Keeping it fun
Aslan has been regressing in certain behaviors and demonstrating that he isn't having fun via evasions during mount up. This has bothered me, because normally he loves training and you almost have to drag him from the arena. (I had to train him not to do that!). I think I put more consideration into how he feels both emotionally and physically than most trainers. It has made training him very challenging, and I can't always just concede to what he wants or he would be eating carrots on my couch. However, I've learned a LOT of things and he seems to adore me as a leader. I am hoping it will pay off in respect to not having behavioral problems down the road.
I did some more research on why he might be showing less enthusiasm for training. I want to consolidate what I found here, so everyone can learn from my CT mistakes. A lot of these came from Shawna Karrasch's various videos. Especially her article Repetition is the Enemy of Wonder. As I am guilty of being repetitious.
Obviously health issues are of first concern, but so far I can't find anything wrong. He does have an appointment coming up and I will double check there. For now let's assume he is fine otherwise.
Drilling: We all want to practice until perfect and I am guilty of this also. Shawna clarified that this can get boring and tends to produce diminishing returns. It seems like a duh factor, but I didn't realize that I was drilling. I figured I was being more varied, that is, until things started going downhill more often. Under +R, if performance starts to go downhill, we up the reinforcement levels. But if the horse is bored and unmotivated, it doesn't fix the problem, it just slows it down. This is what happened to me, because I really didn't notice he was bored until he started being louder with his "NO THANKS" behavior. The next logical solution was resorting to -R, but I am discovering that the performance don't necessarily improve by much. In addition, the horse can develop a sour attitude and try evasions to get out of having to work. This is not the path I want to go down, as it makes my job harder and isn't fun for either of us.
Variety: The obvious one is to stop being repetitious and teach new things or work on other things. I just find this challenging, because a lot of the new stuff requires Aslan to be better at the basics. For example, I want to work on half halts and getting him on the bit, but he is currently behind the leg. I can't do these exercises until he is more willing to go forward. This made it easy to drill upward transitions, which has been getting boring for him lately. That leaves me kind of stuck. But I do have some ideas:
Horsemanship - I'm going to enter this at the gypsy show this fall. I've looked into it more and can see that we need to refine a few things I haven't worked on in a while, including the setup (getting his feet square when we stop) and better sensitivity to body language.
Silly tricks: I may have to try and incorporate a silly trick every lesson. Such as push the ball, smile, get up on the stand, and so on. I would love to practice more trail obstacles, but we don't have any at the barn.
Creative groundwork- Clinton Anderson has some neat exercises that I haven't focused on, since they seemed over-and-above what is necessary for ground work. But I can incorporate more of these, and also things like poles and jumps.
Trail rides - now that the weather is better, we don't have to do so much "concentrated" training.
Time: As much as I enjoy long lessons, I might be dragging on too long. So I am going to aim for 15-30 minutes. If I want to go on longer sessions, then it should probably be a lot less concentrated training, like outdoor trail stuff.
Treats: I use 2 different types of extruded pellets and a few random flavoured treats or carrots. I've been doing this for months and I do rotate the flavored treats from apple to carrot to peppermint, but this repetition might be boring for his pallet. In fact, in one of my lessons, I cut up some apples, carrots and sweet potato into small bites. I noticed a difference in attitude. Either that or he was just in a better mood in general. But he seemed more willing to try.
Tack - I am cautious to pay attention to issues that may cause pain or discomfort. Obviously this can nullify all of other efforts.
The bit: I don't think that he has ever liked his comfort D-snaffle. Since the first day he wore it, he has chewed incessantly and occasionally head tossed. He is green and this is to be expected, but he has never quite gotten over it. Now that I am taking up contact, his enthusiasm has gone down even more. He sticks his nose in the air or leans heavily. He is much more content if I don't take up contact. This is also green behavior and I never did go out of my way to introduce it, I just took it up one day. So I'm going to start some +R regarding contact; but I'm still considering his dislike for the bit. I bought him a french link ring snaffle. The nutcracker action is still kept to a minimum (he has a very low pallet and would find this severe) and it is also more flexible, allowing him to decide how to put it in his mouth. It is more difficult to lean on as well.
The girth: He has been girthy since the day I tried him. While the fear is gone, it is clear that he is still touchy about it. I have worked extensively with +R and -R on this one, and I do a very slow girth up process and have kept it on a high reinforcement schedule; but it is not fully resolved. I taught him to put his head down, but he will still throw it or turn toward me. He does not bite and has never tried it, but he struggles keeping his head down and forward. I have even rewarded him for at least turning his head to the opposite side. A vet appointment will soon be in our future and I will have this confirmed to be sure he doesn't have ulcers.
Further research has also indicated that his original girth may no longer be fitting properly. He was quite fat when I bought him, and so I bought a 34" girth. Now he has lost a lot of weight and it reaches too far up his sides. Apparently the ring can press on a nerve/vein in this upper area which may cause girthiness too. In our case, it may simply be preventing it from resolving. So I bought another soft neoprene girth that is 4 inches smaller. I noticed an improvement the other day but this may have just been luck. (If he is distracted, he sometimes forgets that he is being tightened).
Saddle fit - my current trail saddle is custom made and designed for his wide back. It is a cross between English, Western and Australian, so it is quite large and heavy but very comfy and secure. It fits him nicely and I love it, so there are no problems with pain. But I decided to get an English saddle as well, in case my big saddle isn't conducive to the dressage work we are doing. I will use my trail saddle outside, as it has a way more secure seat and fit, but I will use the English saddle inside when we do more concentrated training. This will at least help with comfort.