I've been very lucky to observe some amazing horsemen this year, in particular Joe Wolter and Buck Brannaman. Both spent time with the legendary Tom Dorrance. If you've never heard of Tom, look him up. His words of wisdom are deeply profound.
I recall during Buck's clinic at Aintree, he was talking about horses that were busy in their mouths, that basically, you hadn't got to their feet yet. I remember looking at my friend Anna and we both said 'Shaun'.
Observing something is one thing. Finding the solution is quite another. I tried various things with him over the summer - jiggling the rein, being particular about where his feet should be and so on without much success and had pretty much given up searching for solution.
Yesterday, I went to a dressage competition. I was feeling very ill but managed to pick up a couple of placings amoung decent company. However, the judge was fairly harsh on everyone and extremely thrifty in providing comments. The bottom of my first sheet said 'The bit should be still in the horse's mouth'. The second sheet said 'Willing chap - the horse needs to go forwards into the contact'. That was all I got.
My mind rolled back to what Buck said. There it was again.
This morning I tacked up with a different plan. I've been working lately on straightening out my crooked body and this has mostly meant riding Shaun forwards more to be straighter. Clearly, according to yesterday's judge, this wasn't quite coming through from training to competition yet.
I got out to my arena and asked Shaun to go forwards without a contact. It took about 10 minutes to find a really forwards trot where he was carrying me rather than me helping him stay there. Then we worked on transitions without contact. Pretty sluggish then pretty good. I picked up the reins in the softest feel I could and his mouth started. I asked him to walk, he crunched on the bit, he bunched up his body and told me he couldn't give me what I was asking for. I asked for more walk, more crunching, more forwards please... and then it stopped. His contact was light as a feather and silent. I had got to his feet.
We did the same at trot. Every time he crunched on the bit, I asked for more forwards and held the contact as light as I could. He went quiet, came rounded and powered round the arena and through circles. We halted, in silence, and we were done.
I should know this. Freely forwards, Scales of Training - rhythm; suppleness; contact, Maintain gait before maintain direction. It's all the same, regardless of who you study and align your views with. This is what I teach. But sometimes, you can't see what is right in front of you. The bottom line is, Shaun taught me to feel for him. For when he was forwards enough, for when the contact was light enough and to stop over-riding him. I can't say that all is fixed. We have work to do. But then, it is a life long journey of learning.