Friday, November 13, 2009

Dawn Worries Some More and I Don't

Yesterday, Dawn and I tried some things out. I groomed her ground-tied in the parking lot - I was even able to pick her feet ground-tied, which was a first for us. Then we tacked up and went out towards the arena - I was leading her with her halter and carrying the bridle. She helped me collect orange cones from the field behind the barn and we carried them to the arena and set them out in a big square. Then we played our "crazy walk/trot/halt/back" game, using the cones as focal points. I find this a lot of fun and she seems to as well.

Then I bridled her and mounted up - she's pretty solid on standing still at the mounting block on a loose rein until I've mounted, adjusted my stirrups and asked her to move off - but I needed to review a bit as she's still wanting to be a bit wiggly - she knows what I want and she does it, but it's not "built in" yet. I tried her in the Rockin' S snaffle to see if it would help her with her softening work. The answer, almost within a few minutes, was no. She really didn't like the bit at all - some horses don't, although Maisie really does. (There are pictures of the bits I talk about here in this old post.) For those of you from the hunter/jumper world, the Rockin' S hangs in the horse's mouth a little bit like a full-cheek snaffle with keepers - it's pretty fixed in position, although the rein action works a little differently. When I asked for backing, I got a raised head, steps to the side instead of backwards and a lot of violent tail-swishing - this was her way of telling me she really didn't like it. Dawn's one of those horses who's really clear about what she thinks.

So we went back to the barn and switched back to her usual bit, which is a Mylar full-cheek with a single joint, and I don't use keepers. She was much happier, instantly. I think with most horses, you can figure out within minutes if they're comfortable in a particular bit. So we'll stick with that one and just work through the issues she has with softening. I may also try to get hold of a traditional Western sidepull to try - she did pretty well in the halter and the very direct action of the sidepull might work well with her. I think the Dr. Cook's won't work for her - the action is too indistinct and "mushy". I think for her the issues may be less the bit itself than what she thinks she's supposed to do when you ask for softness.

So we did some preliminary work on backing with softness to see what we had. She did what I thought she might do - she worried, rushed, and ducked behind the bit. When I lifted one hand to ask her not to duck, she worried and rushed some more. I didn't stop until we got a couple of true, soft, backing steps, but I stopped at that point because I wanted to back up (no pun intended!) a few steps in what we were doing so we could work through the worry. This was exactly the behavior she has exhibited in doing other tasks, such as stepping over a ground pole, and we were able to work through her worry and eliminate the rushing by taking things one step at a time. I dismounted, and worked with her in hand on the backing for a little bit - more worry and rushing. We got a few decent steps of soft back, repeated a few times, so I stopped asking for continuous back steps.

I finished up with a little bit of what we're going to work on today, which is in hand backing in the bridle, but going very slowly in very small increments - the one-foot-at-a-time exercise we used over the ground pole, but in reverse. She responds to a whisper of a cue - but I want her to respond to the release and stop moving and not anticipate and continue to rush backwards without true softness. She was able to do a few "leans" and small steps for me, with somewhat more relaxation, so I stopped there - this told her clearly that this is what I'll be looking for. At this point I have confidence that we'll get where we need to in order to back with softness. Until this issue is resolved, I'll work her under saddle on a loose rein - we can work on our relaxation, turns and halting using my seat - that'll be no pressure on her and fun. Once the backing in hand with the bit is better, we'll resume our backing and softening work under saddle.

One of the main reasons I have confidence that we'll get there and the worry will go away is that Dawn has demonstrated that she can worry, accept my help and direction to deal with it, and then let the worry go. She worries when she's asked to do something and isn't sure what to do except rush through it. Once she starts worrying, it's hard to have a conversation with her. If she can learn through each set of exercises we do that she can think through things, not rush, and offer up various tries without being concerned about being right, and then learn which one is right through the release, we'll get there, bit by bit. Her progress in her attention, leading, ground-driving and scary object work has made this clear to me. I think the more we work, and the more things we successfully work through, the less the worry will come up in new or challenging situations, and if worries do arise, we'll be able to resolve them together more easily.


  1. Kate...this is a very interesting post. I did go back and check your piece on the bits. I have just started using the Dr. Cook Bit. B. and it seems to be working on the two horses I ride. All of our horses have been ridden with bits and English Hackamores. At this time I see no reason to put a piece of steel in their mouths. I am not interested in showing...just the usual backyard stuff and trailriding. Do you always ride in a close contact saddle? I use an Albion SL dressage saddle and love it. Also, I liked your post on chores...sounds familiar. I have a 29 yo that can't eat hay (wads it, and the dentist can't do anymore to change her mouth), I give her soaked alfalfa cubes (you can also get a mix with timothy). She does very well with this diet and it's cheaper than hay. Do you use shredded beet pulp or beet pulp pellets? I use the pellets (much better deal per pound and I like the consistency). In the morning I prepare them for evening chores and at night I do the same for the next morning. I get them without molasses.

    Thanks for all your visits and sweet comments. I would love to have you as a student.

  2. True softness in backing is so much harder to achieve than one would think, isn't it? I think every horse struggles with this.

  3. Lori - thanks for your comments! I have a very nice dressage saddle - a Kieffer - that unfortunately doesn't fit any horse I now ride - it came with Noble and also fit Lily. I feel very secure in a close contact - despite its lack of substance! I've had mixed results with the Dr. Cook's - if you follow my "bitless" posts through the label cloud you can check that out. Dawn thrives on clarity/precision of signals, and for now I'll work with the bit because that's what she's gone in before, but I'll be continuing to explore bitless options.

    I haven't tried the beet pulp pellets - I'll have to find some. I don't like the inconsistent quality of the shreds - the bag I'm using now has a lot of sunflower seed hulls, of all things!

  4. Melissa - that's really true - that's the reason backing is such a good diagnostic - it tells you a lot about the horse's body and mental condition. I start with backing to get softness because once you get that nut cracked, the rest comes more easily and the horse really understands what you want and can more easily respond at the other gaits. And if you get true softness in backing, the horse is engaging its core, relaxing its top line and lifting its back, and you're on the road to engaged self-carriage.

  5. You're giving me lots of new approaches to think about. My horse worries about new things, with different reactions to the worry, sometimes balking, sometimes rushing. As I learn to appreciate that he IS trying, just worried, I'm better able to break things into tiny steps and praise his efforts.

    I really appreciate finding better ways to communicate, and feel that we're building more of a partnership this way.

    I need to reconsider my backing work, too, it seems, and check his softness.

  6. Interesting post. I've read about the Rockin' S and wondered how horses like it -- so your thoughts were helpful. It's one of those bits that I always look at and kind of do this little sidewise glance and wonder just how it works and how well it works.

    I still want to ride Grif bridless, but we have gone back to using a bit. I'm finding I can get him to respond a little better with my weight & leg cues when I have the bit as a back up. When he was in the bitless bridle it was almost as if he would ask "does she really want me to do that." when I would ask for something and then reinforce it with the bitless. Now when I ask and use the bit to make my request clear -- Grif knows right away what I want. He almost seems a bit happier because my requests are more clear to him. I still pick up the reins as little as possible and I think it's this that he likes better and not necissarily if there is a bit there or not. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I am hoping to do a post on that later in which I can go into more detail about it.

    I really like how patient you are with your horses. I think most people are naturally good at having this quality or they're not. It can't be taught. I can tell from your posts that you have a great relationship with your horses...and that's a beautiful thing :)

    I'm sorry that I don't get to comment more as my time on the computer is so limited, but thank you for sharing your experiences... I do enjoy reading about them even if I don't always get the time to write back :)

  7. Nice post! Even though I'm into Pit Bulls now much of my childhood was about horses.
    It's nice to go back to that for a moment reading this post!


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.