So back I went to the barn, suitably attired in paddock boots (in case of stray horse feet). I decided that my mood wasn't suitable for mounting work with Dawn, and that at the very least I would hand walk her a couple of laps around the barn. So I groomed her and got her ready. I decided we would do some in-hand work to try out a couple of things. I had her halter and lead on, and took her bridle with me. Next time I want to switch to using a rope halter, because the web halter with its buckles and rings was getting slightly in the way of her bridle, bit and reins. The bit she's used to and seems to like is a Mylar jointed snaffle with full cheeks, and I don't want to change that right now.
My objective for the day was to get some small things right. We'd already made a good start when we were grooming - I was pleased to see how well the hoof-picking is going - she's now holding up each hind foot in turn for me as I approach that foot, and allowing the foot to be held in a relaxed position somewhat to the back, which is what I prefer - this is a small thing that I really like to get just right. The two small things we were going to work on were leading over a ground pole, and doing a turn on the forehand using the bit and my hand on her side.
Dawn has some serious worries around anything that resembles a jump, and that includes ground poles. There's some specific things in her past that I know about (which led to our looking for different ways to train and leaving the trainer and barn we were at), but those really don't matter now - what matters now is to work with Dawn as she is and if she has worries to deal with those as they arise. When Dawn is worried, one of the things she does is rush and hurry. When she is ridden over a pole, or even led over one, she wants to speed up and get it over with, and she often becomes agitated.
So I bridled her up over the halter, and using the halter and lead, we began to work on a ground pole I had set up - I used a heavy wooden pole with beveled sides - it doesn't move or roll easily unlike the PVC poles which I mostly don't like to work with. We worked on approaching the pole very slowly, step by step. Dawn and I haven't done the step-by-step exercise before, but one of the great things I'm finding about working with her is that she is just so smart and quick on the uptake - it often takes only a few tries for her to get what you're asking. So we came up to the pole very slowly, with me gently cuing with the lead for just one step at a time. First we came with two strides of the pole, then I led her to the side (not over the pole) and around for a bit, then within one stride of the pole, then I led her to the side and around for a lap. Finally we were up to the pole with her front feet just six inches or so away. She wanted to sniff the pole - that was fine. We led away again. On the second approach, she sniffed the pole and then bit it! - "take that, you nasty pole!". I actually didn't mind that she did it - I think it was part of her way of dealing with the issue.
Finally we stepped over the pole and kept on walking. As she stepped over the pole, she sped up a bit, to get it over with. We need to work on her stopping with her feet on both sides of the pole, but I decided not to go that far today - she'd been doing very well on the approaching, and didn't step over with an exaggerated motion and her leaving the pole wasn't too fast - we'll deal with the second side of the pole on another day. We did a couple more walk-overs, approaching very slowly, one step at a time, mixed in with the other exercises we did.
Another small thing that went very well was her attention to me. When we were leading around briefly before starting our pole work, she was very attentive, stopping when I stopped and backing easily when I turned and moved towards her - no use of the lead required. There were a couple of distractions - the weather was nice and there were people walking by and working in the community garden (doing that alarming bending over/standing up thing), but each time her attention was taken by something outside the arena, I easily got her attention back to me with a small pull on the lead.
Interspersed with the pole work, we worked on our backing in hand, using only the halter and lead. Dawn is able to soften to pressure, but sometimes she only softens "in form" - she drops her head and breaks at the poll - but the rest of her neck, particularly the area just in front of her withers, and her back, remain braced. She also doesn't tend to maintain a soft posture for long. We'll move on to using the bit to soften, starting from the ground, but I wanted to start with the halter. So we backed to pressure from the lead and halter. Sometimes it took quite a few backwards steps to get that full softness to come through - not just the head position - but we just kept backing and I didn't give her a release until what I wanted came through. After each success, we did a walk around for her to relax and think things over. Before long, she was giving me a full, soft back almost immediately, in which case we only backed a couple of steps and stopped, with praise. I also concentrated on getting a straight back, keeping her head pointed to where we had come from so she could straighten on her own. I also took turns standing on both sides to do this.
The last exercise we did was some turn on the forehand, using the bit and hand pressure on her side in the place the leg would apply pressure. This also allowed us to work on giving to the pressure from one rein as we started - I stopped using much rein pressure as she got the idea - I got one small nippy protest as we started but she was corrected for that and stopped right away. Next time we do it I'll just hold both reins (with a hand on her neck with the off-side rein) to stop any forward motion (zero pressure unless she moves) and use my hand on her side to get the turn. After a number of repetitions, with a release from any pressure after each slow step and a walk-around, we were getting two or three nice slow steps - no rushing which is the most important aspect with Dawn. I was also having to use almost no hand pressure - sometimes my hand didn't even touch her, and no resistance such as tail-swishing.
As I added the backing and the turn on the forehand to the pole exercise, I would do one, then do another and then the third, mixing up the order to keep her interested. The whole thing went really well - she was calm and engaged and didn't get much fussed about anything. I think the key to Dawn is calm and slow so she can deal with things without rushing and learn that being relaxed while dealing with challenges is the best way to go. I also liked the feel of the in-hand work with her - it's very intimate in a way that riding sometimes isn't - you're right next to the horse and both of you can see and feel what the other is doing. It seems to me to be a good way to build a relationship - much less remote than lunging, ground driving or round pen work, not that those can't be useful each in their own way. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that each horse really needs its own approach, with different things emphasized in the training to deal with the horse's own disposition and any issues that exist - sort of like different learning styles for people.
I felt much better leaving the barn than when I went. Poor Maisie is being neglected a bit, but I expect she doesn't much mind!