I like to believe that I have a special relationship with my young Morgan. At home he is like a dog. He comes when he is called, leaving friends and hay at any time of the day or night to trot up to me with a willing expression on his face. We can work and ride away from his friends without a single bobble. The events we have attended up until this weekend have confirmed in my mind that he is a willing steady partner relying on our special relationship to keep a cool, calm head in any setting. Yea, me! Yea, for my exceptional training skills! Yea, for finally getting one of those quiet, calm, cool and collected horses!
Then this weekend we had our regional Gathering that we had been looking forward to and working hard to be ready for all summer. I was excited to finally be able to ride into any arena without having to drag the retinue of support horses that Chico (my previous CD partner) always required to go anywhere. Finally, I was going to be one of those big time professionals with a nice calm horse standing sedately and waiting outside the arena. We started off on our first evening walking the horses around the arenas we would be showing in and he took it all in stride. Nothing phases him as he is not one to spook or be watchy in a new environment. I was feeling pretty dang good.
The next morning we headed off for our first class of Partnership on the Ground confident our winning performance would turn heads. My goal for this show was to earn my qualifying scores to move to the liberty division at Finals. Partnership on the Ground is designed to showcase quiet partnership, subtle cues, correct movement and execution of maneuvers. We walked away from the barn on a loose lead, together and focused. Once Ernie and I walked into the arena he suddenly became some other horse I had never seen before. Out of nowhere (at least that I could tell) I had a screaming, rearing, pawing, dancing dervish. While we watched the other folks do their tests I did my best to quietly reassure my suddenly needy boy before we did our test. When I couldn’t make any progress I told Dan to go get his pasture mate that we had left in the barn. Maybe he was more herd bound than I knew! Nope, no improvement. It distracted him for just a bit but then he was right back to being anything but connected and focused on our partnership as I tried to get him to refocus and join me in the task at hand. I tried everything I could think of, petting, soothing, talking, blowing, lowering his head because horses raise their heads to scream (nope, he kept his head down and screamed at my boots). Finally, it was my turn to go in. I told the judge there was a possibility this would turn into a training session rather than a judged test because I wasn’t sure he could keep it together through an entire test. As soon as we stepped across the boards at A he was all business. Admittedly a bit more distracted and over sensitive than at home but ready to go to work. Huh, another surprise. When Chico had these meltdowns, he was incapable of working; things only got worse on the court. At least we had that going for us.
We kept his support horse with him for the rest of the day though he was definitely not looking towards him for comfort. Then during our final riding tests that day one of the horses in the barn raised a bit of a ruckus. The arena we were showing in is right next to the barn. Ernie immediately checked out and wanted only to get back to the barn to see why he hadn’t been invited to the party. We made it through our test, barely, but I knew it was time for me to attempt to figure this situation out and nip this behavior in the bud.
In Cowboy Dressage we are all about supporting the horse, helping them to feel safe and comfortable and able to focus. We allow support horses so that horses nervous in a new environment don’t feel overwhelmed. We encourage quite connection and reassurance. We have ground classes just to emphasize how important we believe this connection to be in building a better partnership under saddle. It’s is therefore rare at a Cowboy Dressage show to see a horse so completely off his rocker. Especially one that can be standing amongst his horsey buddies and still looking for the better party to join.
So, how do you handle a horse in this situation? Well, I’m not sure I have the perfect answer or the right one. Time will tell. But, this is how we handled it this weekend. When I realized that Ernie wasn’t scared, or missing his buddies (since we offered those solutions to no effect) I decided that perhaps he was acting out because he wasn’t getting what he wanted in that moment. My social butterfly really wanted to be wherever he thought the party was and he believed it must be where he wasn’t. It didn’t matter how many horses he had around him at the time, the horse that walked by at the other end of the grounds was obviously having more fun. He wanted to be there. His ability to focus once in the arena (for the most part) told me he needed to go to work and move his feet. So, that’s what we did. Every time his mind left me and what we were doing he got to move his feet. If his mind left accompanied by airs above ground and screaming he got to move his feet with a fair bit of energy in order to keep as many of his feet on the ground as possible. If his mind left with just a little look and a call he got to do a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunches. It wasn’t always pretty and there were times he had to do quite a bit of moving but more and more he came back to me and was able to focus again. He tried rearing, pawing with all four feet (a trademark move of his) and various other dance moves. If his feet were still he tried orally satisfying himself on my hat, the whip, the lead rope, the chair etc.
By our last class he was pretty dang good. The show was running late at the end of the day and we had over an hour to hang out in the wings of the indoor arena waiting while horse after horse walked by where we were standing. He had one other horse from our group (not a pasture mate) waiting there with him. When he got bothered he moved but the movements became smaller and smaller until it was maybe just stepping back with one foot. Eventually my sweet yellow kid came back to me by inches. When all was said and done we ended the show with our personal high score and the Open Partnership High Point. Not bad for a horse that spent a good part of the show leaping around like a BLM Mustang just off the range.
As always when I get hit with a training situation that I’m not 100% ready to handle I do A LOT of introspection and thinking the situation through. I try to think about what my mentors would do in this situation. Then I try some stuff and see what works. I used to be frozen with the fear of doing the wrong thing and making the situation worse. Now I know I can feel my way through it and figure out if I need to keep pushing until it gets better or if I need to change tactics. It’s still scary sometimes when you feel like you are in over your head or wonder if you are capable of fixing this particular problem. Maybe truly great trainers never feel that way, but I know I do.
I guess what I’m trying to say with this blog post isn’t, wow, look at me and my fabulous training skills. It’s also not meant to be a how to for when your horse is acting like a lunatic because I wouldn’t necessarily handle another horse the same way. I think the take home message (or at least what I took home from this) is don’t be afraid to step outside of your box and try some stuff. Try to imagine why your horse is acting out. Had Ernie been scared, nervous or otherwise fearful I could have made things much worse for him this weekend. I knew him well enough to realize that wasn’t the case this time. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t some people scratching their heads watching our rodeo wondering why I didn’t just go get him his buddy so he could take a breath and focus. It was because it didn’t help this time. Not at all. I had to try some other stuff until I found something that worked and built on it. Even in a world built on soft feel sometimes stuff is going to get a little ugly before it gets better. Sometimes we must up the pressure enough to be effective and make a breakthrough. Sometimes you have to wing it a little. I hope by the next show I’ll have less of this teenage nonsense to deal with. Maybe not. It may take a couple of years. But, if he keeps showing me the good stuff once we go to work, we’ll keep managing the baby stuff as long as it takes. So, my apologies to all of my fellow showmen this weekend. I hope my teenager didn’t interfere with any of your rides. Thank you to all the offers of support and understanding. Next time, hopefully we won’t be the ones throwing the tantrum in the cereal isle.