I have been training Douwe to execute some performance movements to use in our future exhibitions. Ever since I bought Douwe I had hopes of teaching him to lay down, bow, rear, and do spanish walk along with his regular dressage training. After four years of persistence and patience he is really starting to understand what I am asking of him.
When I started teaching him how to rear he was confused and I gave up for awhile, the normal way of asking him wasn't working and he was just shutting down. I taught Rovandio to rear simply by lifting his head and tapping him on the chest with my whip. I would reward him every time he thought of lifting his shoulders and after a few days we got our first rear and then he fully understood what was expected and loved it. Douwe on the other hand would lean into the whip, pushing onto his shoulders or try to do spanish walk. He has NO natural inclination to rear, he doesn't do it in the paddock and I have never felt like he would rear under saddle. My friend Danielle mentioned that some trainers teach a horse in a stall, pushing their rear end towards the corner. That reminded me of the horse dentist and of course the horses rear to get away from him when they are in the corner! But I didn't want the stall to be a place of tension for Douwe so I backed him up into a corner of the indoor arena. Then I asked him to lift with my hand and whip, rewarding the slightest inclination towards lifting his head, a leg, anything upwards.....It took at least a week for him to even think of lifting both front feet off the ground but only by inches. This was back in December 2012.
I kept at it and he started to develop what I like to call his "bunny-hop" where he would do a tiny rear multiple times. I was able to get him to rear on the ground eventually with no tack on and then I tried it under saddle. I put him in the same corner of the arena each time...that was his rearing corner. I had spent enough time on the ground that he knew my cue.... I would say "Annnnddd...UP!" Problem was that after awhile he started to rear on the "And" instead of the "Up"! Oh well! At least he was doing what I asked for.
Fast forward to my time here in Tallahassee, FL. I was trying to teach him to lift higher but I wasn't sure how to go about it. What was making it so difficult for Douwe was that he would push off from his front feet and not transfer his weight to his hind end. He does the same thing schooling piaffe, he tries to get croup-high and avoids tucking under his pelvis. We did a clinic with trick trainer Heidi Herriott and she gave me a few suggestions to try with him. We put on some side-reins to give him some pressure and she tried to teach him the way she does with her horses. Douwe got confused, evading the situation by jumping away from her. He is a little head shy and I don't use my whip up by his head which she did slightly so he didn't understand that. I was hesitant to use side-reins on a daily basis because I think that could be dangerous in the wrong circumstance. So I just kept at it a little longer, doing it the same way I had been, getting the bunny-hops. Then one day I thought about the piaffe and how I needed to lift his withers up so he could sit more on the hind. I started to use my spur a little forward towards the girth which made him lift his back better. He got confused at first and I had to keep asking him to stay on the spot so he realized he wasn't being asked to go forward but instead he needed to go up. I started to incorporate the piaffe-in-hand with the rear-in-hand back and forth together so he would think of lifting the front feet up in the piaffe. His rear started to become better balanced because he was thinking more about the hind end and wasn't able to push off the front legs.
After doing this for about a week or two, on and off we had a successful breakthrough today with the rear. I was able to gently use the spurs and he lifted higher then he has ever gone before! Granted, it still is a low rear in comparison to other horses but I am so happy to see his progress and feel that his balance has greatly improved. This work is also helping his canter collection and balance for the flying changes. Training Douwe "outside the box" has been so important to his progress. Everything I have taught Douwe has been a learning experience, he is unlike any other horse I have trained or probably will train again. He has come into my life to be my tutor, he has opened my eyes to the awareness I must have when working with any horse. You must listen completely and think creatively about how to reach each individual animal. Here is a short video clip of him working today, I am so excited and proud!