When faced with our behavioral/training issues, I felt like I was at a crossroads between pushing through and not letting my big baby pony ‘win,’ as so many well respected horse people have recommended… and conversely, following my instinct that he’s an individual and needed a reset to start liking his work before spoiling it for him forever.
The last thing in the world that I want is a horse whom I have to beg to play with me. I decided that my fear of making him hate his job is much greater than my fear of creating a pushy monster. So I’ve set out to create a plan that has his long career in mind and works for the both of us.
Just so. He had three weeks off to rejuvenate, play, and get pampered (massage, dentist, vet, saddle fitter, ripping friends’ fly masks to shreds). My hope was that when we got back to work, it would be a bit as if we’d started over. A nice clean slate. And happily, so far it has been cupcakes and rainbows, but I haven’t hopped back on yet. I was lunging him infrequently and without much demand during his vacay to keep his mind occupied slightly (so he didn’t tear the barn down) and last week we got back onto a regular schedule.
I have a few rules in mind for our triumphant return:
- Keep things short. This is twofold; Even when grooming, he has a short attention span. The same is true for exercise. Not to mention the bigger issue that he doesn’t have the muscle or stamina to do work for any sort of length. People will disagree, and that’s fine. But I’m not going to ask him to do any exercise for too long without a mental and physical break between. Break duration will depend on him.
- Make Training fun 3-4 times a week. He was being exercised 5-6 times per week previously and I believe he was overfaced. He needs consistency, just not drilling. I want this to be fun. I know that using his body properly, carrying a rider and learning new tricks is actually hard work, but there’s no need for him to dread it. If something is always frustrating, he’ll never want to do it for me. So I’m going to make sure to always praise for a small step in the right direction, to leave each session on a good note and let him grow into his body in the meantime.
- Change the view. We usually work in the round pen. He’s a gentleman; calm, relaxed, listens to his cues perfectly. One day I moved out to the sand arena because the lunge ring was under water from rain, and sir fritzalot had a minor panic, a big floaty trot and totally ignored my verbal cues. If he’s excellent in the round pen, super. But that doesn’t help if we can’t ever leave. It’ll also keep his mind fresh and interested.
- Mix it up. I don’t want to over-drill exercises. He needs building blocks to improve of course, but to do the same thing every day would suck the joy from anyone. I also plan on using some ground poles and Cavaletti to keep things interesting. And in terms of intensity, a change can be good. Since starting back, I’ve been doing a ‘casual’ workout one day and a ‘progress’ workout the next session. Casual days are just for exercise and keeping on schedule, usually no tack or just a bridle and the lunge is followed with a nice long walk. He still has to respond and move forward well, but nothing complex is required of him. Progress days can include side reins, trot poles, spiraling in and out, long lining etc. I worried that this light schedule won’t be enough to build up muscle and without muscle, the work will always be hard. But if we work enough to gain muscle, he’ll get frustrated again – catch 22 city! Buuuut I’ve tried it for two weeks and he’s responding really well to this schedule. On his easy days, he uses his body as if he were in side reins and searches for the bit. And that’s just swell. 😄
- Let little things be enough. This horse reeeeeeally wants to be told he did a good job. Even picking his confusing back feet, he’s SO proud when he finally picks it up correctly and is told how brave he is. Under saddle and on the lunge is no different. He’s always looking for my tone and encouragement. When learning confusing new things, praise is going to flow freely.
I started back with the session below, no tack and casually strolling in the sand arena to get a different look. Disclaimer before you freak out: I always stay off the rail and move throughout the arena. He won’t do any damage, swearsies.
With everyone out of town for regionals, we’ll have another week to play in our own world. Then I hope to start lunging with a rider up (me) and a trainer holding the line and whip as if I’m not there. We’ll gradually add in rider cues timed with the ground person’s but I’m not overly concerned how long it takes to get to that. This restart, I want to make sure he fully understands each step before we move to the next.
In the meantime, it’s my job to help him find his own balance so he can learn the even harder trick of balancing with a human perched atop his back. Tomorrow is a ‘progress’ training day, wish us luck!