My groundwork student, M, texted me midweek to let me know her horse was in the equine hospital. I asked her what she wanted to do about her lesson, saying she was welcome to use one of our horses instead of hers if she didn’t want to miss. She said what she would like most was to watch me work with Piper.
So on Friday, Piper and I had an audience. I’ve never tried to teach through that sort of scenario before. When I first brought Piper in, there was more activity in the barn than she’d ever experienced before. There was a horse being longed, someone doing chores, and a good deal of extra foot traffic, plus heavy equipment moving around outside. At first, Piper came in very rigid and very, very distracted. It is interesting, talking to people who haven’t learned to see as much about horses yet. M commented that Piper seemed very calm. And it’s true, Piper, overall, is gentle and quiet. But at that particular moment, she was full of bottled up anxiety – definitely on the verge of not being able to handle her situation very well. But she wasn’t moving, so M couldn’t see the warning signs.
I took the opportunity to point out some of the ways in which Piper was broadcasting her stress and anxiety. I then showed M how to work on massaging the neck and putting light, light pressure on the halter to help a horse learn to lower her head. Piper and I had worked on this before. She was responsive to the ask, but every time her head came down, it would pop back up the next second.
At times, Piper got too anxious to hold still. When that happened, we worked on moving in a circle. When she was more relaxed, we worked on flexes and disengages. When she was more settled, I introduced the idea of leading by a foot.
Like with flexing early on, we worked on leading by the foot quite a bit that day without making much progress. Piper would resist the light pressure on her ankle. When she did move, she’d always leave with the other foot first. It was a good opportunity to show M that sometimes you won’t see a change for a long time, but you just have to hang in there. I kept going, asking with the same amount of pressure, and waiting, each time.
Finally, Piper gave me her foot a couple of times, so we moved to other things. When we checked in on backing, she was moving off a feather’s weight of pressure. By then, Piper was calmer, so I let M handle her for a few minutes. When M asked Piper to back, she asked a little too firmly. (She certainly wasn’t coming in super hard – I just think it’s hard for people new to this style of handling to realize just how light a touch we’re actually using.) As soon as that happened, Piper got stuck. She didn’t flip out or go totally stiff, but she braced a little. Then she couldn’t figure out how to move her feet. I showed M how to ask with less force. She adjusted. The next time, Piper went back softly.
So, all in all, I think the unusual lesson set-up was good. I certainly had to think more critically about everything I was doing, since I had to narrate all of it. It also was less organized than usual, because I was constantly having to adjust what I was doing based on Piper’s moment-to-moment needs.
By the end of the day, Piper was super relaxed. She was yawning, standing with her head down, and getting more open and curious about her surroundings. It was the most comfortable I’d ever seen her. Hopefully M got something out of the experience too.
After working with Piper, I rode Steen. Although Steen and I still have plenty to refine and improve, he sure does feel like a steady, seasoned chap these days. Going straight from Piper to Steen is quite the contrast. It’s nice to have them both.
Ride Time: 11:30