Over the last few days I’ve been giving Buddy some massage and found he really responded to it in his right hind. Hoping the massage machine has been doing its job to release any tension I was aiming in the ground work to get Buddy’s hind legs stepping under him, for a more balanced gait and his back legs following the front legs. I started out very gently to warm him up and then did some stretches with him before I started to ask him for specifics. Then I reminded him of his basics, energy towards the hind end, hind end move away, energy at the shoulder, shoulder move away and so on. Then we began in walk being particular right from the beginning that I want him to step forward and round the circle, rather than falling in, which in faster gaits would start to look like a motorbike. He was resistant at first when we moved in to trot and ‘lost concentration’ a lot (horse equivalent for Buddy, of a child plugging their ears shutting their eyes and repeating ‘la la la I’m not listening’. This can be a very difficult thing to overcome. I know he is doing this in this instance because his right hind has been stiff. (We’ve had stiffness on the right rein for a few weeks now and I’ve gradually been working on it. Including a chiropractor treatment and the massage.) To force him here would cause him to contort himself further to protect his stiffness and try to provide me with something that looks like what I want, without actually using the muscles I want him to, probably creating more tension elsewhere. So we take it back to walk, get it in walk and then back to trot again. All the time I’m making sure I’m being clear in what I’m asking and allowing him the space and time to figure it out. And once he got it and realised he had less stiffnes, it was wonderfully light. It came and went a few times and he did loads of snorting and relaxing as he worked in to the muscle properly in a relaxed way. And then everything started to flow. He was concentrating on me, relaxed and supple. Once we had done a few repetitions in this way it was a great place to stop the session. I will follow this up with him for a few more sessions to really get the strength and suppleness back on the right rein before I ask him for more.
Later, I had an appointment for some Donkey training! I look after two donkeys from time to time and their owner invited me to join her for her training session with a lady who specialises in donkeys. In some ways donkeys are very different to horses but there are also a great number of similarities. A donkey will push in to pressure. Horses do this too but are usually easier to train to give to pressure, a donkey won’t budge, hence their reputation for being stubborn. So we had an interesting walk with one donkey who really enjoys an adventure and steps out well, and the other donkey who is less enthusiastic! By setting up the ropes in the right way and with a little improvisation, we were using the donkeys to effectively train each other. Although the rope still pulls in a similar way it makes a big difference when the pressure is coming from another donkey. So the slower donkey was steadying the quicker one and vice versa. It was quite interesting to watch and to work with them and hopefully will help me when I have to look after them next.
I also jumped at the opportunity to ride a friends pony later in the day. He was very interesting as his current issue that he will throw his head up, take hold of the bit and run off, or just plain not concentrate on any requests from the rider, meandering about any old how in a rough approximation of what’s being asked while looks off in to the distance. Having seen Buddy doing this to a somewhat lesser extent earlier I realised he also seemed to be plugging his ears and saying la la la. However he felt more like this came from some missing understanding and that he has developed his pull and run habit to get himself out of what is an uncomfortable situation. (this horse has recently had a long time off due to needing sarcoid treatment and I feel that this had exaggerated his imbalances due to where the sarcoids were causing him pain to use his left hind under himself properly) So I did what seemed to be right at the time… I let go. I let the rein out so I was almost on the buckle and offered him the option to do what he wanted with his head. After an initial attempt to pull and realising his head was free he put his nose almost on the floor and slowed down! A much better place for me to be able to ask him for something, a place of relaxation. I then had to focus really hard on asking him for turns through my body and at first any request got a little rush forward and big push back through his neck. I kept myself as in balance as possible and refused to pick up the rein. Once he realised I wasn’t going to take his head he started to think about what I was asking rather than just reacting, and began to offer some nice moments of softness on his stiff rein. So I finished the session in a moment of softness to ‘finish on a good note’ and I hope that my comments on what was going on and what I was feeling from him, will help the rider to continue making good progress with his reintroduction to work.
The thing that stands out for me today is that in all three sessions there has been a recurring theme. A push back in to pressure of some kind that cannot be solved by more pressure and actually all were solved by taking the pressure off and explaining things (non-verbally of course) in a different way. With Buddy, go back to walk when he struggled, to explain the step I was after, before going back in to trot, with the Donkeys, using the Donkeys working together rather than more pressure trying to pull a slow donkey along or more pressure trying to pull a quick donkey back (anyone who has worked with donkeys will know a pulling war with a donkey is a fools’ errand) and with my friends horse, giving the rein away rather than pulling back in any way, when he takes hold of the bit a stiffens up to charge off.
Each one showing that when a little pressure doesn’t work (be it physical pressure or a pressure of energy) more pressure is not the answer. The horse (or donkey) needs to be shown what you are after in smaller bitesize chunks or in a different way so they can understand, process and not be reprimanded for a genuine try. We want to set up our horses for success, not for a fight!
So next time you get stuck with something with your horse, ask yourself can I explain this to him in smaller chunks? Can I ask this another way? Can I set him up for success?