Sunday, December 19, 2010

He's a People Person

Today Sandy and I worked on Louie's fear of the far end of the arena.  Sandy stood at the far end of the arena and coached us around the corners, and with a few exceptions like him spooking at a few steamy turds he had left the lap before, Louie did fabulously- almost like there was nothing scary on that end at all.  We walked, trotted, and cantered and felt almost like we were making progress again- almost up to where we left off 3 weeks ago. 

Then Sandy left, and I wanted to work on just a little bit more trotting with Louie.  Within 2 passes after Sandy left, Louie was back to his same usual BS- looking, stiffening, shying, scooting, etc.  I thought about it a bit and it occurred to me that the difference between that time and 5 minutes before was the lack of a human at that end and the talking that was occurring back and forth between Sandy and I.  It was eerily quiet in the barn and you could hear the snow shifting on the roof and the melting drops of water falling from the roof.  So, I started chatting to Louie (I almost never talk when riding unless it is to somebody on the ground) and it seemed to help for a pass or two.  Then the third time, a small piece of snow fell down from the arena ceiling.  Louie planted down on his hind end, did a 180 and took off at a moderate paced canter.  This is his same bolt that he's done with me in the past once or twice, and while disturbing, it doesn't really seem so sincere as he stops quickly after just a few steps. 

I got him stopped and was so filled with rage and frustration, I couldn't help but take out some anger with a swift hand to the neck.  I screamed, then cried.  We sat there and pouted for a while as I tried to think of what to do next.  After I had finished my mental breakdown, we headed back to the same place again at a walk or a trot, I can't remember, and scooted by that end again a few more times making half-circles on that end of the arena.  Another boarder walked in and I still had tears in my eyes, but I hadn't seen her for a few weeks, so naturally we chatted for a little bit while I rode.  Strangely enough, Louie shaped right up, still looked and stiffened a little bit going by that end of the arena, but he felt so much more at ease having another person on that end of the arena.  I get it!  He feels that he needs the reassurance of having a human on the ground by him in this situation (he is just fine when leading him or lunging him on that end)- two conversing humans is even better!  Huh!  How about that? 

Well obviously the scary obstacles at the end of the arena are something he needs to get over, but it has been taking an excessively long amount of time and is honestly starting to wear on my nerves and my confidence.  We are not really making progress on our dressage homework and our next lesson is scheduled for Thursday.  While I am hesitent to stop working on it under saddle for a while for fear of making it a bigger issue than it really is and build my own anticipation more, I really think that we could probably benefit from some more work in long lines for a while. . . While I would love to be driving him right now, there's not a chance in heck that I'm going to hook him to the cart with this kind of behavior.  When we ride, we will probably end up doing most of our dressage work at the "safe" end of the arena so that we can focus and try to progress, and for those trips around the other end, I will probably set up some obstacles like jumps/poles, or barrels on the insides of the corners on the "scary" end to keep his mind occupied and focused away from the wall, and maybe turn on the radio in the arena.  If I have the chance, I may even try to ride him outside a time or two through the snow. 

What do you usually do to help your horse overcome his/her fears?


  1. It's odd, though, that with ground work he doesn't seem to find it nearly as scary as when riding... which means you may be signaling more tension to him than you realize. With another person in the ring, you're more distracted, you are breathing more when talking with someone else (plus he knows if there is a wild monster down there, it will catch the slow human on the ground far faster than him).

    I have two possible solutions to try. The first is the more straight forward.

    Not my usual method, and a bit harder to do when it's cold out, but I would make him work HARD at the safe end, and do some simple walking or rest at the scary end. Maybe cavelletti work that really makes him work at trot, a bit more than you would normally ask. Get him tired and looking for a rest (but not to the point that he's fretful) and take his break at the "scary" end. Not quite the same, but my friend's walker had a bug-a-boo about the far end of the outdoor, and we took to feeding him his dinner grain down there, treats mid-ride, etc. and he got over it fairly quickly. Positive associations with the formerly "scary" place.

    The second refers to the fact that his focus should be on you and the work, so unless there is an actual tiger, he shouldn't care about anything else but you. I find it interesting that you noticed the eerie quiet, the melt water, the shifting snow. If you're noticing these things, your focus is not as intense on the horse, which means his focus probably isn't as intensely into you as you need it to be. If you have Centered Riding by Sally Swift (if you don't, many library systems have it), this is a great example of soft eyes and hard eyes, and the way the focus feels. You will be aware of those outside stimuli, but it should feel hazy, at the periphery, and all that matters is the input you're receiving and giving from your horse: is he coming up under? Is this the pace and impulsion I want? Rhythm of his breathing, his hoofbeats. Get your self into that zone, where these are your focus, working at the "safe" end. As you are working and it feels appropriate for the movement you're working on, extend farther down the ring. Remember your focus: on him, his feeling, his rhythm, and ignore everything else. If he gets tense, head smoothly to the safe end but ask for more work of whatever you're doing, then an easier movement that takes you closer to the scary end.

    I don't know if that helps, but I sure hope he gets over this little bump and goes back to the good progress you'd been making!

  2. thank you Bif for your thoughts! We worked on this again a few days later, with some obstacles throughout the arena, focusing the harder work on the "safe end" and also riding with 2 horses that were not at all disturbed by the "scary end" and he did great. When I rode again tonight, he froze up approaching the worst corner, but once I got him past it he did a little bit better each time. Thank you!