I've been incredibly challenged in my horsemanship this year by my 4 year old Morgan gelding, Kit. I haven't written very much about my struggles with him because quite frankly I was pretty sure I was failing miserably for much of the year. I would have moments and glimpses of the greatness within but most of the time I would have to force myself to get up on him and I would get off of him an hour later completely mentally exhausted.
Kit is exceptionally busy minded. He's like a hyperactive kid with attention deficit disorder. He is also very intelligent. There has never been a gate he couldn't open or a knot he couldn't untie. I don't actually think he is trying to be bad or misbehave, I believe he believes that he's smarter than me and has a higher opinion of his direction and choices in sessions together than he does of my opinions. If I say we should go this way he automatically disagrees with me and vehemently states his opinion that he is just as sure we should go the opposite direction.
The result of this is that I feel like I am constantly redirecting him. I feel like I am forever pulling him back onto the trail or back into a straight line or reminding him that when I pull on the inside rein he has to look that direction and not the opposite direction. One might think, watching me ride him, that he is exceptionally dull, but that isn't the case at all. He's just constantly arguing about where I'm telling him to go. He is actually quite sensitive which makes for an interesting amount of over correction and occasionally over reaction when I attempt to redirect him. I tried briefly to ride this horse in the bosal and his favorite activity was to bounce the heal knot on his face in cadence with his walk, so that when I picked up on the bosal it didn't ever mean anything because he had completely desensitized himself. I don't know if any other folks that ride and train in the bosal have ran into this but for this horse I felt completely and totally handicapped when I had him in the bosal. Trying to keep him engaged in the snaffle has been difficult enough! As a matter of fact, I hate to admit it but I couldn't even keep him in a McCarty. The flopping reins and horse hair knot were too distracting for him as well. I had to keep pulling the slobber straps up so he couldn't get them in his mouth.
I've never ridden a horse that I had to talk myself into working with. I had to mentally psych myself up for a session of arguing with him. I can proudly say that I very rarely (hey, I'm as human as the next guy) lost my temper but there were times when I would have liked nothing more than to just go completely red neck on him and chuck a beer can at his resisting face. As a matter of fact, the few times that he did push me over the edge of what an average person can tolerate and I lost my temper and (in my opinion anyway) over reacted a bit, he actually would straighten up for awhile. It was almost like he would roll his eyes at me and say, "Sheesh! Alright already! I was only pointing out the other options!". But for awhile he would behave like a kid that had finally had a good scolding and was willing to toe the line for a bit.
He actually reminds me an awful lot of what my younger brother was like. For most of our young lives, I was ready to strangle my younger brother on a daily basis. He was also one of those bright, active busy minded kids. He didn't sit still even when he was sitting still. He also loved to argue with my mom. He wasn't a bad kid or even a mischievous one, just busy. My mom would often have to lose her temper with him before he would meekly go off offended to FINALLY take the garbage out after being asked nicely first about 15 times. My mother always started each and everyday with extreme patience (like a good horseman will) hoping that each and every day would be a new day and the old arguments would not continue, but my brother just enjoyed pushing her buttons. She would often say, "If I just woke up and started yelling at you, would you just do what I asked the first time?" I can tell you answer to that. As the older sister I didn't wake up with infinite patience. As a teenage girl with a busy little brother I would get mad at him before I even opened my eyes. Believe me, it never helped. All it did was cause me extreme angst and stress (and unending pleasure for my brother) and I missed out on enjoying some great years with that bright young man. My mom was right, he did eventually grow out if it. It took awhile for my anger to dissipate and realize that he wasn't that kid anymore. Had I woke up and treated each day as a new day I would have noticed when it first started to happen.
Luckily I'm not that angry teenager anymore either. I've worked hard at keeping my frustration with Kit buried down deep. I start each day with expectations of greatness. In a way it's setting myself up for failure but on those occasions that he rises above and meets those expectations it's incredibly gratifying.
There are two ways to go about dealing with a horse like this. Well, there are probably a million ways but two distinct camps as I see it. You can either remove the independence from the horse by making sure that it never gets to make it's own decisions and only moves a foot when you say so; OR you can consistently and constantly redirect the horse so that eventually his idea becomes your idea and vice versa. There are very good arguments for both methods depending on who you listen to.
I call the first camp, the "Yes, Ma'am!! Camp". There is a popular trainer out there that shall remain nameless (his first name starts with Clin and ends with ton) who sells this method to masses of women needing to find some way to establish control over the men and horses in their lives. Those that believe in this method of training want the horse to ONLY move when they say MOVE and then to MOVE RIGHT NOW! They want snappy, responses to direction and even snappier consequences to bad reactions. I can only imagine the hours of aggressive backing and lunging for respect that would have happened with my colt until he was standing there with sides heaving while I repeatedly struck the ground with stick and string. The problem with this method of training is that it removes all independent thinking from the horse.
I want my horses thinking. I want them to be aware of where their feet are, where the wildlife in the forest are and to tell me if they feel a trail or footing or direction is unsafe for one reason or another. Maybe if you are only riding your horse in an arena you would prefer to direct every foot fall but I spend most of my time out of the arena. Ever been on a trail ride with a horse that had completely disengaged from his rider and his surroundings? It's neither safe, nor fun.
I also want to keep the try in my horses. I don't want snappy huge responses to my cues, I want my horses to feel the energy in my requests and react appropriately. This is elemental in building softness and partnership in a horse. I also don't want to have to direct every step my horse takes. I like forward initiative in my horses and enjoy a forward moving horse.
So, it's been a long frustrating summer with Kit. I wasn't always sure that I was doing the right thing, but when I would feel lost, confused or frustrated I would reach out to other more experienced horseman. Their advice was always the same. Just keep at it; it'll get better. You are almost there. It sounded an awful lot like my mom who used to tell me to just be patient with my brother. He'd eventually grow up and straighten out. Just keep treating him like you want to be treated.
The good news is that I am better at that now than I was as a teenager. This past week saw 5 good days in a row with Kit. A virtual record. Today he walked along quiet and willing on a loose rein staying engaged and with me as we traveled down the trail at a walk, jog and lope. I know there will be other difficult days ahead. Just like little boys, colts don't grow up overnight. But at least I can see light at the end of the tunnel. I'm so glad I have stayed the course, kept my patience and not changed tactics during this summer. Sometimes success is just around the corner, you just have to make it there.
PS My brother turned out to be an amazing, successful man with a wonderful family too. My mom was right as well!