Bingo's Vacation Did Him Good

I am so very glad to be able to ride again!

I just wish I could get back to three times a week, or lacking that have my two rides spread out further than just one day apart. At least I can ride and I am grateful.

Bingo was good, good, good this week. He did not put up any objections to whatever I asked him. He never set his jaw with his bull neck. He kept his tongue relaxed and mobile. He was sort of slow in reacting to my leg aids at the start, then when his muscles warmed up he improved. Debbie remarked on how Bingo seemed to trust both of us now, me in the saddle and Debbie at the center of the ring after she checks out the footing. I wrote last time how Bingo had nuzzled Debbie when I sent him to her for further praise of nailing a movement well. This week he continued to bask in the praise we both gave him. Since this horse had no idea of what praise meant when I first started riding him this is simply wonderful. Part of the reason I praise a horse is so that the horse can feel PROUD of himself, proud of his performance, proud of his ability to give me what I ask for, and proud that he can do so well that we both think that he deserves a full minute of rest and praise.

To Bingo our lessons have changed from mindless drudgery interrupted with periods of pain to intellectually challenging pleasant periods where he is given the time to figure out how to move his body best to give me what I ask for. He is interested, he is relaxed, he actively cooperates, and now he finally seems to get some personal satisfaction from our lessons. He had been trending this way the last few months, but with the 5 ½ weeks of social distancing he had a long time to think everything through, he seems to finally have come to the conclusion that our lessons are wonderful relievers of his boredom from just hanging out in his paddock. He has learned to think somewhat, and he likes the results. He has also decided that he LIKES his present bit, it is comfortable in his mouth, my hand aids come through clearly, my releases are felt immediately, and all his mouth problems have simply disappeared.

The past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about the term “pleasure horse.” Most people seem to consider a horse a pleasure horse if the horse just consents to puttering around in the ring or going on a trail ride without many problems for the rider. However for me a true pleasure horse is all of that PLUS the horse himself is a pleasure to ride, light in the hand, responsive to the leg, relaxing when appropriate, performing when asked, a horse that acts like a full partner to having a pleasant excursion under saddle. I find no pleasure in a ride on a robot, I find pleasure in a ride when the horse and I are in a low key conversation, “talking” to each other about how nice it is outside, how interesting everything is, and exploring possibilities calmly. I am still the boss, but the horse feels free to make comments and suggestions about how to make the ride even better and I respond to him. Like many people horses often enjoy activities more when they KNOW that their rider LISTENS to them, even if their rider might not necessarily agree with them. It is the listening that is important, it seems to me that every creature with an advanced nervous system values being heard.

When I first handled and rode Bingo turning him into a horse that was a pleasure to ride seemed to be a totally unrealistic goal, I was willing to settle for him just obeying the common aids. His conformation is NOT the conformation a rider looks for when selecting a true pleasure horse, with his sway back, croup high conformation, his bull neck set really low on his body, and his totally sour outlook on life. He acted like he had learned that it was totally hopeless to expect anything good from any human who handled or rode him, with the exception of getting fed, of course. When I rode him at first I found that he was truly skilled at using his horrible riding horse conformation to defy his riders. To Bingo stiffening his jaw against the bit was a matter of just tensing up a few muscles in his neck, and his neck is so strong that his rider was in a hopeless situation. Firmly on his forehand he just bulled his way to wherever he wanted to go—the gate out of the ring.

Bingo's transformation came from a lot of low key work at the walk and trot. I first had to explain to him what my aids MEANT, and then I learned that I had to explain to him what praise meant. He had no idea, the concept that he could do something that could please his rider was totally foreign to him. Then came the “yes, I mean it” discussions. When I get up on a badly trained horse in his twenties I automatically just figure that the horse had been “spanked” by experts or people who had the ability to ride out the protests. Well I am just too handicapped to feel confident that I can ride a horse out who is vigorously disagreeing with me. So I use persuasion—well timed aids with prompt release, and I do not repeat the aid until the next time the horse's legs are positioned so that the horse can obey me. I reward the horse for any sign of obedience, first by releasing my aid completely, then by active praise. At the first sign of obedience when I introduce something new I count to ten before I praise him, long enough so his brain can fully process what he has just done, and then I praise him for being smart enough to figure it all out. After the first few times I can skip the counting to ten and praise him immediately. Bingo finally figured this out, obey his rider, get rewarded (release of the aid) and then get rewarded even more by vocal praise and those simply wonderful neck scratches. Then comes the BIG step, when Bingo starts feeling proud of himself for his own active cooperation. After that the sky is the limit, we are no longer just plodding around, we are working together.

Debbie said she was sort of surprised that I had not gone on with my plan of changing to the double bridle while it was still cool enough for my hands to work properly. I just told her that Bingo liked this bit so much I did not expect him to improve beyond what he is doing now when I go back to the double bridle. I am willing to wait longer now that Bingo is becoming a pleasure to ride with a relaxed, responsive mouth. I still want to go back to the double bridle to help me regrow neurons that go to my hands, but at this point it is sort of like gilding a pebble, nice but not necessary for enjoying life.

When I first saw Bingo I knew that this was my big chance to prove that my training and riding methods actually improve horses. If I could get Bingo to become a pleasant riding horse it would be proof positive that a sane, logically structured, and competently ridden training system can improve ANY horse.

It worked.

If you get to ride at all, have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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