The Amazing Gracie journey has started: yesterday and today we began the riding part of the relationship.
One thing I have learned (the hard way) to do is always start from the beginning.
There have been enough times when I accepted someone else’s assessment of a horse – and got into difficulty later, that I now just go back to the start and run through my own checklist of things to make sure I know what the horse knows, understands – and where there are any holes in the learning and understanding that might cause problems later on.
This helps the horse – as I can make sure I am not expecting her to do things that she has not in fact been taught – something I come across quite often!
And it helps me – it means I preserve MY confidence as by proving what the horse knows, I can predict how she will behave, what choices she will make – and make sure I stay safe in what I ask and expect.
This starting from the beginning doesn’t have to take long – with some horses, a morning of groundwork to show that the horse understands requests to move left, right, back, forwards, sideways – to move around objects and obstacles – to look to me for clarification if they are confused – and for the two of us to “tune in” to each other’s energy – sometimes this is enough.
With others, it takes longer – I often equate these ones to where we are both on the radio but on different wavelengths and it takes us time to find a common wavelength we can both tune into and use to communicate! And it’s my job to work that out…..
I also need to know what worried my horse, what causes her concern – what things bring on that “armouring” I talk about in an earlier post – because when a horse is “armoured” or braced through worry or concern, the horse CANNOT hear anything I am whispering to it – and if I shout – I am likely to get an explosion.
Using the groundwork to identify these things builds my understanding of my horse, and builds my confidence as a strange horse I don’t know becomes an animal with predictable responses.
Part of this process was our walk the other Saturday – taking her out online on a 7 mile walk where I knew we would encounter all sorts of things including traffic, concrete cows, people, dogwalkers, cricket players – seeing her response and reaction to these and using them to build our partnership was an important step.
At one point there were huge puddles across the path. Now here was an opportunity to use these puddles to develop our communication. I invited her to walk through one of the puddles. I did this by standing on one side of the puddle, so I was looking across it – and lifting the rope to invite her forwards, which would involve walking through the water.
Not surprisingly, she looked at the water – and chose to walk around the far side of the puddle opposite me rather than walk through it. I didn’t try and stop her, I wanted her to know that there would be no “make” about this, just communication and relationship. When she got to the other end of the puddle I asked her to turn and face it (and me) and without allowing a rest, or any other positive reward, simply asked her to go back through it.
Again she chose to go around it. I laughed, asked her to turn and sent her to the puddle again. By now she had worked out that this wasn’t about the puddle – it was about our conversation and she stood by the water and looked at me as if asking a question: what do you want me to do?
I lifted my rope and invited her to take one step forwards. She lowered her head and sniffed the water. Great – that was a try! Instead of walking round she was seriously thinking about the puddle. I lowered the rope as a release of pressure and to let her know that was what I was asking.
I waited until she looked at me again – then I invited her to take a step.
Very slowly and cautiously she lifted one foot – and placed it in the water.
I said “good girl”, gave her a treat then backed her away from the puddle to a patch of grass and invited her to have a rest and a few mouthfuls of grass – she liked that idea!
We repeated this process a few more times – each time she gave a “try” by going a bit further, she got a reward and a break – each time she chose to go around the puddle, she just got a laugh and a request to do it again…
As time went on, she was more and more in the water.
After about twenty minutes of this – she approached the puddle – looked at me – and then walked straight into t he middle of the puddle, stood there and asked for her treat – now we were communicating!
I gave her the treat – she stood there and played with the water – pawing it, nuzzling it – possibly drinking some of it – and when asked, walked straight out the other side.
At the next puddle, she thought about walking around it – but then looked at me – saw me asking her to walk through it and did in a calm relaxed way – cue another treat and a bit of a graze.
I felt we now had established communication in a good way – and indeed, having done that the rest of our walk was like going for a stroll with a friend as I knew if she had a problem she would simply look at me for direction, and I knew that she was not going to over react at all.
Two confident beings on that walk!
I share this apparently small story in so much detail because I think it highlights an important principle of confidence – as long as you and your horse are communicating, having that conversation, your confidence will be a lot easier to build and maintain. And to feel confident doesn’t mean you need to be big or dominant – just clear and consistent. The whole puddle conversation (which came after the concrete cow discussion covered in an earlier post) took about ten minutes.
More recently I have been doing other groundwork with Gracie. Making sure she is happy to move her front end, back end, turn towards and away and doesn’t have “sticky feet”; making sure of all this on the ground is one of my pre-requisites for riding my horse.
I have found her generally to be gracious, she offers a lot of herself although with me she is still a bit concerned, so we are adding lots of friendly game and dwell time — and going softly. At first when we played and I unhaltered her she would explode away, having bottled up energy and tension to play with me. More recently she has been staying around and hanging out — that’s more like it.
Sometimes when playing with her I get the feeling she is tense and almost “waiting for the other shoe to drop” – I have learned (again, the hard way LOL) to trust these feelings and so put a lot of time and effort into proving to Gracie that there is no other shoe and that I am a trustworthy partner.
The result is that in her groundwork she has softened, and her armouring has reduced tremendously (remember we have only known each other a few weeks, so it’s not surprising she has some concerns about our relationship and is not necessarily any reflection on her previous handling or experiences!)
So with the walkout and the good mindset and responsiveness on the ground, it was finally feeling right to saddle her up.
Now when I had gone to view her, she had not been happy with her own saddle – and after a few weeks of Gracie being out 24/7 playing with her two new herdmates it looked a touch tight across the shoulders, so I decided to use my own saddle which happens to be treeless, and which also happens to be the saddle *I* am most confident in – I like to set things up for success when I can.
I went into the round pen. Those of you who have seen the photos know that this is a circle of electric fencing posts with one line of tape – so my horse can simply leave if she feels I am using too much pressure.
She sniffed the saddle – and definitely tensed as it went on her back and I started playing with the girth. Every time she showed concerns (by nose wrinkling, or a worried eye, lifting her head or turning her head towards me — I stopped whatever I was doing at that exact point and did a friendly game. For example I was reaching for the girth under her and she tensed, so I went back and forth reaching under her a few times and only picked the girth up when she relaxed again.
Even so, when I had the girth tight enough to feel happy about asking her to move, I could see that as I moved away from her, her eye slightly glazed and she looked very tense.
She took one step – and went into a stressed trot – then decided to do an impression of a rodeo horse.
I can honestly say that Gracie is a very athletic horse J
It was funny though — as she was bucking and broncing her brain kicked in and it was as if she said “why am I doing this — its not bothering me???!” and she gradually softened her neck, changed her way of going, her facial expression changed and she slowed, then stopped and relaxed.
Given this event, I thought it would be a good idea to head out on a longer line and make sure she was happy about moving out at all gaits with this saddle. She was tense the first time she moved on both reins, but relaxed into a loose lovely trot and canter. On the right rein she wanted to change direction so I didn’t ask for canter and made a mental note to make sure we did some body work after the session.
Now I could see that the saddle itself was not an issue any more – we went to the mounting block (inside the round pen).
I went through all the steps – -for my confidence and hers. Interestingly, you know I talk about how when a human goes above 5 then gets off or stops doing the thing — they go “phew” — and that’s how you know you were above 5? Well that’s what Gracie was doing!
I would step up and down then stop — and she would sigh and release; I would put my hip in the saddle and when I was down again she would release — so I did each thing as many times as it took for her to no longer feel the need to go “phew” when I stopped. This probably took about ten minutes.
I finally swung my leg over and sat in the saddle — relaxed — then got off again. She released. I got on again – waited, she seemed more relaxed and I did two lateral flexions – one each side then slid off again — I sat on the mounting block and she came to stand with her head next to me, yawning and licking and chewing.
One more mount — then did my other 18 lateral flexions (I have a rule for myself of 20 lateral flexions every time I ride).
On one of the flexions I reached over to rub her head – and startled her! She spooked a bit before relaxing and licking and chewing. When I looked more closely at her face when doing the next flexions I could see that sometimes she was mentally “leaving” – zoning out – going introverted – it doesn’t matter what language you use, the effect was that she was not “connected” with me but going away – and that meant that any sudden movement or unexpected event would spook her. So I made a special effort to ensure that we stayed connected by playing with the amount of flexion I asked for, releasing part way, and rubbing her. I counted my way up to 20 flexions…..
— and got off again: then I sat on the block.
After five minutes she had a massive release…..yawning, licking and chewing. She moved closer to breathe on my head while I sat there. Another five minutes – another release. Then finally, another five minutes and there was a headshake, neck stretch and massive licking and chewing — before she looked around and then started slowly and contentedly nibbling on the grass.
I took the saddle off, no change. I took the halter off, no change. I invited her to follow me out of the round pen and she did then stayed near me for another ten minutes.
That was our first ride.
Today — I went through the whole process today but there was a HUGE difference: today she released WHILE I was doing things: foot in stirrup — lick and chew; hip in saddle – -lick and chew — sit in saddle — lick and chew and sigh and blow. So today was the twenty lateral flexions, then added in twenty disengages, some backing up and some forwards. All calm and relaxed.
I felt that today the paying attention to her tendency to go introverted and making sure I was keeping the connection had paid off: relaxation was much faster today and when I got off after being on her for about thirty minutes, there was no big release, just a request for a head scratch and then a polite graze.
Today I went to the field – and none of my horses were interested in being with me, so I came to the conclusion they had all decided today was a day off – I shall be back out there tomorrow morning to see what they want to do, before I head off for a week’s coaching in Nottinghamshire.
I hope sharing this tale of our first two rides shows how much care I take to preserve my OWN confidence – and the confidence of my horse – and gives you some ideas you can take away and use to support your own confidence journeys.
And here’s a question for you: what have YOU done that has helped you preserve YOUR confidence when handling or riding your horse?
Yours, in confidence