Finding the “child within” when we work with our horse!
Spring is in the air, most riding enthusiasts are getting giddy with thoughts of relaxed (and warm) days spent with their equine partner. Many riders who are “gung ho” to learn and improve their education, understanding and abilities can unknowingly have an “intense” energy as they are focusing with their horse. And although we want to be mentally participative riders, we need to remind ourselves that the underlining issue should be that we are riding to have FUN. I jokingly tell adult students to take the time to “act like a kid again” once in a while when they ride. I am referring to the sometimes overly analytical, overly sensitive, overly intensive behavior many of us take on as adults when we focus. This behavior tends to lack a positive and supportive leadership energy that conveys to our horse that we are really having “fun” even if we are “working”. So the more tight and tense we get as we attempt to focus, the more the horse starts to wonder why and starts to associate a “stress” every time we put him to “work.”
On that note, perhaps the next time you’re sitting in traffic or have some time on your hands, you can assign you and your horse some games or tasks for your next ride that might be similar to what a child might suggest to do for “fun.” Take Pico and me for example. The other day I had intention to ride out into the orange groves, but of course “life happened” and by the time I got to him, I had very little time, it was already close to 90 degrees out and I couldn’t leave the property, sooo…
As I looked around the riding area, I glanced at the plywood bridge we’d built; it occurred to me that although I could ask Pico to step with one, two, three or all four feet on the bridge, pause him stepping up, standing on or stepping down off of it, I’d never asked him to step up onto an object as he was BACKING. (I gather most sensible adults wouldn’t either, but can imagine a few kids sitting around saying to one another, “I wonder if we just tried to see if I could get my horse to do ___________________ .” And then proceeded, unhindered by all the unknown and what-ifs , so that in the end they were actually able to accomplish ______________ with their horse.
From a “mature” perspective, why on earth would I ask my horse to step up onto something while backing? How about if there was an emergency situation (out on the trail, etc.), or helping desensitize him to movement behind his vision and to being physically “touched” in his personal space, using it as an opportunity to continue to build trust, it also creates a “task” to accomplish while I refine my use of clear communication, etc.
As a side note, although I want to be “carefree” in offering this new task, I did not want to present the scenario as a challenge to Pico to “see” if he could get “it” right. So before presenting a task such as stepping up backwards, I needed to have pre-established tools and clear communicative that I could effectively use as aids to tell Pico exactly what I wanted, even if we had never done the task before.
So I started from standing on the ground with Pico in a halter and using a lead rope to create first boundaries of where I wanted him to stand. Then I asked him to be able to lightly shift his weight backwards, and of course that is when he felt the bridge against his rear legs. I had to allow him to use braille like behavior with his hind legs to get used to edge and height of the bridge.
Pico wanted to explore his options- swinging out sideways, pushing into my personal space rather than hovering near the bridge, etc. Most horses will try everything EXCEPT what you’d like them to do. As mentioned in other blogs, the game of “hot and cold” was presented. Each time he got “closer, softer or lighter in his response to my aid, I let him stand and rest for a moment so mentally he could start to associate where I wanted him. After he kept finding the ideal spot I want him in, then he started picking a rear foot up in the air. This was an awesome effort on his part, even if he wasn’t standing on the bridge yet. He would lift a rear leg, gently draw it forward, backwards, out to the side, but couldn’t fathom actually “reaching” backwards with it. Finally I was able to shift his weight while his hind foot was in the air, and then as I relaxed the pressure of my hand on the lead rope, he relaxed his foot and placed it gently down on the bridge. Breathe, sigh, lick, chew. Blew his nose. Blew again. Dropped his head down towards the ground and took another big breath.
Quietly, we walked away from the bridge and I spent a few minutes picking weeds (literally) so that he had some time to sort out what had just happened. The second time I lined him up and after just a few tries of other options, offered his hind foot slowly to step up. Again, we went and picked weeds. He continued to blow his nose.
Even though in all his searching he never once “blew up”, got aggressive, or acted stressed, but it was a LOT to ask his brain and emotions to address. REMEMBER to give your horse an acknowledgement and or break when they get “it” right.
Then I hopped on him bareback, in the halter, lined him up, and asked him to step backwards and up. Light, soft, smooth. Awesome.
The one thing I will mention when playing games with your horse is not to do so in a manner that will create anticipation in him, causing him to “go through the motions” rather than really addressing what you are offering. Otherwise, you’ll think that your horse is being “good”, and your horse is really just trying to “hurry up and get it done.” Too many trick horses can do “all the tricks”, but if you change up the order or try and interfere, they horse can’t handle the change in routine. When I teach a horse to stand on something, bow, lie down, line up to an object, pick me up off the fence, back into pressure, none of it should seem like a “trained” response.