had to be verticals, so there was enough room for both of us to fit and still have the jump low enough for me to get my chubby human butt over. The first five or so she would stop dead, confused and unsure just like she is under saddle. I would just wait on the other side and cluck to her. When she bravely hopped over, she got a treat. Wash, rinse, repeat. I knew when she'd settled because she would trot along next to me, jump, canter about two strides, then stop next to me for her treat. The best part was that the reins were completely floppy the entire time. All of that ground work paid off. Fiona knows she's supposed to stay right with me, shoulder to shoulder. She knew exactly what she had to do and that she could do it right. That, and I had cookies.
I ended up running with her through a little course and managed it without falling on my keister. I was just as proud of that as anything, my ankles aren't exactly the strongest. I was wheezing by the time I finally got on. Running in an arena is hard work! I let Fi trot around for a couple minutes on a loose rein to see what we had to work with. Some transitions to make sure she was aware it was a hackamore day and then it was time to test the results of my positive reinforcement training. At the walk, I turned her toward one of the verticals. I left loops in the reins, didn't put any leg on, but clucked a bit. She picked up a trot, hopped over the fence, and cantered off calmly. When I asked her to stop, she halted promptly and reached around for her treat.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
I had one refusal when I turned her to a little oxer. She didn't expect it, but when represented, she hopped over calmly enough. She started to key up, but working on something else for awhile helped to bring her back down. She did give me a flier when I jumped one fence and she locked onto the next. I didn't want to drag her off so I let her go. The distance was funky with the fences so little and with her trotting in, so she left a stride out. Hey, she didn't waver or quit and stopped nicely afterward. I count that as a win!
So this may be the answer to the root problem of Fiona getting tense over jumping. It's been turned into a game, no punishments allowed. Loose reins so it's her choice to go over and the speed is her choice as well. I'm just along for the ride and to pick out the jumps. And hand out the cookies. This won't work later when the courses are complicated, but I'll never get to the complicated courses if I don't lock this in. I expect to be at this for at least a month, if not two. She's got to have it hammered into her little TB brain that this is easy and fun and nothing to worry about.
I'm going to get really fit this winter if I have to spend months running courses with her at the start of my rides. Should help with the amount of turkey I've been eating.