Feel. That ever elusive concept of horsemanship. What IS feel ? Day to day, for me, it’s basically the mutual awareness that happens between horse and human. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, feel is being tuned in each other. Simple as that. But today, I saw another aspect of feel.
What happened during today’s ride is that we did the same thing, in the same place, with the same characters (my horse, me) and yet it FELT entirely different. How’s that ? You may remember that Dandy has showed continuous concern at some places in the arena. Heck, he’s shown recurring worry at **crossing the darn courtyard between his paddock and the barn** ! It’s nothing new he’s a SUPER sensitive type of horse. 2 yrs old to boot. With a pretty bloody oversensitive rider (ME). Before you roll your eyes and think “Well of course he’s gonna spook if you’re scared yourself”, let me get myself some credit (not a thing I overuse at all, trust me). Yes I am sensitive, but anyone who’s seen me ride or work horses on the ground can tell you I tend to stay cucumber cool in most circumstances. I may be high strung *inside*, I’m very laid back and chilled on the outside. Trouble is, it’s hard to lie to a horse, especially you don’t even realize you do. I suppose a duller, thicker minded, type of rider may be more suited to this colt (… or not, who knows). Anyway, what I’ve been doing the last time I rode him, last week, was a departure from what we’d done in a while. I just did some very basic “pre-flight” checks on the ground (namely sending around me, yielding the hindquarters, yielding the shoulders, backing-up softly and flexing laterally), and then just got on. A few more lateral flexions each way, then I clucked him to move. My split reins (nice leather, took me a good while to find exactly the kind I wanted) are 8.6ft long (2,65m), and I held them really lose and just hanging low with *zero* contact, so the horse was totally free to go where he pleased and put his head exactly where he wanted. So immediately as I cued him to walk, he started approaching just about all the various objects gathered near the sliding door to the barn, and checking them out thoroughly. He checked the orange plastic cones we use to make patterns, he checked a mounting block, the large plastic poop bucket, ropes, tarps, even some remaining feathers of a long dead pigeon… In short, he inched from one potentially “scary” thing to the next and thoroughly smelled, sniffed, touched, pushed **everything** around. During that time I just sat quietly in the saddle, on what visually seemed to be half a horse (the front half was stretched down so much it had all but disappeared), absently stroking his mane and waiting for him to get mentally ready for more. There was quite a bit of blowing through the nose, meaning that anxiety and tension was being gradually released.
Soon, he was calmy walking back to the stuff he had looked at first, and started licking and chewing on it (that horse is a chewer !). That was my signal that he was “comfortable to the point of boredom” (as brilliantly coined by the great Stacy Westfall) so I clucked again to tell him to move out for good. When he didn’t react, I started bumping my legs on his flanks, not roughly of sharply, but rythmically, until he got mentally disrupted and took a step forward. As soon as he did, I stopped bumping. Took about 3-4 repetitions of this but he eventually got the message. Then, everytime he wanted to stop to check something over again, I’d bump lightly until he went. Soon, he was walking freely, and chosing his own direction, over the arena. Did he avoid the scary spots ? Yes, he did. He stayed at safe distance of the places that usually concern him, and would sometimes cast a glance in their direction. He was attracted to both gates in the arena. The one that scares him to death (because I’ve tried to make him work hard away from this gate, and let him rest near it, before), and the one we got out through when we hit the trail. He staid really stuck to the latter for a good while, and it took a much more energetic bumping (with some spur added) before he decided to abandon it (he made about 4 departures and going back to it in a sharp turn before letting go of the idea for good). Once the gates were taken care of, we jogged all around, with more air blowing, and head straight down, lips literally dragging in the sand… I asked for the lope and he hardly raised his head and I was cantering around on one half of a horse, the front end lost somewhere on the ground. You need to trust your horse a lot, especially when it’s super sensitive young colt who’s liable to spook and take off at any small thing, but having his head and neck entirely under his own control, I was confident he’d keep himself as far from the concerning areas as he needed to feel safe and comfortable. Indeed, apart from wanting to slow down (but I kept him in the lope a bit more, as respecting one given gait was the only thing I was imposing on that day), he grew more and more relaxed, and towards the end of the session he was slowly drifting towars the outter parts of the arena, nearing the scary spots, and only keeping them in check with his outside eye, but not turning his head or counter bending as he often has in the past. Once that was really good, I picked up the reins and walked on some collection for a short 10 minutes, then walked him a touch more and put him up.
On the next Tuesday (3 days later) he was seing the chiropractor, who worked on freeing a stuck pelvis and releasing a contracted topline. So the coming Saturday (yesterday) I went to fecth him from his paddock and work with him again. I have to say a word about the walk from the pastures to the arena/barn. Ever since was removed from his big field and transfered to a smaller paddock, he’s hated the 4 minute walk between his place and the barn. It goes through a vast courtyard flanked with various old farm buildings, heaps of machinery, miscelanous vehicles, some junk, the odd dog running around, a pair of penned pigs, you get the idea. His response to feeling uncomfortable crossing this place has always been dragging along. He’s hiding (poorly) his concern, seeming to walk on eggs and breathing a little hard. I’ve tried a lot otf approaches to that, changing the route slightly, stopping a lot and asking for lateral flexion or a yielding step of the hindquarters, etc. Yesterday he seemed to cross 4/5 of it way better than usual, and only got stuck towards the end. Without thinking of it, I pointed forward with one hand and urged him with my flag with the other, with much energy. He scooted forward, got scared of the house door and window that he was passing, leaned back in towards me, then thought better of crowing my space and just moved on straight… and relaxed. The 30 seconds remaining to the barn were stress and event free. When we entered the arena his favorite mare was circling at the lope. He remained focused and quiet, and aside from a (soft) nicked as she passed by close, he followed me calmly through one end of the arena to the other, back and froth, in straight lines (with very slow and careful turns in between, as per the chiro’s instructions on avoiding bend and circles). I had just parked and tied him along the rail for brushing and saddling when another lady came in with her gelding. Tension on the lead and a louder nicker, so I untied him and went to walk another few lines. By the time we turned around and returned to the rail to tie, the lady had gone out of the gate, heading for the trail. Prepping and tacking up was stress free. As I went to untie him and lead him up to the opposite fence for mounting (the chiro said mounting block, but I hate those and much prefer getting on off the rail), his mare friend’s rider had dismounted and was leading her back to the barn. She crossed in front of us, stopped about 5 yards later, camped her butt and started peeing in the most provocative manner. The rider and I exchanged a silent, but thoroughly amused glance, as Dandy was standing there, slightly hypnotized. I led him to the outter rail and he followed. Within three tries he had parked parallel and I eased in the saddle off the fence. I only had the time to get a few (very soft and easy) lateral flexions on both sides, and he was ready to go.
And that is when the difference started to show. From that very first step I knew I had a much more relaxed horse. Blowing air out while extending his neck and walking a nice swinging walk, wanting to stop only to check the wooden letter that weren’t there the last time, soon ready to trot. Also chosing, on his own accord, to go to the left when something as attracting him to (thanks Lady chiro !). Sure, the puddle of pee left by his girlfriend was pretty magnetic, but I said no to that with much leg bumping, and while he was annoyed not to be allowed to dwell on that, he lived with it. We trotted and loped pretty much all over, and the FELT almost entirely different about being there. The scary places weren’t half as scary anymore, and while he didn’t chose to follow the rail closely, he was traveling quite relaxed alongside the formely very concerning places, not even thinking about them. An interesting thing is that what wasn’t scary anymore also wasn’t interesting. I’m 100% convinced that fear and curiosity are two aspects of one and same thing, and stuff that scares him, if he doesn’t run away *from* it, he tends to strongly wants to go *to* it, and check it out at length. But yesterday the concerning corners and various frightening spots held very little interest. He cruised around most of the arena’surface, unconcerned. Sure, he did spooked one time at his girlfriend’s rider texting quietly behind a glassless window opening. Proving my theory, he was then adamant to stop and check for the next 3 or 4 laps that he went by. By even then his spook was minor and instantly turned from a jump aside to wanting to approach, touch the man with his nose, investigate, etc. However, that excellent session was interrupted and turned to crap when another horse stepped in. Dandy spotted him and I felt him raising up and making a beeline for the newcomer. In order not to run into him face first, I was forced to take some lateral action and I spent the next 5 minutes cursing as I was bumping my legs annoyingly as long as he kept returning towards that horse. He let go after that, keeping his distance to avoid the bumping, but still focused that way. We walked a bit more, did a handful of stops/back-ups, then I dismounted and brought him back inside the barn to unsaddle him in the cross-ties.
I like his very soft expression on all the pics from this session
There, something else quite interesting happened. There was some activity in the barn. Two girls were grooming a horse at the far end, and folks were starting to bring the turned out horses back in for the night. At first Dandy was very antsy in the ties (he tends to not be comfortable in them, by default, though he has his good moments, but that’s far from his favorite thing), he even got downright worried as I left to pick up some stuff in the arena, but I chose to ignore his fright and just go about unsaddling him and doing all mundane stuff like brushing/braiding his tail, undoing his mane braids, removing his polos, etc. Something really interesting happened. He’d tense up, raise his head, look worried, then a few seconds later lower his neck and chew/lick his lips. The cycle repeated maybe 3-4 times, after which he seemed to relax. A bit later he started pawing, I ignored that, and it went away and he went back to quiet. I liked to see that he has developped some sort of auto-soothing coping skills, that is very promising for how he’s maturing, mentally. I won’t be able to visit him until next week, hoping that nice, relax trend, will continue then. Until that, stay tuned 😉