Hooray! We finally took the big leap tonight- and guess what? It wasn't a big leap at all, it wasn't scary or nerve-racking, or the least bit unpredictable.
Tonight was our fourth lesson with Steve, and we started out like we usually do, building up slowly from long lining, to working on our turns in the training shafts, to working with the sled. Last week when I was working Louie myself, we encountered a little trouble with making tight turns in that Louie would bend just his neck instead of moving his shoulders and crossing over both his front and hind end and pushing into the inside shaft to make the turn. Well, we worked on that tonight with the aid of a whip and a rope. Steve used a rope that was hooked to Louie's halter, then wrapped around fhe far side of Louie's body and behind his haunches- as we made turns, Steve applied pressure to the rope which applied pressure to Louie's outside hip, as a shaft would, teaching Louie that he needs to step away from the pressure and towards the inside as he makes a turn. I worked the long lines and the whip at Louie's barrel, asking him to step over to the middle. This method worked great and Louie had a lightbulb moment with his turns tonight- this kind of though process is something we don't see every day, but is really cool to watch.
We worked Louie again in the sled and he did great, not a single sign of anxiety with the sled on the sandy arena footing. After a few trips around in the sled, we brought out the cart. We walked a few laps with the cart beside Louie on either side, going both directions, then we put Louie between the shafts and walked a few laps in each direction, making sure that that was all good as well. Then we hooked the traces. No different, I long lined Louie, Steve led him with the rope, and we made a lap or so. I moved to walking right behind the cart and Louie took it all in stride- looking for me out of each eye as we changed directions.
Finally, the moment of truth, I slid onto the driver's seat and put my feet into the stirrups. We walked off in our 1-3-5 step method, and Louie showed no signs whatsoever of being anxious or not ready for the transition. In fact, I'm pretty sure Louie thought that pulling the cart was great. It is so much lighter, easier to turn, spacious, and quieter than the sled, it's like a walk in the park for him after the preparation that he's had. We walked several laps in each direction, Steve dropping back to next to the cart for the last lap or two to observe how Louie would do by himself, without the visual aid of a ground handler right at his side. The worst Louie did was shorten up his stride by an inch or two when we passed between the rail and a jump that was only about 6 feet away from it. Otherwise, Louie drove around tonight like he'd been doing it for years. He made his turns beautifully, crossing over both his front and hind feet and respecting the shafts and the whip beautifully. I'm so proud of my boy, he's going to be quite the driving horse.
At the end of the lesson, Steve asked if I wanted him to come back next week. Of course I said YES! We may be starting to take flight in our driving, but I want at least one more lesson to make sure we're progressing as we should, and to have an opportunity for troubleshooting before we're flying completely solo. Steve has been so instrumental for us in rebuilding confidence and teaching me how to read what my horse is telling me through his body language, not to mention stepping us through the process and providing the expert assistance that we needed. He is really impressed with Louie and our preparation up to this point, and he loves Louie's calm, level-headed nature. I'm pretty sure Louie thinks the same of Steve. So we will have at least one more consecutive lesson to make sure that we're progressing alright, but we did get the okay to hook to the cart so long as I have a confident and comfortable ground person to take the rope. I'm so very pleased with our progress, and I can't thank Steve enough for helping us get there! :)