Tune Up Day 1: Revisiting the basics…
The young mare I will be working with, let’s call her “O”, is definitely a light-switch sort of horse. When she feels good about life, it is super clear with her puppy dog relaxed demeanor, and when she is concerned about something, she wears her emotions on the surface, so you cannot ignore her stress, fear, worry, etc. She is an incredibly athletic horse who is still literally growing into her body, with super long gangly legs, and yet her flying changes, sliding stops and roll backs in the pasture are graceful…
When I started her last winter I treated her as if she knew nothing because although she had experiences with humans, had traveled across the country, etc. she had no real trust or respect towards people…
When I initially worked wither her, she thought the goal was to try and tolerate or “get by” with what I presented and then focus on everything except what we were doing, which physically looks like a horse that has to constantly, move, flee, spook, “act big”, and so forth. As you would watch her move, her body looked like it was trying to go in four different directions at once.
Instead of trying to micromanage her body, I instead focused on her brain with the goal being to slow down and mentally address what I was presenting, AND THEN physically respond to it… I spent a long time on the ground with her as I didn’t want to “sneak by” with anything I offered or asked of her… By the time she left she’d ground tie, drag logs, ponied, line up (at liberty) at the mounting block so I could get on, walk on tarps, be bathed, trailer load, etc., all things that had originally been mind-blowing concepts when I’d started working with her.
I found I had to be really careful with what I presented as she is very smart and could quickly learn a routine or pattern, even just the time of day of working her, where I saddled her, etc. So I’d constantly change things up so that she had to stay mentally present and participate every moment of every session, rather than go through the motions because she knew what to expect.
So this time in working with her, you could see that the six months had helped her brain slightly settle… Overall she acted a bit more confident, and did a lot more thinking rather than reacting when on her in the pasture. I saddled up Pico excited to give him a “job” and saddled up O and then I ponied her.
I’d like to take a moment to explain that ponying a horse is NOT brainlessly dragging a second horse around as you are riding a different one, (though that may have been most examples of ponying that you have seen.) I always say whatever I’d ask of a horse from their back I should be able to first achieve from the ground, the same goes for ponying. When I pony a horse it is a mental exercise; can they literally look at a designated spot without having to move their entire body, can they shift their weight lightly and softly forward, backwards, sideways, etc. When the ridden horse increases or decreases his energy, so too should the ponied horse. I should be able to pony the horse off of either side of the ridden horse. I should be able to “send away” or “draw back” the ponied horse. I should be able to line up the horses parallel, but nose to tail, and touch the ponied horse from above and all over her body. As I ride my horse towards or away from the ponied horse she should be able to maintain a spatially respectful distance without ever rushing ahead of or dragging behind the ridden horse. So I worked on all of these things with O, assessing how light I could get her response to my subtle aids through use of the horse I was riding and the lead rope I held. (NEVER tie a ponied horse off to your saddle.)
I had made huge puddles in the ridding area and after I reviewed her mental and physical participation ponying, I asked O to follow (but stay spatially respectful) Pico and I through the puddles, and then eventually I sent her back and forth through them on her own.
Then I tied her (still tacked up) and let her stand for about 20 minutes while I finished working Pico. As another opportunity and “job” for Pico, I tied O while I was still mounted on Pico’s back, so each horse had to accept getting into each other’s space, and then line up basically touching shoulder to shoulder to be close enough so that I could reach the hitching post and tie a knot.
Again, as I left O standing, I kept an eye on her… If she’d started pacing, pawing, etc. I’d come back and “interrupt” her. To me, standing quietly tied should not be a “brainless” exercise, but a relaxed moment. Too many times I find insecure horses can completely psych themselves out when left alone tied and can work themselves into a fit rather than learn to be okay when tied.
After I put up Pico, I took O to the round pen to review quality transitions within and between each gait. She was happy, light, quick in her response and respectful of my space, so our session lasted about 2 ½ minutes. Yeah, really. I find all too often people can round pen their horses until the horse gets driven nuts by going round and round. The pen should be a tool, not a crutch.
The next few things I presented were an assessment and foresight into what O’s current response to physical pressure. If a horse is “heavy” or leaning on the bit, trying to push through it, or otherwise resistant when worked from the ground, they will only get heavier and more resistant when asked the same thing from a rider in the saddle.
I asked O using one rein to either follow my “feel” or yield to pressure and to move a specific number of steps forwards, backwards, to shift her weight, step right or left with either her front or hind end. I flapped my stirrup leathers against the saddle to make a “popping” sound, etc. Then I climbed up the mounting block and O lined herself up. I fussed and fidgeted being “busy” (without holding her still) to make sure she was committed to standing quietly and relaxed. Then I grabbed the saddle with one hand at the front and one on the rear and slowly pushed away from me and then “dragged” the saddle back towards me. This often will help a horse shift their weight so that they are standing balanced before you mount, which helps prevent them from having to “walk off” to maintain balance as you get on.
So by the time I mounted O was on the verge of being unimpressed! We sat for a minute, and then again I asked her to look left and right (don’t think “flexing”) and then I asked her to look and move. Rarely do I ride a young horse “straight” as it allows time for their brain to get ahead of their body, so we did lots of turns, circles, increase and decreasing of the energy, standing, etc. Then I dismounted. Again, a lot of the frequent dismounting and re-mounting is to keep her brain flexible. Too many horses “head home” or think that once the rider dismounts the ride is over…They need to stay flexible and reasonable no matter what we present.
I walked out to the open infield and again climbed on the mounting block but stopped to pick weeds (another great opportunities to do chores and allow the horse to “be with me” without having to direct her, then I asked her to line up and I climbed on. We did a little of what we’d done in the round pen, this time using the distraction of the nearby stalled horses as a positive opportunity to keep O’s brain with me. It was also a great way to keep her energy with mine; of course as you’re leaving the stalled horses the ridden horse usually wants to slow and as you ride towards the barn your horse will want to speed up. It was also when you feel that “drunken sailor” with a horse wiggling because of a mental indecisiveness as to “where” they are being ridden to.
My goal was that O’s brain stayed with me, she was reasonable when corrected if she didn’t respond exactly as I’d asked, and that she was able to stay relaxed as the ride progressed. Too many times a horse can start out “okay” but lose confidence as a ride continues. Even though we weren’t “going” anywhere, I had to ride with intention. If I didn’t present a clear, ever changing plan to the horse, her brain would have checked out in 30 seconds or less.
To finish the ride I presented the water puddles, with a clear visual in my mind of exactly where I wanted O to place her feet. By being definitive ahead of time, the timing of my response in addressing what she offered was fast (such as gently trying to leak out one direction or the other) and therefor she could quickly narrow down here options of what “path” would work, until she too soon “saw” the path I wanted her to take. We splashed around a bit, every time she’d offer a quiet try and walk nicely through the puddles, I’d let her take a “break” on dry ground. Again, this was not about the act of crossing water, but rather O’s mental availability to address what I presented and to participate in a reasonable manner.
Throughout the session O relaxed more and more, licking, chewing, blowing her nose, with her neck stretched out nicely (but not dragging her nose in the dirt as if she were avoiding “life.”) When I was finished I ground tied her as I untacked and then ran a hose over her. She is still defensive about “kicking” at the water splashing on her hind legs, so I would keep the water spraying on them until she’d quit kicking; as soon as she stood quietly I’d removed the “pressure” of the water to acknowledge her effort of stand still.
It is these sorts of experiences that “make it all worth it” when working with youngsters… I look forward to tomorrow…