Dante’s Dark Side
Ellen was working Sunday, and I thought I would take advantage of the great weather and ride Dante on the trail. I knew I couldn’t cross the river because I already rode down there with Cole Train. We would have to do the hill multiple times.
The hill can be a tricky place to work a horse. Once they are good at it, it is very easy, but there is a certain amount of training that comes first. We are so close to home that there is a tendency for horses to want to rush home, pout going away from home and not want to turn around to do another trip down. There are flat parts that we can easily trot and canter—the best one is right at the bottom of the hill. We like to go back and forth a bunch of times to give them good exercise.
It took me a few years before I could trust Cole on the hill for one trip, let alone multiple trips. It was always our worst section of trail. He didn’t want to walk either up or down and could get very hyper on the faster work. Even today, he gets faster with each successive trip—very different from the other horses that get slower each trip. Ranger, of course, is the expert. He loves just doing the hill and gets very excited when he doesn’t have to cross the river. Starry just seems bored.
Ellen and I just started working Dante with multiple trips on the hill just this year. We only do it when we can’t cross the river, of course, so the training is sporadic. I don’t think we have ever taken him down there by himself—with neither another horse nor a person on the ground—and asked him to do it more than once. As usual, Ellen finds a way to get me to do everything first.
I led Dante to the trail. Very shortly after I mounted, he neighed, hopped up and tried to turn around to go home. That surprised me, but I had no trouble getting him to stop and stand still until he calmed down. We walked a little further, and he did it again! This was unprecedented!
When we got to the bottom of the hill, I asked him to trot—and he leapt up into a canter! Now, last time we worked him down there with Cole Train, we did introduce cantering, so maybe he just wanted to show me he remembered the lesson. I was able to get him to trot immediately, but he wasn’t happy about it. He was tossing his head up and down and having a little temper tantrum about it. At the end of the trail, I stopped, turned him around, walked back and turned him back around to do it again. I was ready for misbehavior, but he was even more ready to misbehave. I asked him to trot and he launched into a canter—throwing in a huge buck this time. I was starting to wonder what horse I was riding. This certainly wasn’t Dante.
I wasn’t able to stop him until he got 8-10 strides in, and as we trotted to the end, he had another temper tantrum. We turned around and repeated—about 5 more times. He didn’t canter anymore, but the tantrums persisted.
That’s when I remembered that I had some candy corn in my pocket. I decided to employ clicker training. I would click him as soon as I got several decent trot steps in a row. We tried it again, and he was tossing his head like a bratty little colt. Then, he gave me 3 good steps. I clicked, he stopped, 1 gave him a piece of candy corn and asked him to trot again—he was perfect the rest of the way. Dante had magically transformed into his old self with one piece of candy corn. I couldn’t believe the dramatic change. All the trotting we did the rest of the ride was normal.
Now, I have to be careful with Cole when I give him really good treats—he is the quintessential overachiever. Once he knows there are good treats, he will try all sorts of things to get them—silly walk, laterals, more speed, more and more impulsion until I can barely hold on—all without me asking. Getting him to walk like a normal horse in a straight line is a huge challenge, if he thinks there are good treats in my pocket. I like to save them for when we are trying something new—he will then learn very quick. Dante, though, had a different reaction. He just became focused on what I wanted instead of what he wanted. I always find the contrast between our 2 horses to be very entertaining.
My problems weren’t over, yet. It was time to go back up the hill and do it again. Dante was fine on the way up, but when I turned him around to go back down, he planted his feet and refused. I did some very assertive kicking, got a few more steps and he balked again. At least he wasn’t trying to turn to go home, but he sure didn’t want to go forward.
Now, I could have clicked him for taking a step forward, but horses are smart enough to chain several actions together, which can be used to our benefit, but we have to be very careful. I didn’t want Dante to think, “If I stop and refuse to go forward, then finally do, I will get clicked.” There is another thing I have learned—if you want your horse to go forward to light aids and he ignores them, use heavy aids, stop and repeat with light aids—then praise. What I decided to do was to get him going, stop, repeat and repeat until he goes for a light squeeze and then click. I think it took 4 more times before I got a good one. I clicked him, and since I was in a trottable section of the hill, I asked him to trot. He was fine the rest of the way down, but I figured out that this is a lesson that he really needs to know. I interspersed it throughout the ride after that and later told Ellen to work on it.
At the bottom, we did more trotting back and forth. By this point, I was able to trot both ways with ease. I decided to try for a canter, and I got it on the first request, but he stopped after a few strides. When I tried it a second time, he picked it up and held it. I then did a few more back and forths at a trot, so he would hopefully understand that cantering is with permission only.
We walked back up the hill, and when I got to the turnaround spot, he refused to either stop or turn. Even a strong leading rein didn’t work—he just belligerently braced against it. Well, he isn’t the first strong-necked Morgan in my life. Years ago, my horse Brandy taught me the only way to win with an iron horse is to outsmart them. As Dante braced on my right hand, I switched to the left and easily turned him. He wasn’t too happy about it, but I didn’t get any balking as I asked him to go back down the hill. He just pouted by walking slow. I started to work on walk/halt/walk transitions—clicking for good ones and that changed his mind.
This time, when we got to the bottom, I just turned him around to go back home. When we reached the turnaround spot, I asked him to stop. He didn’t, so I asked him to turn—which he did. I then dismounted and walked him home. Over all, it was a very productive training ride.
When I called Ellen at work and told her about the ride, she said she wasn’t surprised and now I knew he had a dark side. Mr. Perfect isn’t perfect, after all. I’m glad to say that his worst is nowhere near Cole’s worst, and look how good Cole is now! It won’t be long before we get these little problems corrected and then Dante will shine; whether he is with another horse or all by himself—because underneath that dark side is a heart of gold.