Tune Up Day 3: Hot and Cold

Day 3:

Today I ponied O for a total of about four minutes; I asked her to step over a bridge and a log on her own.  The timing of her turns and gaits were much lighter and she was completely attentive from the start, so I didn’t have to work a lot to get her brain focused.

Today as I continued increasing (slightly) the intensity and timing of what I asked her to do, she hit a few “walls.”  Meaning in response to what I was asking she either wanted to get draggy (thinking about what was behind her rather than in front,) or physically lock up her shoulder, neck or hock if she wasn’t sure or was feeling resistant towards what I was asking.  These behaviors are common in all horses, but with young horses when these sorts of behaviors first appear, because they don’t “seem like a big deal” they tend to be ignored.  To me, when they first appear, it is a great opportunity to help the horse narrow down her options of what behaviors are acceptable and those that are not.

People need to remember that when a horse is trying something, they are not trying to “psyche” out their ride, but rather there are searching for boundaries.  Living within a herd, the leader of the herd will always clearly define what is acceptable behavior and that which is not; the same theory should apply for us humans towards the horses when we work with them.   Too many times a horse will ask the rider, “Will this work? Or how about this?” and instead of directly addressing the horse, we get distracted by attempting to categorize their behavior as “good” or “bad” instead of recognizing that the horse is trying to understand what we want. 

So in the case of asking for a transition, and O gently leaking to the outside as she offered the transition,  I used the rein opposite from the direction she wanted to go, in a direct manner, to ask her to not leak out.  Her response was to get heavier on the leaking shoulder.  So I needed to remove the option of her continuing to “move forward”.  I then needed to reinforce that my leg on her leaking-out side was a “boundary” rather than something to lean on.  Once those two points were made, she realized her only option left was to “follow the feel” of my direct rein. 

Think of sometimes working with a horse similar to the game of “hot and cold” you may have played as a child where someone has to guess an object.  Let us imagine I have something in mind that I’d like a horse to do.  As she tries an option and is getting “colder” or is not making progress towards what I’d like, I then make those efforts uncomfortable.  But as she tries an option and is getting “warmer,” my aids get softer and I get very “quiet” in the saddle.  This encourages her to want to keep searching for that “warmer” spot.  This type of thinking allows the horse to “make her own” decision about participating, rather than me never letting her make any choices for herself.  When she does offer a “colder” effort, I don’t critique her; I just show her that isn’t what I’d like.

The all too common “leaking out” is a great example of where a rider for multiple reasons and misunderstandings, could either try to “smooth over” the unwanted drifting, or become overly critical towards the horse with an over active aid in response to the unwanted behavior.  Too many times a rider will critique their horse, but they will never actually present a way to help the horse understand HOW to achieve or offer the desired response.  I try to remind people that instead of saying, “bad horse,” or “don’t do that,” communicate with your aids a positive response such as “try this instead.”

Again put it into people terms, if you were trying to learn something and your instructor just kept telling you “no,” but never offered HOW to do or understand something, the chances of you figuring it out or learning would be very little and your attitude towards learning would start to become resentful.  The same goes for the horses.

This is how people take the curiosity out of their young horse.  Many times youngsters are very happy to learn and participate, but it tends to be a combination of the lack of clear communication, recognition and respect from a human that creates the shut-down, mentally unavailable horse.

So as the ride progressed O become more respectful to the “walls” I created with my aids, and more open minded to each aid I offered when I communicated “the plan” of where I wanted her to move.  Due to this clarity she was able to become more relaxed throughout the ride, because my aids were clear, consistent and fair when applied.  She could believe that when I said “we are riding to Point A,” we were REALLY riding ALL the way to Point A.  By her not having to question everything I offered, she could “quiet” emotionally and therefor physically relax because mentally she could understand what her “job” was.

She let down more and more by blowing, chewing, licking her lips, etc.  This is a good time to mention that even if your horse doesn’t look or feel physically stressed, they still can be carrying a bit of worry inside of them.  Make sure you don’t accidentally misinterpret a “calm” appearance as “feeling good.”  Rather than just focusing on the overall horse, assess things like the consistency in which they breathe, the size and balance of their steps, how they carry their tail, worry peaks above their eyes, fussiness with the bit, wrinkles in their bottom lip, etc. which can all appear in seemingly “quiet” horses and are actually indications that on the inside the horse may not be feeling as “warm and fuzzy” as they look on the outside.

O’s owner had watched the session and as she and I discussed what she had seen, ideas for her other horse, etc. it was a great opportunity for O to just stand, which she did fine for the first three minutes.  With many young horses people get so excited to finally get to ride them that they tend to focus on the “go” but don’t spend a lot of time practicing the “whoa.”  When I drop my reins I want my horse to drop its head and relax, whether for a one minute or twenty.  I don’t want to have to feel like I need to “hold” my horse still. 

So after O felt like we had stood long enough, she started trying her options.  “What if I took a few steps to left?”  “How about a few steps to the right?”  “Could I back up a step or two?”  “How about if I just turn on the forehand?”  You get the idea.  I addressed each thing she presented  the same as I approached the previous unwanted behavior of leaking out,  and eventually she narrowed down her options to conclude that “just standing” while the reins lay drooped across her neck was what she’d like to do.  It was about two minutes after she’d started standing again, that she blew her nose, and then blew again and again.  This was a great example of the sometimes “delayed” emotional relaxation and let down a horse can have, but humans might miss if they try to rush their horse into “feeling good.”

Looking forward to tomorrow,


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