I think it's a natural human tendency, when something we're trying to do with a horse isn't working out all that well, to keep trying over and over again to do it the same way with the hope that maybe this time things will go better. At least I know this a tendency I have, but I've learned that usually that road doesn't lead where I want to go. To stop and rethink requires the ability to listen to what the horse is saying and acknowledge that perhaps I've made a mistake and need to go about things differently. And maybe the next thing I try won't work all that well either, but I need to be willing to keep trying. I think it helps to believe, as I do, that every horse is an individual, and has to be worked with as such. I never used to "see" or "feel" horses - I just used to ride them. "Seeing" and "feeling" the horse now, and the horse's reactions, worries, tries and confusions, and then those wonderful moments when the softness comes through, really is the best guide. Now this doesn't mean that, at least in my opinion, certain techniques and ways of working with horses are better than others, but it does mean that there's no one-size-fits all "program" that will work for all horses.
And having to write this stuff down - the successes and the mistakes - as honestly as I can in this blog has actually helped me work better with my horses, I think.
Sometimes rethinking helps expose gaps in the foundation that it's important to fill before trying to move on. In Drift's case, the gaps are his attention and his calmness - the two things are connected. A horse that's inattentive and distracted can't be calm, since he's not "with" me - his mind is elsewhere, and where the mind goes, the body's likely to soon follow (or try to).
It's clear to me that the free lungeing (if you can call it that - it was mostly him running around while I tried to get his attention) was a bad idea for Drift. It produced the opposite of calm - he got more revved up - and didn't do much for his attention. It was almost as if I was giving him mixed messages - "I want you to pay attention to me and be calm but just go run around and ignore me and get more worried." How much sense does that make? I do think free lungeing, if done properly, can be effective for certain horses, but Drift's not one of them - he's too high energy. I think lungeing him on the line may or may not be useful - I haven't decided about that yet.
I think for him, building calm and attention required going back to the basics of leading properly, every step, every time - my consistency is the thing that will give him the opportunity to be calm and attentive. And so far, so good. We had another leading session in the parking lot late yesterday after feeding time. There were a lot more distractions - people walking dogs and stopping by to talk with us, bicyclists, joggers and people with children and strollers. But he managed very well since I continued to require that he lead properly every step - it took a bit longer to get to the good place where he began to relax, but we got there.
This morning, very early, about 6 a.m. after I fed the horses and after I turned Pie out, Drift and I had another leading session, starting in the parking lot again. That time of day is a good time for us - it's very quiet and calm and there are rarely any people or distractions around. Our starting work focussed on his turns being just right - where he doesn't anticipate but waits for me and then follows directly behind me at an arm's length on a loose lead. He'd been struggling with the turns to the left, since he kept wanting to swing around me and come up next to me on my right. I had to say "no, I want you to wait and then come behind me" a few times before he got it. (This is one reason I lead with the horse behind me - they really do have to wait for your lead to even know what direction you're going and if I build it correctly, turns to the right and left are equally easy.)
Once I had some relaxation there - I do a lot of head down with him each time he's standing still as the head down position releases endorphins that aid in relaxation - we led up and down past the trailer and then to the arena. His leading continued to be excellent - there wasn't the slightest sign that he expected to get in the arena and then run off, although if that had happened I was prepared to deal with it (I wear a helmet for all of this work). I had set up a variation of the maze and keyhole that are described and shown in my post on leading exercises, as well as some cones:
My objective was to work with him on his turns, by using the cones, the right-angle turn of the (partial) maze and the turn around required for the keyhole as visual aids to help him understand where he was supposed to be as we turned. (I used these exercises with Dawn quite a bit a while ago to help her with her attentiveness by asking her to navigate them one step at a time - with Drift I was using them to help him orient his body.)
He couldn't have done better - he was a star. After our work session - we worked for about 20 minutes total including our starting work in the parking lot - his turns to the left are now very good and it's clear he's got the whole idea of how to lead properly firmly in mind. Before I turned him out, we did a little more trailer loading work - the first time he pulled back a bit but got on within a minute or two, and the second time I just kept some - not a lot - of pressure on the lead, releasing each time he took a step forwards, and he didn't pull back but walked right in after 15 seconds or so.
When I took him back to the pasture - the trailer made him a bit nervous - he was calm on the way out, led beautifully and we did a few turns once inside the pasture to make the point that he's still working until the halter comes off - he did great. I couldn't be more delighted. We'll see how things go this afternoon when there are more distractions and the other horses are still out . . .
I've also been rethinking my approach to Pie's trot/canter transitions and his leads. Pie's biggest issue is that he really doesn't much like to move forward - getting forward, every step every time, is our objective. This shows up in his trot/canter transitions. When I ask for a canter, it's three or four trot strides before he musters the oomph for the transition upwards. Of course he can't get the correct lead - what was I thinking? By the time he starts to canter, my cue is several trot strides back. Before he can respond to an accurately timed (with the outside hind leg) cue, we've got to get "canter right now" in place. I want him to immediately canter when I cue. And I'm not going to care right now what lead he takes - I just want "now". Today I'm going to carry a dressage whip to be sure I've got an immediate secondary cue for my soft canter cue with my leg. Once we've reliably got "now" then we can focus on "which lead".
Mistakes are good - they lead to rethinking which leads to progress.