When I say black and white many of you (being the good horsey folk you are) immediately think of Paints.
Lately, for me, black and white have begun to mean positive and negative, action and stillness, presence and absence.
I have discussed an experiment on my blog, Mugwump Chronicles, where I am working with a colt I have owned since birth.
I am trying to teach him in a way that is effective enough that I only have to teach it once.
No drilling, no repetition, once he learns it, I assume he understands it.
I am very aware that repetition will come into his life simply because he needs it to strengthen himself physically and mentally for where I want to take him.
Plus, I'm pretty sure I'm not a good enough trainer to make it to a NRCHA derby without having to show him something more than once.
But I'm sure going to try.
At this point he leads, ties, picks up his feet, loads in a trailer, gives his nose when I put pressure on him and backs a step. He's just two. So he does everything I need him to for his age.
I spend a lot of time thinking of my next step, because I always want it to be related to the last and to set me up for the next.
Sometimes it's a month or two before I think through my next step. Because there is such a gap in my handling of my little guy I have been worried it would have a negative effect on his training.
I have been surprised to find it has, if anything, enhanced it. When I walk into the horses on pasture he watches me closely. When I look back at him he drops his head and turns to the side. It doesn't matter if I skip past him for weeks at a time, this is still the friendly, welcoming response I get.
When I do go to pet him or catch him he is interested and willing to go with me. I almost think the wait in between sessions works him as much as the actual handling time. I haven't bored him. He hasn't shut me out from a lack of understanding or too much repetition. I haven't given him any bad habits from a lack of focus on my part either.
So my negative space becomes as much a tool as my positive.
It's really making me think. What I'm not doing is every bit as important as what I am.
Here's an example of my thoughts.
Most horses lean into the rider as she mounts. Not a lot, he just sets his inside foot and braces to support himself as she gets up.
No big deal, right?
When I work a horse I am very insistent he learns to curl his body away from me. He needs to keep his shoulder and rib away from me. I do this as a safety measure and as beginning lessons in foot placement. If my horse curls away correctly he also crosses his feet correctly for future turns and lateral work.
I also want my horse prepared to move away at any time out of respect for my position. I've learned through hard experience that a horse who leans or pushes on me is being rude and it will effect our whole trainer/trainee relationship unless I stop it.
So what am I teaching my horse when I let him lean into me as I mount? I'm not sure, but it has to be a confusing cross signal at best.
When I worked for the Big K he didn't put up with a lot of leaning over their back, practicing putting weight in the stirrup or repeats of stepping up and down. He would put the saddle on a young horse, let him stand tied all day for several days and then prepare them to ride.
He would let me pony a colt, lean over it, rub on it and bang on the saddle but he didn't want me hanging off it's side.
When it was time to get on I tipped the colts nose, put my foot in the stirrup, stood up and immediately balanced over the middle of the colt. Once the colt would tolerate me I stood up, hesitated and threw my leg over.
I asked him once why he did it that way and he said, "I don't want you hanging with your head over the side of a colt when he blows. Besides, they're just 'feelier' this way."
When I went out on my own I went back to my old way. Putting my weight in the stirrup and gradually working my way onto the horse.
It went easier, the youngsters were better prepared when I got on and I felt I was doing a better job.
Except I had leaning colts again. I was creating a stiffening of the inside shoulder and rib. Which I had to work out again in order to begin training.
I hate it when he's right. The colts we stood over, then rode, were balancing briefly on the outside to support us. They moved away in order to get ready for us to mount. I'm not talking feet moving, just where their weight went as we got on.
So there was a consistency in expectations. I wasn't unconciously encouraging the very behavior I work so hard to eliminate.The young horse is learning again to keep his shoulder clear of the rider. That's where K was getting his "feelier." Hey, the guy's a trainer, not a communicator.
My thought here is, if I'm not unconsciously creating a lean in my colt, by repeatedly stepping up and down, or hanging off him, my training will be much more effective, simpler and clear. And I won't have to repeat myself.
By sitting back and doing nothing until I am sure my next step only builds, doesn't confuse, I am still going to end up with a competitive colt in time for the derbies. My negative space will only give both of us time to think. I hope.