For anyone who doesn't know him Merlin (registered name Bybecks Ee's Away) is a 7yo Fell Pony. He was used at stud until he was 5 years old when he had a very tough time. He was injured in a fight with another stallion, gelded and sent to a cattle market with some of his offspring. He was bought by a lower end horse dealer and his future was very uncertain. I first met him looking terrified at the back of a filthy stable with no hay or water in sight and was told he was going to be auctioned off again. I bought him and three yearling Fells, two of which were his sons, direct from the dealer before they all went back to auction.
Merlin was halter trained but unbroken, very nervous and distrusting of people, and virtually un-catchable when he arrived here in March 2010. He then became very ill and was diagnosed with strangles within days of arriving. He had to have injections and nasal swabs which didn't help with his trust issues but he is an incredibly kind, generous, forgiving pony and quickly came around with the help of clicker training. It took a long time before he would trust strangers but he's now a solid, friendly pony with everyone he meets.
He has retained no stallion tendencies whatsoever and is brilliant and peaceable with all other horses, mares and geldings alike. I lightly backed him with no problems at all in 2011 but have hardly sat on him since due to life getting in the way!! I've done a little in hand work with him, teaching him to yield his quarters in giravolta, and to yield his front end by stepping over with his forelegs in the first steps of turn on the haunches.
So this is where we are beginning Straightness Training. I love the way ST is so clearly, methodically and logically set out. First of all you assess your horse's asymmetry and work to address that right from the start. I usually become aware of it gradually as I go along and haphazardly work to even things up as best I can!!
Merlin is an extremely left bended pony (he bends very easily to the left and finds it very hard to bend to the right). He is also higher behind than in front with his neck set low on his withers so he is naturally very heavily on his forehand. His quarters are very powerfully built but he only knows how to use them to 'push' rather than 'carry' at the moment and I think if I had ridden him properly before now he would have really struggled with balancing himself and his rider, and he might have been inclined to rush and get nervous due to this quite marked imbalance.
My job is now to teach him to gradually stretch the tight muscles on his left hand side and to contract the stretched muscles on his right hand side. He then needs to learn to bend his hind legs more and step further under his body so he can carry more weight with his very strong quarters and lighten the load on his forelegs. This will not only make him a more supple, balanced, confident, comfortable ride but it will also keep him sound and happy in his work.
In our first session I began on his stiff side and asked him to relax his neck downwards then bend towards me as I stood at his shoulder. I'm keeping the rate of reinforcement high on this rein as he is obviously finding bending hard and not very comfortable. The beauty of clicker training this is I can keep his motivation high to do his best despite the discomfort and I don't have to force it in any way - he's happy to follow my subtle suggestions. Once we had lateral bend with a relaxed underside of his neck I asked Merlin to walk on with me in a large circle and encouraged his inside hind to step well under his body with subtle gestures with the whip.
I then changed sides and on his left side, where he bends with ease, I immediately succombed to the temptation to start freeshaping the height of his head along with the bend (on the right rein at this stage I was rewarding any lowering and bending, even if his head was lower than I really wanted, as I just wanted him to understand and to keep him motivated to respond). I love working on several criteria at once and he understood completely and found it easy, but, on reflection, I don't think this is a good strategy as the aim is to get him more symmetrical, not to keep him more advanced on one side than the other! I will resist next time!!!
We then did the same once more on his difficult right side (so he gets more practise on the side that needs it) and ended there - a short but very successful first session and Merlin thoroughly enjoyed it, thanks to the clicker!
Merlin ready for our ST session.
Dougal was looking left out so I had a little go with him too. He too is left bended and stiff to the right but not as badly so as Merlin, He is younger, so not so set in his ways (rising 3 we think - he was dumped in a back garden in the local town so we don't know for sure). I don't think I'll be riding him though, he's still only about 30" tall! He's not quite as fat as he looks in these photos, his winter coat is about 6" long!!