Maisie has been somewhat herd-bound and anxious lately when we ride away from the barn. And then Sunday, when I was bringing my horses in, Maisie ended up being the last mare to come in, and had to spend some time in the pasture by herself before I got her. She wasn't galloping, but she was pretty wound up - calling and pacing. When I opened the gate, she could barely contain herself, and clearly was thinking about bolting past me to get to the barn. She's usually pretty reliable on the lead, but I wanted to interrupt the thought of bolting before it turned into the action. She's a big horse, and when she's upset, she's Really Big. I asked her firmly to pay attention to me, and she did come back to me, although she was still pretty nervous.
Then yesterday, in one of those odd (perhaps not so odd after all) coincidences, after my post yesterday, when I went to get Maisie out of the pasture at lunchtime, she greeted me. As I walked up to the pasture gate, she walked up to the gate from her side and stuck her head over. It wasn't bring-in time, so that wasn't it. I hadn't brought a treat - I never do, so that wasn't it. Now for some of you, this may be a common occurrence with your horses, but with Maisie, it's not. I got her in the summer of 2002, and at that time she was totally shut down, and really wanted nothing to do with people. She would stand in her stall with her head buried in the corner. It was very sad. And she would never look at me with her eyes. It took a long time to gain enough of her trust that she would acknowledge me by "seeing" me, and I always asked her to turn in the stall so her head was facing me, but I had to ask, she didn't offer. When she first came to our barn, she would run away from me in the pasture. That was fixed fairly easily, and now she acknowledges my presence by watching me as I approach - until yesterday. Now granted, she didn't have to walk very far to get to the gate, but she did choose to do so.
I felt honored by her choice to be with me, and think it does represent some sort of shift. We didn't do too much yesterday - her hind feet and my back were both sore. I took her away from the herd at lunchtime, since we're working on her herd-boundness, and took her into the arena to groom her, thinking the surface in there would be easier on her feet. I ground-tied her with her head facing away from the pastures, and she was quite content to just stand there. No herd-boundness that day. When her feet and my back are less sore, we'll see if this new feeling between us translates into more confidence away from the barn.
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One thing I've struggled with in my work with horses is how far to push things. Most of the horses I've worked with are naturally alert and reactive - what some would call high-strung. I've always really liked an eagerly forward horse, and one that is very sensitive to the aids - although I've learned that any horse can be that sensitive, given a chance. Any horse can be pushed too far outside its comfort zone, but it seems to happen more quickly with these horses - often with little warning. Once seriously worried, it can be hard for them to settle again - I don't really care if my horses become scared or worried, but do care how they come back to me. A horse that checks out completely and is in "I've got to do this [bolt, buck, etc.] right now or else I'm going to die!" mode doesn't give you much to work with and can be downright dangerous.
But I do think for a horse to learn new things, particularly how to deal with things or situations which are stressful or scary, does sometimes require us to put pressure on them, by putting them in the stressful or scary situation - but there are degrees of this and I believe forcing the horse, rather than giving the horse a choice, can result in either the horse shutting down or explosively losing its mind. Small fits or struggles are a different thing entirely, to my mind. I think I, and I expect many horsepeople, sometimes avoid situations that we fear will stress our horses. As I get older (and older!), I've also become more protective of my physical safety and well-being, which I think sometimes leads me to not persist when a problem needs to be solved with the horse, perhaps out of fear that I'll be hurt. I expect this is an issue for many of us older riders.
This is a natural, self-protective thing, and also I think sometimes I (or we) don't know what to do when the fit happens. But one thing Mark Rashid said at the clinic on this subject really stuck with me - that sometimes the horse has to have a fit to make a change - and if we don't allow this to happen the change we're looking for won't happen. I don't think he was talking about meltdowns, but rather about the horse struggling with something, and he definitely wasn't talking about the rider fighting with the horse to force it to do something.
There are two parts of this for me, both of which are far from easy. The first is how far to push the horse, so that it can work through an issue and make progress, but not so far that the horse is overwhelmed. When I was first taking Maisie on the trail, I would often push her so far that she would have a complete meltdown. I never really had a good feel for how much was too much, and I didn't necessarily have the skills to help her be more comfortable inside to get past the problem. I also still had some of my residual thinking from the ways I used to ride - where it was the horse's job to just get over it, and darn it, we were going to go down that trail whether the horse wanted to or not. I don't think that really helps the horse deal with the problem - the horse may submit, or not, but we've fought with the horse and confirmed for them that they should be concerned about whatever it is. And the horse hasn't been offered the opportunity to choose the right thing, but rather forced to do it (sometimes by us making the wrong thing impossible - that's not teaching the horse to make the right choice either - it's just another way of forcing).
I think I'm getting a better feel for how much is too much, and how much is just right, in terms of putting the horse into a stressful situation so they can learn. It still isn't easy, and I really have to pay attention. When I start to work with Dawn this fall, this will be very important - she is hyper-reactive and not very willing to trust a human's leadership - her first reaction to stress is to check out mentally and head for the hills at high speed - it's going to take a lot of care and sensitivity to work well with her.
The second part is knowing what to do to help the horse feel better on the inside about what we're asking them to do. I still have trouble with this, although I think I now have a much clearer understanding of what my job is when working with a horse that is anxious or troubled. One thing I know better than I used to is to pay attention to what the horse is telling me about how they are feeling, and to "lead the thought" before the horse's thought veers off and causes the horse to take an (undesirable) action. This requires concentration and anticipation to catch the thought forming and not just react to the action after it has occurred - often by then it's much harder to help. The other thing is to have a plan - a way of approaching the situation that puts some but not too much stress on the horse, and also a plan for how to work with the horse to help it as the stress level rises.
And one other point that's become more important to me - if we put the horse into a stressful situation and it is our responsibility to help them get through it to a more comfortable feeling on the inside - if we don't do this we've just left the horse hanging and have probably reinforced whatever the problem is. But the trick for me is to do this in a way the horse can deal with, where the change happens on the inside of the horse and not to just get compliance on the outside of the horse. I firmly believe what Mark says, that a horse that is just compliant on the outside will often lose its training when put into a new situation, whereas a horse that is comfortable on the inside can take its training anywhere - I'm not there yet with my horses but intend to keep trying to head in that direction.