It’s hard to believe the way the summer has flown by. Our two months with King ran out on Saturday, and his people came and picked him up.
Working with King was a very interesting experience. In recent years, we’ve been working almost entirely with stock horses. In the past I spent quite a bit of time with Arabians and a mustang and a few other high spirited horses, but I’d never worked with a horse of a cooler tempered breed. King, being half Fresian, half Tennessee Walker, was different both physically and mentally than the horses I’ve grown most used to. While he doesn’t have any bonafied Walker gaits, his locomotion is not like a stock horse’s. His hind end is on the scrawny side while his front end is huge and stocky. His neck is big and powerful. His head is massive. This combination makes him really, really inclined to be heavy on the forehand.
My current trainer crush is Joe Wolter. We’ve watched a number of his videos lately, and I’ve been consistently impressed watching him handle troubled or uneducated horses. None of the trainers we follow advocate punishment or use of pain as a training technique, but there are moments I’ve seen most of them apply quite a bit of pressure to get a point across. I have never seen Joe Wolter resort to that. In every scenario I’ve seen him in (including when he was in the background in a round pen on a day he and the Neuberts started a few dozen colts) he is soft and patient and quiet. He seems to have found the perfect balance of giving a horse time and space to explore without ever allowing himself to be ignored or forgotten about.
Seeing this has had me thinking a lot about making a horse do something vs setting things up so a horse can find the right answer. I have written about this a bit before. As I find I’m more and more able to climb on an unfamiliar horse and just make things happen, I wonder more and more if that is the best way to go about a horse’s education. King was a good exercise for me right now because when he arrived he was simply too big and too backwards for me to be able to muscle him around. He had been ridden inconsistently by a lot of different people for quite a few years. He had some major defenses in place, and everything he did under saddle was out of balance. The first time I asked him to step his front end over, it felt like running into a brick wall.
These two months were more about balance than anything else. King overflexed both laterally and vertically. He got stuck regularly at all gaits. He couldn’t back up. He couldn’t bend. He couldn’t step his front and his hind independently. He had a tendency to fling his head down whenever he was frustrated or confused, which just made his heavy front end even heavier.
But he is a sweet horse, and very intelligent. And the most important thing I learned working with him was not to hurry. I don’t feel I’m ever particularly in a hurry with horses, but with King being so large and lumbering and also more of a thinker than a doer, I found I had the most success with him when I gave him more space and time to understand and execute what I was asking. Particularly with groundwork, if you hurried him, he got resentful. If you let him work at it for a while, he got softer and lighter and more willing. By the end of our time together, he could do the walking half circle exercise almost as fast as Aiden. (Aiden is admittedly not our most agile and quick and this, but still.)
We did have some hiccups. Mainly, King was really super out of shape when he came to us, and he didn’t have the strength and stamina for as frequent or as long rides as would have been ideal. Nevertheless, we got a lot done. The week before he went home we were finally getting some balanced and willing cantering done. When I showed the Miracles people his groundwork the day he left, I could send him all over with my fingers open on the rope. His disengages with both the front and the hind were quick and soft and balanced. I honestly am a little surprised we got to where we did given what he knew the day he arrived.
So, I feel really grateful we had the opportunity to work with King. He got more open, more affectionate, more motivated, happier to see us, and quite a bit more balanced and willing under saddle. Of course, there were tons of things we still could have improved upon, but I hope what we did is enough to help him move on from here to a good future.