Years ago when he was a wee thing, Midge learned the flying changes fairly quickly, and rapidly got comfortable with the fours, threes and twos. But the ones eluded us for almost a year.
Midge, with his combination of crazy Dutch Harness Horse knees and boundless enthusiasm, could get through a few, but soon enough he’d be launching himself with reckless abandon in about 37 directions at once, and strong and brave and long-legged thing that I am, I couldn’t hold him together.
And that, I learned, was the problem. No one is strong enough to hold back a tidal wave.
Michael presented me with a solution that seemed so simple, so nonsensically easy, that I scoffed at first. Put the horse on a three-loop serpentine at canter. Then do a change as you cross the centerline. And that change needs to be the most earthbound, uninspiring, boring little flip-flop of a change as you can muster.
Seems like the sort of exercise that should be easy on an almost-Grand Prix horse, right? Tee hee, said Midge, as he leapt and plunged about. And I stuck with it until they were boring. It took about a month. And once they were there, I had 15 ones in about two weeks.
Horses like Midge and like Danny end up being wonderful FEI horses because they’ve got so much energy and so much movement from their natures, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying to do so, the Grand Prix test is seven minutes of hell if you have to kick. On looney tunes like Midge and Danny, you just point, shoot and get the hell out of their way… once they’re trained, that is. But the secret to making them solid is to basically dumb it down.
Danny, age 9, is in one-tempi purgatory at the moment. I got 15 for the first time last week, and then just about got killed trying to do more than five about three days later, and today got 11, then missed, and then spent 15 minutes trying to put the canter back together, and I’m sure tomorrow will present a whole new episode of incompetence.
And my fix is the same: keep it simple, stupid. Just canter. Then just flop into a change. Then do it again. The second Danny gets up a head of steam, I stop, volte, leg yield, whatever, until the canter is boring again. Sometimes “whatever” is two days. Sometimes it’s three strides.
I experience the same situation in canter pirouettes. Fender, who is now the most solid citizen in the history of the universe, was, in his youth, a godless infidel who would approach the canter pirouette feeling perfectly pleasant, then hit the bit, spin, and run backwards.
Daily. For months. And every day the answer was the same: rather than torture him with a million canter pirouettes, building the drama and squabbling and fighting, I’d put him on a 20-meter circle and, at the four “points” of the circle, make 10-meter circles. Again, seems like the easiest damn thing, but I got all kinds of launching and snorting and silliness until, one day, I could just canter around. Then 10-meter circles became 8-meter circles became 6-meter circles became pirouettes so beautiful they almost never scored below 8, and that now teach all my girls what a beautiful pirouette feels like. The drama had to come out. The exercise had to become boring.
I’ve got this big group of one-day-Grand Prix horses in my world at the moment: my own Danny, two client horses that are wonderful (one of whom is, as of this writing, officially a Grand Prix horse to the tune of 62%—woo Torrey!), and a handful of others that are just beginning the journey up that last step.
Some are pretty level and some are loons, but they all have something about which they get emotional. And the answer is the same: break it down. Keep it simple. And make it boring. Once it’s boring, it’s such a tremendous delight to hit the throttle and let the mega-athletes shine. But until it’s boring, all that talent, all that enthusiasm, is a bomb with a hair trigger.
My little Danny bomb will defuse eventually. And until then, I’m just the bomb squad, moving slowly and clearly and efficiently, until we’re code-4. And now that I’ve ridden this metaphor completely off the rails, I’ll stop while I’m behind, and remind all of us riding unexploded ordinance that it’ll all be OK. Eventually!