Ever since I bought my Friesian gelding, Douwe, I had hopes of teaching him performance movements to use in exhibitions, such as lay down, bow, rear, and Spanish walk. After four years of persistence, and a lot of patience, he is beginning to understand what I am asking of him.
When I started teaching Douwe how to rear in December of 2012, he was confused and the normal way of asking wasn't working; he was just shutting down. I taught my Andalusian/Lipizzan gelding, Rovandio, to rear simply by lifting his head with the lead line and tapping him on the chest with my whip. I would reward him for a small lift of his shoulders and after a few days, he fully understood what was expected and enjoyed performing the rear. Douwe, on the other hand, would lean into the whip, trying to perform the Spanish walk, because that was all he knew. He is not naturally a vertical-moving horse.
Some trainers will teach a horse to rear in a stall by backing the horse into a corner until they can not go any further, and instead lift their front legs. That reminded me of equine dentist experiences and how horses will rear to avoid him when they are in the corner! I didn't want the stall to be a place of tension for Douwe so instead, I backed him into a corner of the indoor arena. I then asked for him to lift with a hand and whip motion, rewarding the slightest inclination towards lifting his head, leg, or anything vertically. It took about a week for him to think of lifting both front feet off the ground, and even then he only gave a couple of inches.
I persevered with his training and he eventually developed what I fondly call his "bunny-hop"- a tiny rear performed multiple times. Eventually, he progressed to a rear with no tack on and then I tried it under saddle. I used the same corner of the arena each time we practiced (that was his "rearing corner"), and that way he knew what to expect. I had developed a vocal cue: "Annnnddd...UP!", which worked well, only he started anticipating and would rear on the "And" instead of the "Up"! At least he was doing what I asked for.
Fast forward to 2013 in Tallahassee, FL. I wanted Douwe to lift higher in the rear but I wasn't sure how to go about it. The difficulty lay in his avoidance of transferring his weight to his hind end, and instead pushing off his front legs. He would do the same thing when schooling piaffe, and avoid tucking his pelvis under and engaging his abdominal muscles. I started to use my spur towards the girth when asking for piaffe, which better cued him to lift his back. I then started to incorporate the piaffe-in-hand with the rear-in-hand, back and forth between the two, so he would think of lifting his front feet up in the piaffe. His rear started to become more balanced because he was thinking more about engaging his hind end and wasn't pushing off his front legs.
After a week or two, we had a successful breakthrough with the rear. I was able to gently use the spurs and he lifted higher then he has ever gone before! 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. Everything I have taught Douwe has been a learning experience; he is unlike any other horse I have trained. He has come into my life to be my tutor and he has opened my eyes to the awareness I must have when working with any horse. You must listen to the horse completely and think creatively about how to reach each individual animal. Here is a short video clip of Douwe working in the rear. I am so excited and proud!