Whatever evil cold Brian and I caught has proven to be very hard to kick. Last weekend neither one of us made it out to the horses at all. That’s practically unheard of.
But finally this week we are both feeling mostly better. We managed a solid ride on Steen and Laredo on Tuesday. Today my student, M, couldn’t make it for our Friday lesson, so asked if I would spend some time working with her horse on my own. Also, our barn owner asked if we’d work with one of her horses, who has recently started to get super agitated about certain parts of the arena.
So yesterday Brian and I went out and got two horses that aren’t ours, both of them Arabians. Both of them were pretty snorty and stiff coming in.
The horse I was working with, Loretta, is 15, and I think a lot of her world view is fairly established. Although she’s not a skittish horse, she’s very high strung. Just about everything troubles her. She has trouble paying attention. She doesn’t like being touched with a rope. The flag terrifies her. When she’s still, she’s rigid. When she’s not still, she’s not very aware of whose space she might be invading. But she’s sweet and, of course, none of this is her fault. We don’t know much about her life before her current owner got her, except that she came from a rescue organization.
At first I started with sending Loretta in a circle, but her attention was entirely to the outside, and when I asked her to turn and face me, she’d get agitated and try to run off in one direction or the other. Blocking her was getting her agitated enough to be counter-productive. I got to an acceptable stopping point, and switched to some big neck rubs and teaching her to lower her head to a light touch and turning loose with lateral flexion. We did make progress, but I didn’t feel it was actually helping all that much with soothing her anxiety.
At one point, I lifted my hand to rub her withers and the sound of my rope brushing against her blanket completely freaked her out. She squirted away from me, so I stuck with her and kept rubbing the blanket until she realized the noise wasn’t actually causing her any harm.
I gave her a break, and from there we started to make more steady progress. I returned to exposing her to sounds and sensations that got her a little bothered, but was careful not to push her too hard. I gave her a break every time she made a small change. She started to be more attentive to me.
After we got through her wanting to run away so much, I worked on getting her to move her feet with some softness. Loretta has a hard time giving just one step in response to an ask. She is usually either stuck, or trying to escape with a lot movement. So I tried to give her the time and space to realize she could soften up and move in a way that is more fluid. It took a while, but eventually we started to get some responses that were motivated more by thought than reaction.
About halfway through the session, I introduced the flag. I’d used it on her once before, but pretty minimally. She had trouble tolerating it at first, but after a few minutes of touching her with it she started to get the idea it was no more painful than the rope. I worked on teaching her to hold still when it was touching her, and asking her to move when it was touching her. We made progress on both things.
By the end, finally, Loretta relaxed. At one point it was like a switch flipped. We’d been working on a spot above her back where she found the flag troubling. After trying to run away from it three times, she let out a huge sigh and stopped moving. She dropped her head down to the level of my knees. I set the flag down and petted her face and neck for several minutes. She was happy to just stand there. It was the first time I’ve seen her let go of feeling like she needed to defend herself from the whole world.
I’m curious to see what happens with Loretta as times goes on. This was the first time I worked with her on my own, and while we did make some progress today, I get the feeling it’s going to be a while before the lessons start to carry from one session to the next.
In other news, Steen has taken to calling and coming to the gate every time he sees me. I guess he’s feeling a little neglected.
Horseback Hours YTD: 13:10