Cross Training with our Horses to Improve the Partnership

I remember reading a book early in my riding career about folks who did not adhere to the "norms" or what a riding/training session had been historically defined as.

It was one of those things that I didn't realize how much it would influence me until much later, ironically when riding on remote ranches. It was only then I began realizing how many different "jobs" you had to do in one "session" with a horse, frequently due to circumstances out of your control. Such as while checking the water at the ponds, realizing the calves had found a hole in the fence and were now out exploring, so the initial ride evolved into a 2-mile detour and several hour adventure to get all the critters back to where they belonged.

Back to the book, I remember reading about young Dressage prospects being hacked outside the arena and presented with a few "random" low-level cross-country jumps, then returning to the Dressage arena to finish schooling. 

Unfortunately, though many trainers I worked with always talked about a horse being versatile, I rarely actually saw it first hand.

Fast forward to present day, and everything I do whether starting colts, re-educating older horses or finishing competition horses, I'm all about teaching the horse's brain and body to be adaptable.

This translates into any given "training" session with a horse we may "roam" the property doing a variety of seemingly practical scenarios. It really is a non-intensive, but clear and specific way to help horses learn and build confidence.

Take today... I worked with a mare who had miles of riding but lacked confidence. I started with her practicing standing tied while saddled, out of view of the activity going on elsewhere.

I worked a short session with another youngster, then came back to the tied mare. Taking her with me, I dragged hoses around with her "supporting me" while I adjusted sprinklers. This allowed me time to assess where her brain was and do our "groundwork" refining the quality of our conversation during the few minutes of me making water adjustments.

Then we found a fenceline where I climbed upon and asked her to line herself up, one step at a time, in a thoughtful (not obedient) manner. This allowed her to commit to mentally and physically commit to presenting herself to me mounting.

We then rode off practicing taking her brain and body in a soft manner away from the other horses while we inspected gopher holes at the opposite end of the property. We had lots of conversations about how much I needed her to immediately let go of her thoughts when they started drifting back to the barn and involved addressing her counteroffer of locking up in a mental and physical brace (though still moving forward) was not going to work, but that soft turns, increasing and decreasing her energy and halts all allowed her to diffuse anticipation, and breathe, blow her nose, and finally stand quietly.

We worked on transitions as we went to go check on the orphaned fawn across the other side of the property, again helping her realize even though we had the intention of moving somewhere specific, her brain needed to stay with her body and check in with what I was asking.

After that, we practiced heading towards the barn area while refining her interpretation of lateral movement without having defensiveness, tension or flee movement.

On the way, we happen to stop and go through a pool noodle obstacle, in between a tight "squeeze" of jumps, and through a narrow opening of barrels. We then inspected the new 2' step-up from the trunk of a cut tree, practicing looking, thinking and trying to touch it with one front foot.

From there we headed over to a young horse that had been tied all the while, and from the saddle, I had to line up with the fenceline so I could lean off and untie the other horse.

Then we worked on being a supportive lead-pony horse, while not engaging in the ponied horse's behavior, and also not "taking over" from what I'd present. We worked on turns, transitions, etc. before heading into the barn area and had to refine her interpretation of when the session was done, as she gently increased her energy while being in the "scary" area next to the old wood barn and corrals with other horses in them, while the cats randomly popped out and the old dogs belligerently barged into her personal space.

Was the ride about any of the tasks or locations we rode? Not at all. It was about the conversation. The mare learning to hear the human, try for the human, believe the human would offer support and in turn willingly participate without tolerance, but rather curiosity.

In the end, I tied her again in another spot on the property, where she could watch other activities, and then eventually turned her out in the field. She went to gently walk off as the halter dropped, and I'd started walking opposite from her, when she stopped, looked at me, and offered to come back over and follow me as we picked weeds.

That last try, the final offer, again not out of obedience, but rather interest is what changes everything in how the horse interacts with the human, eventually leading to the ideal partnership.

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