Nurturing The Worry
Hey Ross, Well the rain has stopped for a while and Jess and myself finally got our for a ride today.. We were riding in the pines and as usual people mistake our lovely forest for the tip and dump heaps or rubbish on the sides of the track and as usual the horses think this rubbish has eaten several horses previously and are not going anywhere near that stuff.
As per usual we started to walk the horses tentatively up to the scary things reassuring them and patting them and telling them that it is ok. I wondered if our behaviour was nurturing the worry they had in these things and confirming that they should be worried. So the next pile of crap came along and I felt her start to tense up shorten her stride and get all hollow, so I just worked on her walk, I wanted the nice walk I just had and kept working on that. So before we got to close to the scary things she didn't get as hollow and tense as the time before, and got a bit better the next pile. We spend a lot of time reassuring our horses, but are we inadvertently nurturing the worry?
Kind Regards Kerryn
You are right that we are sometimes guilty of enabling the type of behaviour you describe. It's easy for a horse to show a little concern over something new even though it maybe a minor thing. This is the point when we can either help a horse gain more confidence or reinforce the notion that he has good reason to be worried.
There are times when we need to reassure a horse that he will survive and take the time to get him less worried. And there are times when the best help you can give a horse is to tell him to get over it and move on to push past the worry spot.
The question most people struggle with is to know when to push a horse through the trouble and when to back off and let the horse sort it out. As a general rule (not a golden rule) I have found that if a horse is genuinely worried about something and truly feels his safety is in jeopardy, that is the time to let the horse work out the problem for himself. There is always a line where the horse will go no closer without losing the plot. Don't ask him to go past that line. Give him time to try it for himself. If you try to push a horse over that line before he is ready you risk triggering a dangerous behaviour such as rearing, bolting or bucking.
How do you know if your horse is truly scared or not? In the case of most horses, if they are genuinely frightened of an object, other things will not distract them. They will become focused on the scary object. But if the horse perceives the object is not life threatening, they tend to stare and snort at it for a little while and then look at something else that draws their attention for a few seconds. Then back to the scary object and then have their attention moved to something like a bird in a tree or another horse calling or whatever. You often find the horse gets more focused on the object when you try to push him forward and then lose that focus when you stop pushing.
In cases like this, I will often push a horse past the worry spot. I don't care if he scoots around the object in a wide arc. I just ride forward as if nothing was there and I didn't even notice the horse being crooked. You have to ride with confidence.
A really common example of where this happens a lot is in the arena. Almost every arena has a scary spot. Often it's in a corner where there are bushes or shed or something. No matter how many times a horse has been in the arena they will shy at that spot the first couple of laps of every ride. In this sort of case, just ride past it - push the horse on if he tries to stop or slow down.
But you have to be careful. There is always the possibility that a horse can flip from being only slightly worried to really scared in a flash and before you know it you're riding a horse with it's front feet off the ground.
I think the biggest thing is to exude confidence in what you are asking of your horse. If you ride timidly, it can only confirm to the horse that he can't trust you because your intent is not clear. When I've taught riders jumping and it was almost always the nervous ones who rode horses that stopped in front of the jumps.
A Horse On The Edge
Well, I am back for round two if you are up for it! Thank you very much for your previous advice regarding the float loading. I moved my mare to a new agistment facility a couple of weeks ago, and float loaded her using your advice (of being consistent in my communication and insisting that she engage in a civil conversation about the float). It was the best she has ever loaded and traveled, so I was very pleased. Once I had her attention, and had made it clear that I expected her to engage in some sort of communication over the problem, she seemed to just relax and offered to walk in on her own. It felt really good.
I have been taking things steadily at the new facility, but I have ridden her a couple of times, and have come up against similar issues to what I had had at the old facility. It appears that she is not yet settled in to thinking that this is home, and wants to head back in the general direction of the old property. I took her on a quiet trail ride with some others on the weekend, and she was really very good until we got to the turn around point so that we were no longer heading away from the paddock (which happened to be in the direction of her old place). She stopped, tried a few small rears, bit at my leg and foot, and backed me into the bushes a couple of times. When she went up I gave the rein so as not to pull her over (she will go higher if pushed), and when she got all four feet back on the ground I just stayed with the initial pressure I had on the rein to ask her to walk up the track. When she tried to bite me I just kicked my foot up and down. After a little time she relaxed and offered to walk off in the direction I was offering of her own accord. I felt that this was an improvement on past episodes.
This morning I took her for a walk around the property, and decided I might like to see if she would walk into the undercover arena. She was clearly tense about the idea, so I just waited and kept bringing her attention back to the problem. She backed up, reared, span, turned, and generally snaked herself around in any way possible to avoid having to confront the arena. I felt as though I did a good job in quietly persisting, without pushing, to bring her back each time and continue the conversation. Finally I got her to take some steps towards the arena but she then wanted to dart off away and back to the paddock. At this point I couldn't get her attention back, and decided to hop off. I led her into the undercover arena with no problem (she is extremely good with my leadership from the ground), and remounted. We did some stops and turns in the arena and everything felt good. I walked her out the other side of the arena (it is unfenced), and headed off down the track back to her paddock. She was very soft and connected at that time. I tested her stop, reinback, and left and right reins along the way and she offered no resistance.
So, my dilemma is should I persist in trying to work through these issues in the saddle, or are there exercises on the ground that I can use to assist? My difficulty in knowing what to do here results from a few things.
I really appreciate your help.
Thanks and regards,
I'm not sure I have any answers for you. The problem is that because I have not seen you and your horse first hand I am not sure if your problems stem from your horse being truly worried about the situations you put her in OR she is not so worried, but more unsure that you have earned the right to lead this partnership. In other words, are her ideas not to head home and not enter the covered arena derived from genuine fear for her life or a determined and strong will mind. From what you write I get a sense it is more of the latter - that she is not convinced that your ideas are better than her ideas and she is not going to listen. But I would hate to be wrong because my advice for either case would be very different and if I was wrong my advice could get you into trouble.
Nevertheless, I think you have to get smarter. Clearly the fact that she will rear if pushed is a worry for you - so don't go there. But equally I would be careful not to acquiesce to her demands. I think there can be a middle road - a smarter road - a less confrontational road. A thought that you might consider is to out wait your mare. For example, if she won't walk into the covered arena, take her as close as she will go without an argument and wait. Do nothing except keep her pointing towards the arena entrance. If she looks off in the distance, point her back towards the arena. If she backs up, do nothing but keep her pointing towards the arena. If she goes to wander away, point her back to the arena. If she tries to lay down, stop her from doing that with your heels and point her to the arena entrance. All you are doing is telling her that she has no job except to keep looking towards the arena. Don't ask her to go forward or not back up - just point her to the arena. At some point between 2 minutes and 2 weeks she will walk forward. Allow it and sit quietly. When she stops do nothing except keep her pointed towards the arena. It's so important that you keep her straight and you interrupt her when she looks away or tries to move away. Keep this up until she walk into the arena or as close as you think she can get that day. Honestly, it could take a few minutes or a few hours - you have to be prepared to sit there for a very long time. The second time you do it will take half as long and the third time will be so much faster.
Now I'm not suggesting that this is what I would do in your case because I don't know your horse. If I was sitting on her I might feel something very different and decide a totally opposite approach - I don't know. But I just want to give you some thoughts on how things could be done very differently. How you could work smarter without getting into an argument you might regret having started. But you have to use your knowledge of the horse and your instincts when tackling a situation that you are not sure of the outcome.
There is nothing wrong with doing more ground work, but I suspect there are issues under saddle that can only be addressed under saddle. If you feel you are too unsure about your mare then send her to the best horse person you can find and spend as much time with them as you can. Learn everything they have to teach and get some riding in on your mare while she is at the trainers.
Let me know how you go.