Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sneaking Up on Worry

This morning, before it got hot, Dawn and I had an interesting and productive work session. Today, we did some more "sneaking up on worry". As some of you may remember from my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . ", Dawn is a real worrier, and worry with Dawn can sometimes lead directly to bad stuff happening, sometimes pretty quickly. As described in that post, the things Dawn and I have been working on together are really all designed to work on that fundamental issue - whether we're doing in-hand work, leading work, clicker work, lungeing work, or under saddle work. We're doing some other things too, like softening work and work on transitions, but even that work is affected by the worry and can help us learn how to deal with the worry. I'm really not engaged in desensitization, although some of the work may look superficially like that. What I'm really trying to do is to teach Dawn both to self-calm when she is worried, and to keep her attention on me and follow my direction when she is worried. This requires Dawn to develop her own self-confidence and self-calming routines - so the first response isn't just "SAVE THE HORSE!" but a spook-in-place - and also to develop her attention to me and confidence and trust in me so that we can work through worries together. That's really what it's all about for her, and it manifests itself in lots of ways, giving us lots of things to work on. Dawn is also a horse requiring finesse to work these things through - if she's worried and you up the pressure you're on the quick road to a meltdown, which only reinforces the worry. So she's a real challenge to me and is a big help to me in growing my horsemanship.

We started our work last fall and have picked it up again this summer working on attention to me, both on the ground and now also under saddle. She's made huge progress on this - it's much easier to get her attention back when she gets distracted, she maintains her attention more consistently, and she's able to have a pretty consistent, subtle two-way conversation with me. My strategy regarding working on her worry is, in each of the exercises we do, to take her right up to the point she starts to worry, but to only worry her just a little bit and then give her both the chance to self-calm and to accept my direction in dealing with the worry. We've made a lot of progress on a number of fronts - ground poles and scary objects being two. We've done some effective softening work at the walk, where her reduction in worrying is shown by her willingness to take consistent soft contact without ducking behind the bit.

Today we pushed the limits a little bit in a couple of ways. I set up a tiny (no more than 6") x using two poles - with a horse like Dawn I never use PVC poles as they're likely to roll if stepped on; I use heavy wooden bevelled poles that will stay put if stepped or knocked. First we lunged over a single pole elsewhere in the arena - she was completely calm about this, which represents huge progress in itself. She was alarmed by the x - I'm not surprised by this at all, as her fear and worry over poles is derived from a bigger fear and worry related to jumps (due to historical bad things that were done to her), and immediately told me that she had no interest in lungeing over it. So we led over it - huge trot strides, whacking hind legs, followed by leaping over the x as if it were 2 feet tall. Worried. (Next work session, I'll put SMBs on her hind legs so she isn't worried about whacking them - no need for that complication.) I put one of the poles down so it was flat - still worried - this area was a Bad Place. (Next time we work on this I'll move the exercise so no part of the arena acquires that Bad Place feel.) We led over the pole several times, and I encouraged her to walk over slowly - she finally got there after a few tries, although she certainly was still a bit concerned. We stopped working on that for the moment.

Over to the mounting block, and I bridled and mounted up. We very briefly reviewed our softening work at the walk - she was great although it took a few more moments to the right, which is her stiffer direction. Then we did some more trot work. She was quite forward - more than yesterday because of the x work getting her worried. I decided to do very little at continuous rising trot and to instead work on transitions off my seat from walk to trot and back again. With Dawn, I really want to stay off my reins for now in transitions so the reins can be used to maintain a nice soft steady contact. When she worries, she leans on the bit (former racehorse, so this isn't surprising) and if you up the rein pressure she falls behind the contact. We'll work on speed regulation at the trot later, using redirection of the energy, but today wasn't the day to do that. So we did lots and lots of transitions, often trotting for only 3 steps before going back to walk. She was really tuned in and did really well with this - I sat the trot to make it easier for her. Sitting her trot, since it's really springy, requires me to fully relax my back, seat, hips and legs, which also helps her relax and allows me to more subtly transmit my asks for transitions up and down - I did this mostly by changing the feel of the rhythm for walk (1-2-3-4) to trot (1-2) and by lowering my energy and "sinking" into the horse for trot to walk.

In between sets of transition work, we walked around on a loose rein, and eased up on the Bad Place. She was happy as before to walk over the single pole elsewhere in the arena. Every time we approached the Bad Place, she would try to turn aside. Each time, I asked her for just the slightest bit more than she wanted to do, just easing her over the boundary using turns - absolutely no leg or seat pressure so I wasn't upping the pressure in any way, and then turned her away. I won't walk her under saddle over the pole in the Bad Place until she's calm about it when led and on the lunge. Finally we were pretty close, so I dismounted and asked her to lead through the Bad Place and over the pole on the ground - she reluctantly agreed. It took a couple of repetitions before she walked more calmly over instead of trotting or hiking her legs way up. We stopped there, and she got lots of praise - I had planned to ride her outside the arena for a bit but decided to wait for another day as I wanted to be done at that point to emphasize to her how great she'd done in dealing with her worries.

Tomorrow I'm off to the clinic and doubt I'll have time to work with Dawn due to the driving back and forth. So Maisie doesn't feel neglected while her suspensory heals, when I get back I'll be doing some easy in-hand work at the walk and fun clicker work - I think she'll enjoy that. And for those of you interested in horses with patterned coats like pintos and appaloosas, Pinzgauer over at Drafts With Dots is continuing her series of equine color genetics posts with this post on the basics of white patterns - I'll keep adding these to my sidebar as they come.


  1. Lovely bit of work with Dawn. I like how you do not up the pressure beyond the point she can tolerate.

    TB's are so sensitive and emotional. I always say "Other horses have dispositions. Thoroughbreds and temperament." I get the feeling a TB mare can be even more complex than the geldings I've had. You are wise to work her brain, body, and emotions as one integral piece.

  2. Great work with Dawn. It's a rare horse person who knows when to push the limits or not.

    Have a great time at the clinic.

  3. Great stuff, you're doing great things for Dawn's mind and body!

    Enjoy the clinic :)

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  5. Really enjoyed reading of the progresses Kate!
    Have a fun time soaking up Mark R!

  6. I find it very interesting to read your posts about your work with such a sensitive horse. I will also look forward to your report on Mark Rashid's clinic. If only he would come to Ireland......


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