Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Getting to Good

Dawn and I had a challenging work session today, but we made it through to good.  It was a good example to me of how important patience, persistence and having a clear, specific objective in mind makes a difference to getting to good.

I brought her in from the pasture - wading through the mud - and as I started out towards her - holding onto the fence to keep from falling in the mud - she headed for the water tank to take a drink.  I always take her for a drink before I bring her in, and I guess today she decided to take care of that part herself.

We went inside, I rinsed her legs off - she was muddy to the knees and hocks - and we groomed and saddled up.  I led her into the arena - all the doors were open due to the very warm weather - and we discovered that a horse in a paddock next to the barn, and visible from the arena, was running, bucking and sliding like a maniac, with his owner chasing him around and trying to catch him - this was a horse who had just come off stall rest after surgery for a fractured splint bone and wasn't supposed to be running like that.  Dawn finds other horses being upset, or acting crazed, very disturbing.  So she started to have a meltdown.  She did stay aware of me - she didn't mow me down, or rear, or bolt - all things she used to do in the past - but was circling me, very upset, blowing and with huge eyes.

We did a strategic retreat.  I put her in her stall to chill and eat hay for a while while I did some chores.  She called to me with her anxious whinney from time to time, but kept eating hay.  A while later, we returned to the ring - she was still worried and upset - and we did some lungeing.   She was still worried and not very happy about having to lunge.  My objective was simple and very specific - I wanted her to to do canter departures from trot nicely on my voice command, and canter nicely until I asked her to stop, on both leads, without bucking or kicking out.  I wasn't interested in her running in circles or tiring her out  - I just wanted to get the connection back. Easier said than done . . .

It took a while to get there.  Dawn is a very emotional horse - a diva if you will - she's incredibly responsive and cares a lot about whether she's connected to you, but she can be very reactive.  I've learned that horse express their emotions - anger, frustration, fear, anxiety and pain - through their bodies - there's a direct and immediate connection - it's not at all a case of "my horse is out to get me" at all - horses don't plan or scheme - but rather "I'm upset/worried/scared/anxious about x, so I'm acting up by throwing my body around".

Dealing with Dawn's tendency to get emotional under stress has been a big challenge for me - she can be plenty scary/big when she's upset - it's important to keep myself safe, and her moves can be big, but if I can be patient, quiet and calm but also persistent, we get to good.

Today it took a while to get there - there was a lot of bucking and kicking out towards me - I made sure the circles were large enough to ensure my safety - she was expressing her anxiety at the upset she'd experienced and her frustration with me, and she kept stopping and turning in to express her uncertainty.  But I just quietly kept asking for what I wanted and ignoring the rest.  And before too long, we had nice quiet canter departures on my voice command in each direction.  You could almost hear her sigh and let go of the anxiety.  I had her canter only a few strides after a good, quiet departure, then asked her to stop, which she was glad to do.

And we were at good.  I mounted up, and we had a good short walk/trot ride with lots of really nice forward and relaxation - there was lots of loose rein trotting where she was stretching down.  The security of feeling better again, and sure of our connection again, seemed to make a big difference to her.

Dawn has been a real challenge for me, but I'm very fortunate to have her - she's make a huge difference to my horsemanship.


  1. Good post. Our human tendency when our horses become upset and show it through the movement of their bodies to to try to control and stop the movement. I think that's a mistake. Horses calm down faster when they know they can move their feet when they're upset. Our job is to direct their movement in a safe manner.


  2. Loved this post; it shows how well you understand your horses.

  3. Seems those challenging horses always teach us the most dont they?

  4. You've made such great progress with Dawn - it's wonderful to read how much you understand her now.

    If you read about the physiology of the prey animal, it becomes clear that when horses are upset/scared/anxious/etc. they aren't simply "acting up by throwing their bodies around" but in fact are discharging the energy and using the cortisol and adrenaline that has been produced in their systems. They're literally designed that way. So allowing them to discharge it (as you said, with some parameters on doing it safely around the human in the picture) is the only right thing to do. I wish more horse people "got" this concept. Sadly I hear people saying horses are predators and treating them like they have to dominate and stamp out the predator instinct.

    On another note: mud! We are just beginning (barely) to dry out from the ice we had last week, and now it's predicted to rain again today. I'm so tired of currying mud off horses and donkeys! Stay warm and enjoy your rides!

    1. You might be interested in a related post from one of the Mark Rashid clinics I attended - it's about a horse who hadn't processed stress/fear, which affected everything, and it really showed up in his breathing. Red had the same issue when I got him, and it took a while to work through.


  5. We try to make them stop and stand still because we're just plain scared--at least, that's what it was with me. As soon as I learned how to keep myself (fairly!)safe, and realized asking them to be still was usually futile and really unreasonable, I was able to do more of what Kate is describing--keep me safe, calmly acknowledge the horse's legitimate state of being, and use various techniques (ignore the bad, allow strategic retreats, keep on asking for something that is doable even if difficult) to get to good in whatever the situation is. I love those sighs- when we've gone through whatever scare it was and managed to stay together all the way to the "whew". In a recent book Mark Rashid argues that it's impossible and counter-productive to try to never let a horse get upset. He says that they'll learn to work these things out and gain confidence at the same time. I think the book is called "horses and nature" or something like that.

    1. I'm big on helping horses learn to self-calm - I expect spooks and sometimes upsets, but if the horse can learn that it's possible to relax and let go of tension after that, it's big progress.

  6. Well done helping Dawn find a way to settle herself down rather than trying to force her to behave. Best of all, you ended the day in the saddle with a nice quiet ride. Who could ask for more?

  7. While reading this post, I realized I was kind of holding my breath, my reaction to Dawn's anxiety. But as I read on, found myself letting out big sighs and relaxing...just reading through the process brought me through to a good place too. Amazing how we can all learn to just get through and enjoy the release of tension. You're so right, it's definitely a process of learning that we/they can do it. It's all about good leadership and learning to make the good choice. You're making such good progress Kate. I sense it in reading your posts and as evidenced by Dawn's reaction to your constant presence of calm. Very zen!

  8. Oh Kate, I remembered something Ray used to always say about horses that are upset, or scared and get stuck. "Remember, you're controlling the life in the body, through the mind, to the feet". "Direct those feet and you're directing his mind". Such wisdom! That's what you were doing with Dawn. We should never, ever try to get a horse to stand still when they're upset and have their energy up. A "stuck" horse is a dangerous, non-thinking horse. Directing their movements not only releases their energy, but keeps them thinking about you and how you're directing them. Always looking to you, their leader and complying with your wishes will ensure that they can (and will) always look to you for direction if and when they become unsure and worried. And you're creating positive outcomes from scary/worrisome situations. Such a win-win!!


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