We talk a lot, in my circles, about building confidence. Generally, we are speaking of rider confidence. We talk a lot about respect, too, and how important it is for our horses to respect our leadership. This year, in particular, I have been very focused on building confidence in my horses and have watched the respect arise out of the process.
In particular, I thinking about Hawkeye. He is a seven year old (you know, I need to look at his papers, six? Eight? Anyway) Paint gelding that I picked up at a sale last Spring. Quite frankly, the purchase was based on his flashy color and the fact that a kid I know jumped on him in the sale ring (his owner was leading him under saddle but didn't want to mount, definitely had the bid coming my way) and the horse didn't so much as widen his eye. Doubled his price, to my chagrin, but in for a penny, in for a pound, and I brought him home.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had booked myself with a very solid training schedule, acquired a couple more owner rejects (lots of those to be had this year, and some good projects if you keep an eye open) and I soon found myself overwhelmed with "to do's" and nary enough time to get 'er done!
I had a saddle horse in training that was not working out and I recommended my friend send him to what I fondly refer to as "cowboy camp." These are a couple of high school age young men, and their dad. They raise as nice a foundation bred Quarter Horse as anyone I know and are as honest and dedicated to their ride schedule as anyone I know, including my own self. If it rains, you'll probably find me indoors . . . you'd find them in the saddle, slicker and all. Miles is what I thought the horse needed, and some sheer guts enough to ride him through his panics and get him to the other side. I knew all those boys had plenty of the above, and some to spare. I had an empty side to the trailer on the way down, so filled it with Hawkeye.
I need to be careful how I proceed here because the "cowboys" did exactly what I paid them to do, they put honest miles on my horse. Saddled him every day, took him out to see the world. What they did not do, is not on their resume and not their fault. The last thing I want is for it to sound like I am bashing my good friends, I'm not. What I am going to state is that their training is very straight forward and a whole lot of what I think you find in the world of 30 day riders, and maybe better than a lot of them. They get the job done, and my horse came home, safe to be on top of, and that's exactly what I sent him for.
That said . . . What I am learning and focusing on, increasingly, is training the inside of the horse before I touch the outside. What the heck does that mean? says you, my befuddled reader. Well, what that means is that I teach the horse some simple ground rules, such as you give to pressure and I will release you AS you are heading toward the give. Afterwards is too late. You come to pressure when I ask, and I release you as your weight is shifting and you are in motion in my direction. I am consistent, and I let the horse do what it needs to do to figure these things out. I understand that horses are not setting out to be naughty, they aren't deliberately defying my will because they want to fight with me. How goofy, yet some people think these ways. I teach my horses to feel safe with me, to look TO me in times of trouble, and it's done through giving the horse a job they can understand and get comfortable with. Ray Hunt says it's our job to keep our horses out of trouble. He says it doesn't mean they won't get in trouble, from time to time, but it's our job to try to stay just on the good side of that fine line.
Horses don't speak human, and we most often, don't speak horse. We give a cue that seems pretty obvious, to us (try having someone stand behind you, hold on the bit in your hands and try to figure out what they want . . .) and the horse does what he thinks he needs to do. Sometimes, they get it right (for us) quickly, other times they have to seek, a lot of times, if they are aggravated half to death by then, the answer is No, I don't WANNA . . . I take responsiblity for keeping the energy up in my horse and rewarding the effort. As difficult as it is for impatient me to jump in and cue some more, while my horse is searching for the answer, if I leave them alone and let them come to it on their own, we sure do get where I wanted to go, a whole lot quicker.
So, here we have Hawkeye, trained from the outside in. Can be caught, saddled, bridled, taken down the road. Drives like a mack truck, feet not remotely attached to the reins, has no notion of following or yielding to weight shifts and pressure. Those things don't mean anything to him, and there is no reason that they should. I've given sporadic effort to "fixing" him this summer, never really dedicating a whole lot of time to this introverted, distant horse, just wanting him to "shape up" and come along.
A few weeks ago, my friend Annette was riding him for me, went to kick him into a canter and he would have bucked, had he been allowed. A frown has been on my face about him ever since. Not because of his reaction to a cue that startled him, but because I have been ignoring his needs, ever since I loaded him into the trailer on that dark Saturday Wahoo, NE night.
I've ridden him a few times since then, but the most ground was gained the other night in the barn. Me not even in the saddle. I was going to mount up and ride, and thought, what the hey, let's do some groundwork, shall we? Haven't felt the need to do much of that with this horse, heck I paid to have him riding so riding I will, again, right?
Did the stirrup slap exercise and poor old Hawk about jumped out of his skin. Hmm. Kept at it til he was quiet, the eye that almost never rolls my way, was sneaking glances. (Whatever happened to "both ears, both eyes, Ter?) Stiff as a board on his lateral flexion (this is a horse that turns his neck upside down in fear of bit pressure, and I have yet to help that), I asked him to do the "sniff your tail" exercise. Hawkeye's thick black tail is long and flowing so you'd not think it difficult . . . as I spun with him and ran to keep up with the fleeing hind. Something happened in him when he relaxed and gave into his own pressure. I wasn't "making" him, I wasn't fixing him, I wasn't putting something on him. He was pulling on himself (so we wanted him to think) and as he relaxed into it, the disinterested ears came up, the eyes softened and he looked at me. An idea clicked into place inside that bony skull.
Not much'a nuthin, you might think. I'm telling you, he looked a different horse. Ewe neck straightened out as the tension fell out of his topline, he squared up and looked at me, level. I saw once again the attractive gelding I had picked up for more than I planned to but far less than I thought he was worth.
Things happen to horses that do not make sense to them and they lose confidence in what the human is trying to get done. I see this over and over, and sometimes I am the perpetrator though I try hard not to be. We say "gee, I wish my horse could talk" and then blow through thresholds that the horse is trying to explain to us til the whisper turns to a scream and maybe someone goes to the Emergency Room for hearing aid treatment (or broken bones, however you want to look at it). Taking the time it takes would seem to be time consuming, but we always find time to fix whatever we didn't do right the first time. There are no shortcuts in horse training, and I want them as badly as anyone, would love the magic gadget, the perfect bit, the fall off proof saddle. Ain't gonna happen.
I do those simple exercises, hip over, front end through, incorporating squeezes, barrel play, over things, under things, backing circles, up and down hills, doesn't matter. What does matter is that I remain consistent in my requests and my release, thus building the horse's faith that I know what I am talking about, understand what I am asking for, and am willing to see the journey through with him. Setting boundaries helps my horse trust that I am capable of taking care of him, should the wolves roll in. The beauty part is that I end up with a soft horse that knows how to handle his feet, body and is light in my hands, not so bad, that, huh? That's what it means that it's not the tools you use, not the technique, but how you use them and when you quit is where you teach.
Watching big changes take place in a tuned out, introverted turned off horse that has refused to find a home til I do my job for him, sinks these lessons home in me, once again. It's a two way street, you know. As the horse trusts and respects me, so do I gain confidence in what we can attain together. I don't think I believe that the one can take place without the other. Lucky for Hawk, I have figured out, I have to come from the inside out, not the outside in . . .
7 months ago