Two weeks ago, I introduced Rose to you, the spunky Arab-Saddlebred mare that we will be working with over the next several months. Read up on Rose’s last session here. The journey we take with our horses is where we learn the most, so I invite you into mine.
Since Rose is still fairly green (not experienced under a saddle), our approach is to take things slowly as we progress to working towards her carrying a rider. We would like our sessions to be a positive experience for her, and to understand these sessions as a space of affection, safety, and reward, while not sacrificing discipline. Here is a recap of the goals from last session:
- Reinforcing personal space on the ground. Currently, whenever we handle her, we will need to reinforce that she cannot walk past a certain point in relation to her handler, and that when we say “hoa” or stop, she needs to stop. This will be crucial for safety, especially when something frightens her.
- Lunge line responsiveness. “Hoa” should become just as important on the lunge line, especially in preparation for riding her on the trails. I’d also like to see her be responsive on the lunge line, not reactive, even in her uncomfortable direction. General orientation with saddle, bridle, brushing and picking feet. Noises in the barn
- General desensitization. I’d like to see her comfortable and relaxed while being tacked up. She is still jumpy to farm equipment, cats and dogs, her saddle, and extraneous noises.
- Under-saddle basics. The first step to making her a solid trail horse is getting her comfortable and responsive under saddle. Until she gets the basics down at a walk and trot, we won’t even touch finishing work or the canter under saddle.
The overarching goal is for Rose to be Sherry’s solid trail horse. The above are fundamental steps to getting her there.
Because of Rose’s boundary issues on the ground (rushing past her handler, not stopping immediately on “hoa” command), Sherry and I have begun to get her attention as soon as she takes her first step out of her pen. Today, she just tiptoed past Sherry, and Sherry responded immediately with a jerk to her lead rope and had her back up a couple steps. Rose minded Sherry and seemed to recall her ground manners for the first half of the session, at least. This practice will reinforce the rule of personal space on the ground for her, but if she continues to test us, we need to remain consistent in reinforcing this boundary.
Since the last session, Sherry has been free-lunging her with no saddle, halter, line – nothing. Frankly, I don’t see a reason to lunge her with the saddle at this point, since the basic purpose is to work on transitions from walk to trot to canter and back again. Rose is one of those horses that just keeps a perfect lunging circle around her handler even when she’s off the line. Unlike Chip, she also will walk around her handler in the lunge circle at a nice, relaxed pace. This is not a place of stress for her. Sherry asked her to go from this nice walk to a trot.
After a few laps, Sherry asked for a canter, and Rose shook her head side to side, then stepped into the canter. Between some of the transitions from trot to canter, she bucked a little to the side or tossed her head. However, she never broke the pace that Sherry was asking for. And it seemed that after each of these “protests,” she would drop her head low to the ground (like join-up submission), then continue in beautiful movement.
Sherry tried both directions to coax her into a “hoa”, and she wasn’t getting it. Firstly, she’s not all that responsive to the voice command. Secondly, we have no distinct signal for her to stop. Sherry eventually got her to stop from both lunging directions, but Rose seemed confused. Overall, her temperament thus far in the session was a huge improvement from our last documented session two weeks ago. Frankly, I had made assumptions based on her breeding that she would not retain as much training as other breeds. But today’s visible improvement caused me to rethink these assumptions (not just about her, but about the breed conversation entirely).
Back in the Saddle
Rose’s overall temperament was calm and listening. She side-shifted a little bit when she saw the saddle, but she settled right down and let Sherry put it on her without a fuss. This could mean that general desensitization will be quicker than I thought. Rose has surprised me many times. Things I thought she would be afraid haven’t been an issue, where other things have been a big ordeal. We will see as we continue to work with her what makes her tick.
Sherry led her to the outdoor arena today. She spent a lot of time at the mounting block again, petting her and making sure she would stand still while she mounted her. We are still probably a few sessions away from riding her without someone leading her. Last week, Rose had a decent spook at the pressure washer that fired up outside of the indoor arena. I was holding the lead rope, but it still shook Sherry and Rose up quite a bit.
The victories from that experience were that 1) Sherry was not holding onto her reins, so she was already focused on keeping her seat deep and steady, and 2) Neither Sherry nor Rose died, and they lived to tell about it. It sounds silly, but that is how we think sometimes as riders, isn’t it? We fear the worst, and what may happen if our horse spooks or throws a tantrum while we’re on their back. The cause of fear can inhibit us from having a plan of action to respond well in those panic moments.
Sherry and I both knew Rose would spook while under saddle, because Rose is naturally flighty. So, Sherry has been focusing on being settled in her seat and staying calm. The wonderful thing about this experience is that she didn’t get off right away. She didn’t pick up her reins. I continued to walk her and Rose around the arena until they were both calm and had forgotten about it.
This session proved the fruits of that experience, because Rose was the most relaxed that I have ever seen her under saddle. Sherry continued to focus on petting her and vocally praising her, as well as practicing the Five-Step Hoa:
- take a deep breath
- sink into her seat and heels
- freeze her hips
- say “hoa”, and finally
- give a gentle tug on her mouth
In the coming weeks, we will both be working on walking her off the lead rope, and as she progresses, doing riding exercises on the lunge line. Her temperament today was a great encouragement towards Sherry’s goals of being able to eventually ride her on the trails.
Roadblocks and Issues in Today’s Session: One Little Hiccup
It was so subtle I almost missed it. And granted, it was harder, even, to catch since I wasn’t handling her myself. But after this wonderful session, where Rose did so well with the lunge line, the saddle, and Sherry riding her, there was one small issue that we don’t want to let by our noses: Boundaries. I noticed that after Sherry tacked her up, Rose was stepping right in front of Sherry, just enough to have Sherry pull back on her lead rope, but not enough to cause her to “get in trouble”.
So, I asked Sherry to jerk back her rope a couple of times next time she stepped in front of her. Rose apathetically paused, not even shifting her weight all the way back into a square position. She was almost to her pen, so we just put her away for the day. In retrospect, I wish I would have taken her back out and made this a lesson of ground manners while the behavior was fresh. But for next time, boundaries will be given special attention.
Rose clearly needs major reinforcement in the “hoa” command. Progress with her under saddle is slow, because we’re taking the time to get her relaxed. But I’m okay with that, because rushing is the enemy of real progress.
Victories from Today’s Session
Rose offered great movement and responsiveness on the lunge line today. Even her little protests were immediately followed by a submissive head-drop, and she followed through with everything Sherry asked of her. This is a tremendous improvement from a couple of weeks ago, where she was bucking every time Sherry asked her for the canter. Since she was lunged this week without the saddle, I’m curious to see how she would do lunging again with the saddle.
Rose also has mellowed out tremendously under saddle. She’s continuing to do well at the mounting block, and she is remaining relaxed even with a rider on her back. I’m excited to see how her training goes in the arena and how she will shine for Sherry as her trail horse.
Remaining with the same goals from last session, the outline below shows some plan for action based on our session today:
- Reinforcing personal space on the ground. From the moment she leaves her stall until she returns, she will not be allowed to get away with rushing past her handler. We will take extra time working on this if needed so that she understands her boundaries.
- Lunge line responsiveness. Her transitions are improving all the time. Now’s the time to develop a distinct gesture for “hoa” and practice the vocal command on the line repeatedly
- General desensitization. Her saddle desensitization is progressing by just the tack-up process. For this goal, we’ll work on walking her around the property.
- Under-saddle basics. Continue to get Rose relaxed under saddle, even if on the lead rope, and work on “hoa” under saddle. When she’s responsive to that, we’ll take her off the lead rope and work on walk & “hoa” in the arena.
The continued objective with Rose, since her memory is so strong, is to reinforce positive and safe experiences in the new context of arena work. Our crucial task is making our expectations of her very clear, as well as praising her for doing what is asked of her. I realized today that she overcomes fears more quickly than she does her personal will. She may take a combination of convincing and tough love, but all I’ve seen from her training is that she continues to blossom and to pleasantly surprise those around her.