August 25, 2013

Helping a horse find joy

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When Rajiyyah first came to my barn in March, she felt odd to ride. Instead of having her legs underneath her, she felt like her legs were scattered. This feeling was very similar to riding a green horse who feels braced and ready to flee. Her back was dropped and her head was up. She was defensive. With some contact and encouragement with seat and hands, she would eventually come down and ride okay.

It wasn’t easy. I had to really ride her to get her to be there with me, truly with me. Even when I did get her to accept contact with the bit and round down, any little thing she saw outside the ring would bring the head up and the back would drop. She felt completely unbalanced.

June and July were largely a wash (literally) for riding because of the rain. She had a lot of time off because of the rain and it’s fungal side effects like rain rot and scratches. She had almost a month off.

When I did get back on her, it was so frustrating because it seemed like all of the progress we had made since March was gone. She was back to being defensive and putting her head up. It wasn’t fun to ride her. It was work. I knew it had to be the same for her too.

My friend Chris at the barn had a brilliant insight. We did some ground work with Rajiyyah and worked through some of her stiffness and resistance. It felt like we made some progress — she stood with me and was truly with me, not going off and eating or startling at the deer in the woods. Head down and calm. So I put the saddle on her and we went to the big ring. To try an experiment.

Chris had me get on Rajiyyah but not ask her to do anything. Instead, I was simply on her back as a “trusted passenger.” Rajiyyah was allowed to go any where she wanted to and was rewarded when she investigated any thing in the ring with a rub on her neck. If she stopped to eat grass, she was allowed to eat for three seconds before I asked her to move along. (She got to where she would stop, grab a bit of grass, and then start moving herself after three seconds. Smart mare.)

Eventually, instead of purposefully steering Rajiyyah, I would look and focus where I wanted her to go. For example, put her nose on a white barrel in the middle of the ring or walk up to one of the white chairs I had placed in the ring. Almost all of the time, she did it.

Rajiyyah was allowed to be in charge and go where she wanted without me interfering too much. I might think about where I wanted her to go, but I usually didn’t reinforce it with aids. She explored every barrel, every jump standard, every piece of poo on the ground. She learned that she could trust me as a rider to be her partner. (I do a similar exercise with green horses during their first rides.)

The incredible thing was that during that brief ride she didn’t feel defensive at all. She walked out freely with her feet underneath her, her head down and relaxed, ears forward, and back relaxed and swinging. It was amazing. She was having fun.

We had fun.

Chris recorded our second ride using this technique. Again, Rajiyyah was amazing. She was relaxed and having fun and exploring everything in the ring. This time she didn’t stop for grass so much and kept moving a lot more. While this video doesn’t look like much, it shows how relaxed and engaged Rajiyyah was. It was also the first time Rajiyyah had ever been ridden in the rope halter.

There is a courageous horse in that little white package. A courageous, smart, inquisitive horse who has the makings of a great trail horse. I’m so glad we’re learning to play.

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