Dandy’s been with me roughly a year, and has changed enormously during that time. Our bond runs very deep, the mutual trust is big and lets us conquer just about all we undertake. I had my kid make a little video of us schooling at the trot the other day. The vid was rather awkward and jerky due to the 8 yr old camera-girl, but overall I thought the colt looked pretty well balanced and soft, and was rather self-satisfied with it. Then I emailed a trainer whose newslater I’ve been reading for some years, kinda just to test how “real” the guy is (as in “will he answer real life questions with anything but selling equipment ?”). I sent a very simple question about picking the colt’s shoulders up, and the relevance of maybe a different bit (I admit I was setting him up there, as the man does offer tack for sale, saddles, bits, a few gadgets like martingales, etc). Along with my email, I sent the link to that little video. Now if I want to be perfectly honest, I feel a little ashamed as I realize I was somwhat smug about it. When I spotted his answer in my inbox shortly after, I was already sort of patting myself on the back, anticipating some praise about how good my colt looks working, for his age… God/life (always useful to have an alternative for the skeptics among us) has a funny way of kicking you in the shins when you’re starting to sin by pride, and I admit it was well deserved. To my surprise, here’s the guy answer (he started by mispelling my name and patronizing me about how to shoot a decent clip, but that’s beside the point).
He wrote : “Just looks to me like a horse who isn’t used to doing anything other than trotting along. Start doing sharp turns, stops and rollbacks and his head will naturally come up and he’ll carry himself better.As for the bit, as long as he stays light, no need to go to a thinner one.”
OUCH. I’m getting better though. Really. Actually my own reaction even surprised me. I didn’t think “what a jerk”, or anything along that line. I sat there for a minute, feeling the sting sharply on my ego. But already at the back of my brain was the thought “he’s right. It’s extremely blunt and my feelings could be (are) hurt, however he’s absolutely right”. What have I done with this horse so far ? Well, a hell of a good job when it comes to proving him that humans are good and reliable, safe and to be trusted. However, from a variety point of view, or recent schooling has been repetitive, underwhelming and totally lacking in ambition. I’ve been focusing on getting the colt “looking” good, meaning moving in a certain (sometimes false) frame, rather than aiming for true performance and expension.
I kinda of suspected it, but every day that passes confirms the fact that getting older *does* have its upsides. Namely, we’re less stupid at 40 than we were at 20, at least it should work like that. So I spent no time feeling sorry for that brutal opinion, I just got motivated to turn it around. Yesterday I went to see Dandy and hopped on with the intention to do something fresh, different, and useful. After a short warm up I started working on the stop. I mean, a sharp one. I trotted the colt along the “fence” (just a very thin white rope) that runs around our tiny grassy arena), and when he was giving good energy and feeling connected, I’d say whoa, and then would turn him into the fence and ask him to roll into the opposite direction at the trot. That very soon got his interest, even got him a little edgy, but globally he did pretty well. When he did I change things and loped him around on a lose rein for relaxation, then picked up the stop/roll-back exercise again. Soon we were going along the fence at the lope. At which point I felt for him with the reins, said whoa…. and he ran right through my hands. Two years ago I had a similar experience with my previous boy, Joli. I remember getting extremely upset, the whole thing turning absolutely ugly, and going back home in tears and feeling rotten for days. I had failed my horse ! OMG, I had actually gotten mad, pulled on his face out of anger, kicked him in the gut and gotten no progress whatsoever. He had finished the session wary and defensive, and it took weeks to get him to soften to the bit again. BAD. BAD. Horrible all the way around. Yesterday none of that happened. The first time Dandy ran through my hands, I just turned him around the next stride (struggling some as he was really set on keeping on loping straight), asked him for another stop. He did some half assed halt, I turned him around, he took off with no intention to stop anytime soon. Said whoa and opened my legs, he kept on hammering forward, totally mentally disconnected from me. Was hell going to break lose ? Had I failed again ? The huge difference this time was *my approach* to the whole thing. This time I absolutely did not mad or sad or upset about it. I remained totally cool and factual. I just set my hands very solid, got him stopped (he literally ran into the bit), held until he started tucking his chin (which took several seconds) and kicked him in the gut pretty hard until he was backing up. FAST. Once he did I threw the reins down and stopped my leg. And let him stand there, panting, thinking. I stroke his mane (that means “all is well”). Then I thought for a second about the next thing to do. I put him forward at a slower trot, got him soft, said whoa. He stopped dead in his tracks and softened immediately into a back-up. I immediately dropped the reins. I got another similarly instant stop and back-up from another trot. Then I let him stand for about a minute, and walked off to the opposite side of the arena where we worked on steering off my legs at the trot, then lope, with zero pressure on his face. Then we trotted and loped some circles looking for softness and some collection (frame). Then we went back to working at the stop and back-up, and guess what that was vastly improved with a horse understanding and complying. I decided to make a short from the saddle that shows him loping around for a full lap, with dangling reins, then stopping off voice and legs and backing up. You can see it HERE. That was so good that after it we took a break, then just played with some spins for a minute (very little pressure, just him getting the idea of moving off the leg), and finally strolled over the whole arena. I dismounted and played with the “head down” cue we’d been practicing some days before. I snapped some pics. He stayed absolutely put and relaxed the whole time.
That gorgeous butt
Followed me around totally soft and relaxed, went to untack, and put him back in his pasture with his buddies. Did the whole session looks perfect and smooth and a blazing success ? Hell, no ! Were there a few seconds of pulling and resisting and kicking and me clearly meaning “that’s not it, buddy” ? Sure, yes. But there was NO anger or frustration involved, and none of the “correcting” I did was meant to release any resentment, because I felt none. He’d made a mistake. Probably because I’d made some, prior. Not being clear enough in my request maybe, or timing off, bad cue, or all of the above. But rather than wasting any time feeling sorry over it we just went right back to work and made it right. I think the brilliance of the “horsemanship” approach is to allow the horse to feel safe enough to experiment and, yes, make mistakes. But we have to extend this tolerance to ourselves ! And we (I) also have to stop wanting every darn second to look pretty or picture worthy, because that’s not what real life is. Life is about prettiness *and* ugliness. Yes, try to keep the latter to a minimum, but it is sometimes necessary to reaching the former. Because my discipline of choice as an equistrian is one that is plagued with abuse (reining), I think I have become a little paranoid about not physically imposing things on a horse, and focusing on “changing their thought”. But the naked truth is that when you work mainly with negative reinforcement, as I do, sometimes it takes a pretty strong degree of applying a stimulus before it gets them to change their idea and pick yours. This horse has been historically difficult to bend at the rib cage. A few days ago I decided I meant it, even if that involved some pulling on the face and kicking a bit harder in the ribs. Guess what, the very same day I cowboyed up about it I got nice and consistent yields. I had just happened to be ineffective before. I think the crux of horsemanship is to navigate the fine line between empathy and effectiveness. Yes feel and fairness are absolutely crucial. But to be fair to the horse AND yourself, you have to be effective. And sometimes it takes a bit more than you’d like to reach a change. And that, as most things in this walk of life, is more about working on ourselves than working on the horse 😉