Friday, June 22, 2012

Lessons from a 4 Year Old...or...Horses, They Keep You Humble

Frisco Bay at a clinic with Kamila DuPont in Las Vegas, March 2012

It hit me, at 5:00am this morning. I was lying in bed, awakened as usual by my cat and/or husband, I'm not really sure which. I finally figured it out. After having already gone to six recognized shows since November, and having travelled back and forth to Canada for the last three years, my usually pretty confident traveller had a complete come-apart at a "simple" schooling show. A few weeks ago, I took Frisco to the Utah Summer Games Dressage show in Cedar City. I had him entered in First Level Test 1. He got to travel up the day before the show with his favorite barn buddy, Beau Dazzler. I've never seen two happier clams standing in a trailer than those two; they are peas and carrots. All went very smoothly unloading and setting up, both horses were very calm and settled in quickly. I tacked up Frisco first, and we began sauntering off towards the indoor arena to school. We got about half way there, and Daz whinnied. My easy going 16.1 hand Chocolate Lab turned into the tasmanian devil instantly. He was airborn. I was flying a 1400 lb kite, just trying not to get in his way. Now, since the show, I had been blaming the problem on the fact that he heard his friend whinny, and was absolutely convinced he had to return instantly to the barn. But he's gone to other shows with other horses. He went to two shows with Brendijs, his next door neighbor in the barn. Even with Brendijs whinnying constantly, he completely ignored him and focused on me. So I have been mystified. I don't know if I was dreaming about it or what, maybe he telepathically sent me a picture(some people say horses can do that). My eyes flew open. I knew instantly why he panicked. The picture in my mind was of the open, barren, expansiveness of the Diamond Z arena in Cedar City, with NOT A SINGLE OTHER HORSE IN SIGHT.  Only his friend, back at the barn, also completely alone, calling for him. There were a few horses already there, but, they were inside the indoor already, and Frisco could not see or hear them. It wasn't so much that Daz called for him, it was the utter alone-ness he felt. There were no other horses. Anywhere. As far as he knew, we had landed on the moon. Frisco is the most social horse I have ever known, and I mean an 11 on a scale of 1-10. He has never met a stranger: horse, human, canine, feline or otherwise...all are potential new BFF's. That is why my pony panicked. He looks to me for assurance in most situations, but, he does not like it when he can't see other horses. Whenever I take him on a trail ride and we lose sight of the barn, he goes from a trail nag to one hot number instantly. He is rideable, but it is exciting to say the least.  Lesson number one: when taking a highly social horse to a new venue, make certain there are plenty of other horses around for him to see.
I did go back to the barn, carefully, slowly...and got Daz. I led both horses back to the indoor arena. By this time, Frisco was on high alert and jumping at everything. Gone was his quiet demeanor. But we got there, inch by inch(thank heavens Daz is a pro and was very quiet). I tied Daz to the tie post outside the arena while I rode my horse. So here comes lesson number two, and this one came to me right away, the next day after the show really.  Frisco has never worked in this kind of arena before. He doesn't love indoor arenas to begin with. But this one dark. It has bleachers on one side, and corrals on the other, that smell of cows(it's used mostly for cowhorse events). It also has steele support beams coming down from ceiling to ground every 20 feet or so, alongside the arena rails. That means anything behind those beams is unseen, until the horse gets closer to the beam. Now, I've already said this...my horse is a very easy traveller. We show up at a new place, I tack up, hop on, and away we go, no sweat. He might be excitable, but, he always goes where I want and does what I want him to. I never lunge him. I don't usually even have to lead him around and show him things. BUT...and this was my critical error...I failed to take into account how truly scarred he was from the experience of walking out into that moonscape and seeing not a single horse. I just thought he was upset about leaving his buddy, and, so long as his buddy was right there, he was going to be fine. Fresh, but, fine. Big mistake. I rode for quite a while, but, it was useless, he was only getting more upset. So I finally had to dismount and ask to borrow someone's lunge line and lunge whip. As soon as I pointed him off to the left on the lunge line, all the tension dropped off of him like water off a duck's back. I could barely keep him in the canter. See, Frisco has been doing this-"lunging for respect"-since he was about four months old. By reducing my demands of him down to something so basic as a little bit of work on the line, he was able to take the memory of this very laid back exercise and superimpose it onto what so far had been a very nerve-wracking experience, and he let loose the tension. After he worked a bit on the line, I hand walked him around the entire arena. He was looking, but, okay. So, I got back on. We walked, trotted, and cantered one lap each direction, even down at the scary end. He was a little bit nervous, but, on the aids and quiet, so, I stopped with that. The next day, show day, I could barely keep him going in the warmup, which was outside, with other horses. Back to my usual Chocolate Lab. But once back in the indoor, the memory of the day before came to the forefront for him, and it took me until the second canter of our test to get him finally on  my aids. I am relieved that I did get him on my aids, even though it took nearly the whole test. After he was done, we stood outside the arena with the other horses and just watched for ten minutes or so. All is well that end's well.
Lesson Number Two: Never take your horse for granted, LISTEN to him or her, they do communicate if we take the time to listen. If they are telling you they are nervous, no matter how much you think you can talk them out of it, if it is a new situation, listen to their concerns. Deal with it slowly, and, you might just have to lunge or handwalk your horse to show them a new environment, even if they have been the most brave horse in the world at other locations. I failed to recognize that Frisco was telling me very clearly that he was not happy about that arena. The reason didn't matter. So what if it may have been exacerbated by a completely unconnected prior event that caused him to be more excitable than usual? I didn't listen to my horse.  These lessons might not seem to have much to do with Dressage; at first blush they are more about horsemanship. But the Dressage-specific epiphany that came to me after this experience is this. No matter how upset your horse is, find a way to get him "on the aids", get him to ackowledge you in some way, even if it's a small, brief acknowledgement. Then release immediately, and, ask again. Some how, some way. So it does not matter if you are trying to wrangle a panicked four year old, or, trying to get your horse to jump through cleanly in the flying change from right to left. Get the horse acknowledging even the smallest of requests first, and build on that. Fix the little things that aren't going well so that your horse has confidence in and respect for you. Stay in right canter until he "gives" you his left shoulder. Check 10, 20, 100 times while riding right canter if your horse will answer your left suppling aids. Always praise even the smallest acknowledgement. If you have gotten a "yes" from those small requests time after time, then you can be assured that the flying change will be there when you are ready. Even a panicked four year old can teach an old "horse" new "tricks"! We just never stop learning.