Re-training aids; help on impulsion versus tempo? (Also clicker training)
Long story short, my 12yo Paint 15.2hh mare caught early hock arthritis last year, and has been treated so that she can undergo work gradually to a performance level (Eventing at heights 3'6" and Dressage to the Training level). She's an in-the-middle kind of horse, having her too-slow times just as often as her too-fast ones, she's also fairly well-behaved with no vices and an easy temperment.
Her trot-to-walk transitions are coming along beautifully, I can barely recognize her as the same mount when I ask. She can stretch down on cue, and respond to light aids. Now, my problem areas are...
Full acceptance of contact: She often wants to have enough slack to easily move above the vertical, or else tries nudging her nose behind the vertical to jerk her nose outward in an attempt to take some slack (which has, unfortunately, succeeded a few times).
And responding to the aids with impulsion and relaxation. Whenever I gather my reins or take up contact, she raises her head and tenses; even if I try gathering or using the tiniest bit I can, she raises her head and tenses a small amount. She thinks that the aid means = faster, especially my leg. Her first response to an aid is to speed up and raise her head, and THEN lower her head or step under herself. I really want to re-train her to the aids so that her first response is the relaxed one. It takes me some time under saddle and a little less on the lunge to get her relaxed after asking for a bigger stride or energetic pace--- she's perfectly relaxed walking along like a snail with her nose in the dirt or cantering on the forehand with slack reins. She was trained Western first, years ago, so I think that's where her mind likes to go. She's been English for about 6 years now. So, it's not that she isn't sensitive to the aids, she's giving a poor reaction to them. Yes we do have a trainer, and we've been improving together steadily--- some input/advice is appreciated here.
Starting this week I began clicker training her with the intent for her to want to have a bit in her mouth; I hold out one of her bits and wait for her to sniff the middle of it, then click and treat. She's figuring out that to touch it gets her something good (I don't just use food; I present the bit to her before she exits or enters her stall), but the booger sneaks some tricks in by nudging my hand or poking at the ring of the bit. I'm not quite sure if I should reward for touching the rings of the bit. I wanted to click and treat under saddle, but she doesn't really like to eat when out on a hack, so I can only practice at brief trots in the paddock.
Not sure how I should teach her to move forward without raising her head from a leg cue. I suppose I'll try establishing a verbal cue from the ground and working it from there?
Other info; I'm underweight at 90lbs so I'm not a large weight on her, she has a short back, we do not normally have access to an arena, we hack out in pastures, and we ride primarily in a plain bridle with loose french link and elastic girth with a big ol' fleecy pad under a forward-cut Thornhill saddle. She can ride in a neck rope but once she starts jigging after a trot-to-walk transit she will disregard the turning and stopping/slowing cues.
First thing (for the bad reaction to the leg) is to teach a turn on the forehand. Try for just a few steps at first, and reward. Until this is easy (remember to give walk breaks in between). Then introduce a spiral in/spiral out and finally a leg yield.
Teaching her to respond to each individual leg by going sideways will help to break down the leg = tension response.
The contact will not improve until you have a solid response from the leg. The contact comes from the hindleg stepping up and the topline softening and "bridging" over the back.
Video would also be helpful if you have any.
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