The Oakley Diaries - 9: "Reculez pour Mieux Sauter"

Oakley had a light July.

We aren't going anywhere for August, and probably not in Septermber, either.

We are going to concentrate on basic dressage work and  jumping skills over low jumps.

First, because he got kicked good and hard by a mare who wears shoes on her rear hooves. I'm thankful that the only result of that incident was he was left limping and sore on his right side for about a week and he suddenly had a new sense of submissiveness. He was so submissive, he was almost obsequious. I do believe it's the first time in his life he lost a kicking match and it humbled him. It also made it impossible to go to any July shows or to do any hard training. The mare was limping, too, but he got the worst of it. I'm very lucky he didn't get anything worse than a very sore shoulder, which needed liniment and a scrape above the stifle.
Consequently, once he stopped limping and the swelling in his shoulder went down after a week and a half, I did a week of light groundwork exercises, but nothing longer than 20 minutes, just to give him a warmup stretch. When I began to ride him again a couple of weeks later, I kept our whole session to 45 minutes, groundwork included.

Second, it was sticky hot all month long. Still is. I didn't feel like riding that much. So I’ve kept longer rides only in the early morning, or cool of the evening.

Third, because I’m spending time helping train another horse in a barn just up the road. She is very difficult, even dangerous, and everyone else is quite simply afraid to go near her. (But not me… hmm…)
Since I started doing groundwork with her (it’ll be a long while before I try to get on her) her manners have improved 100%. Still crappy by absolute standards, but a vast improvement: she isn’t trying to kill me any more, for starters. That is taking up time, but it’s also given me a very good appreciation of just how exquisitely well-behaved and obedient Oakley has become in the past six months.

Fourth, I’ve decided that Oakley needs to trust me a lot more with obstacles than he does, and therefore, he needs much, much more practise, particularly over simple, low objects, like low cavaletti, tarps, and any other scary objects that might give him an excuse to shy. He also needs to just travel to new, strange places and go over new, strange jumps without the added pressure of competition.
So, it is back to a simpler level of training from where we were a few weeks back, but necessary: I cannot afford to train him by taking him to shows if he's not ready. Beyond the monetary expense, it's not good for either of us.
Now, after careful work, he walks over the flapping tarp, albeit still very reluctantly, he steps over trot poles in his path rather making a big fuss, he hasn’t refused an x-rail or low fence since I got back on. Out on the trail, he starts, but hasn’t spooked at anything and while he occasionally slows and very carefully examines any changes to the ground, hasn’t actually stopped or refused to go forward.

Now, I know he has started to really trust me, because when we were out on the trail recently, with my friend Cheryl and her horse Vinnie, he lightly jumped over fallen trees and logs, instead of freaking out, refusing, and then exploding (always a thrill when there are branches overhead); he  went through close brush without panicking and taking off at a gallop ( I was considering getting an English Civil War steel helmet with a face-mask, like Cromwell's Ironsides); he didn’t fight or try to flee home at the slightest rustling of the underbrush.
The clincher was "the cedar tree incident."
At one point in the trail, we were passing along a path lined with cedars on either side. One tree had died and was gracefully draped over the pathway. It was just low enough for me to get under, but too low for Cheryl, who has a much bigger horse and was wearing a tank-top. She'd probably scrape off most of her skin if she tried to duck under. So, I turned around, got off Oakley and pulled the dried branches out of the way. The first one broke off with a dry snap that startled Oakley, but no panic. He neither pulled at the reins in my hand, nor tried to flee. Then I pulled at the second, larger one, a main trunk that had fallen over. Cheryl had backed Vinnie up in case I let go and the tree trunk cane whipping back on her. As I pulled it back, it started to bend like a bow. Then the reins slipped from my fumbling grasp, but, just as I was letting the tension off the tree so I could recover them, the branch broke, sounding like a rifle-shot.
Oakley startled.
He looked back down the path, but the way was blocked by Vinnie.
He glanced behind, further along the path, open and he could have taken off.
Instead, to my ineffable joy, he decided I was doing some sort of desensitizing exercise, so he choose to trot up to me and put his head against my chest so I could stroke his face as a reward.

Oh how I loved him at that moment.

Lastly, is my own discovery that, while I was training Oakley, he was actually training me, too.
He has trained me to expect a refusal before every jump, so I unconsciously began to ride as if every jump was going to be refused. Nothing obvious, just very subtle (and easy to miss) changes in body positioning that were just enough to throw a horse off balance.
I discovered this because I was riding a different horse over a small jump and the horse refused. I then realized that my whole body position was ready for the refusal before the horse did anything and before the horse could jump. The horse wanted to go over, but stopped because my own position said ‘no’ and the horse did exactly what I inadvertently asked for.

So, while getting Oakley back into shape, I’ve also been working on my own technique on other horses and so now, I’m no longer inadvertently asking for a refusal and thus he’s not refusing.
A step back to better jump forward.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on August 3, 2012 at 10:49am

Good post.  It sounds like you are getting through to Oakley.  Keep up the good work!

Maybe the universe was doing you a "favor" with that kick.  Now you can fix all those holes, and you will produce better results with him.

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