Oakley Diaries - 10: A Year on Horseback

It's been just over a year since I got my horse. (Or he got me, depending on your perspective.)
I've learned more about horses in the past 12 months than I'd learned in five years of merely riding, even working through the EC Rider levels. See, there is a lot of stuff you just cannot do with someone else's horse because, well, you can't really try stuff if she's not yours, can you? Plus I met another good teacher, who had much to teach.

Well, we went out on the trail the other day. It gave me a good measure of how far we've come.
Last year, Oakley spooked and balked and refused to even walk quietly down the driveway at the barn where he'd been living for four years. He was difficult to control, constantly looking anxiously about, nervous even in the field where his previous owner had ridden him. Choppy and hollowed-out, head in the air, constantly on the qui-vive. I'm not entirely sure whether it's our definitions that are different, or whether he was submissive to Molly, but he acted completely different when I rode him than from her description.
One thing that is definitely true: he could jump, but only when he wanted to; only if he felt comfortable, only if it was familiar. Anywhere else, he absolutely refused. That's how he got eliminated in the one event she took him to, and the one event I took him to.
I distinctly remember how reactive and nervous he was out on the path. He constantly snatched bites along the trail, spooked at everything he could and refused to step over fallen branches without an argument. He danced around shadows and puddles and jumped at every gust of wind.
He wouldn't come when I approached in the paddock. About three quarters of the time he would play 'catch me if you can' and when I was finally leading him, he'd grab bites off of nearby hay bales, knocking them over, he'd push me into things and I couldn't get my hands anywhere near his head. Putting the bridle on involved standing on tip-toe and hanging off his nose.
Putting him on a trailer was an epic struggle, involving two people, a rump-strap, and a lot of pushing and pulling.
His groundwork was none too good, either, leaning on the bit, and he always cantered on the left lead, no matter which way we were going.
What I've learned in 12 months.
I've learned how to teach a horse to get on the trailer. Heck, I've learned how to get a horse to like getting on the trailer.
I've learned how vitally important proper groundwork is. I'm now amazed that no one teaches this, especially to beginner riders. Groundwork is the foundation of respect, and it can be summed up simply: in the horse world, whoever moves first is lower in the order. So he either moves his feet while mine stay still, or he moves his feet much more than mine. He has become the standard for good, quiet behaviour around the barn.
I've learned that to gain respect, to quiet a spooky horse, to get him to pay attention to me instead of everything else, move his feet! Forward, backward, left and right. Spooking on the trail? Perfect time to do shoulder-in, turns on haunches, sidepassing, turns on forehand, move those feet, work!... you don't have time to be scared, you're too busy paying attention to me!
I've learned dozens of exercises to work on the ground, exercises to teach my horse to respect me. In particular, to back up without fussing (this has a practical purpose getting off trailers and such). Now I never just lead my horse anywhere on foot any more. He's always doing something: running around me, backing in the aisle, backing into his stall, whatever, as long as he moves his feet more than I do. And the same exercises have a practical purpose of teaching him to approach scary objects, to jump and cross obstacles, and to do as I ask. He comes to me in the paddock, and has even begun to do a little bit of liberty work.
What else?
Oh, yeah, I've finally learned details of body language and how to walk, move, and generally carry myself around horses to gain their respect without instilling fear. Something I've read about in books and magazines, but never seen described in anything but the most vague, general (and, practically, useless) terms. And body language can be described quite simply, too.
If you want to drive the horse away to make him move, act like a predator: look with both eyes, chest and shoulders square to the horse, hunch slightly forward (not slouching) with tension and act as if you were a cat about to pounce.
If you want to get the horse to stop moving and relax, stand up straight, turn your shoulders, look 45 degrees off to the side, and cock one leg, like you're standing at a bar with one foot on the rail or waiting in line somewhere, bored.
That's essentially it.
I never knew that, and all the authors I'd read seemed to present this as complicated and minutely detailed and difficult. But, as I mentioned, I found a good teacher.
I've rediscovered how to ride well, again.
Riding almost every day helps immensely, but there's more to it than that.
There is a truism in riding that you can really only learn to ride well if you have to ride difficult horses, but I believe that it is more accurate to say that one should start to ride on easy horses, refine your skills on finer horses, then test your progress against difficult horses, but really learn to ride by turning a difficult horse into a fine horse.
Over the years, at different schools, I always got the more difficult horses because I was an above-average rider, but I also found myself on a plateau, where I was not progressing. Moreover, I was learning bad habits, learning to adjust to difficult horses (like expecting refusals, even when the horse was not refusing) instead of how to get the horses to adjust to me. This past year, I've taken a difficult horse and turned him into a much softer, much more responsive horse, and in that process, my own seat, posture, and hands have become very much steadier, my aids much more distinct and precise. I am re-learning how to jump properly.
He is still leery of going over things and still occasionally refuses, but not constantly any more.
Because I sit better, and use my aids better, he does as I ask more promptly, and I've learned to deal with his refusals quickly and effectively. Of course, we haven't been anywhere new and interesting in weeks, but, still, he's going over jumps he used to balk at and fight to avoid. He hops over fallen trees in the forest and pushes through thick branches when I ask him to.
I've learned how to desensitize him to scary things through groundwork.
He no longer spooks at rocks, poles on the ground, flapping tarps, plastic bags blowing along the road, or even changes of terrain. He still inspects puddles closely before stepping in them, but he doesn't stop any longer. He still looks askance at the odd piece of farm equipment left in the field, but he no longer tries to escape in terror.
Out on the trail, last Friday, we (Oakley, me, my friend Cheryl, and her horse Vinnie) went through the woods, and I mean through the woods. At one point, the trail dead-ended at a logging cut, so we blazed our way through the undergrowth, over fallen branches, through thickets, and he never even flinched, much less refused. Also while out there, I pruned some of the branches that overhang the path, the ones way up there that get in my face as I ride, the ones I could not reach from the ground. (Now there are long stretches of trail where I no longer have to duck when we're going along - I'll get 'em all, eventually!) I was so proud of him. He stopped on 'whoa', stood quite still as I clipped the branches, and didn't flinch when I tossed them to the side. He took one step forward, backwards, or to the side, to get closer into the foliage, just as I asked, so I could clear all the leaves out of the way. Even as recently as a few weeks back, he nearly jumped out of his skin whenever he heard a branch snap. Now he acts as if it's a desensitizing exercise and stands stock still, so he has learned that the correct answer, after being startled, is to not move and to take his cue from me. I'm so proud of him.
I've learned dozens of practical ways to display and reinforce leadership at every instance: when leading my horse, I do not let another horse come nosing around. (As leader, your job is to protect your follower, right? So protect her!) Or when grooming, I stand still, he moves around while I stand there and brush him and pick out his hooves.
I can wave my hands about his head, scratch his ears, and gently rub his eyes. He lowers his head so I now actually bend over to put the bridle on easily and quickly. (And no, he's not down there hoovering up dropped strands of hay and grain.)
He's learned to trust me and stay calm(er).
I've learned how to earn that trust.
It's been an awesome year since I got my horse

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on August 28, 2012 at 8:16am

Good work B. G.!   

Comment by Barbara F. on August 27, 2012 at 8:00pm

Wow, what a wonderful year you've had! There is nothing like getting out there with your horse for some peace and quiet - and personal growth. Even the more challenging days are worth the drive to the barn.


By the way, I have always thought that if teachers would just help us with the simplest way of doing things, life would be much easier. A lot of being with horses is common sense!

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