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Teaching An "Old Horse" New Tricks

Welcome to my unpopular opinion of spring 2020: people who shelter their horses from any object or scenario deemed fearsome are only helping to create a monster later in their life.

Boom, I said it... I kicked off this blog with a metaphorical bang! Now, please don't charge after me with your pitchforks and fire-lit torches. I do have a point to my theory, a method to my madness. Just hear me out because I used to be one of those dressage riders whose feathers would ruffle at the slightest crinkle of a plastic bag. My own fright or flight tendencies stem deeply from prior fear based issues, but ever since we brought Leah home, my views on exposing our horses to new experiences has taken an eye opening trajectory. Now, you certainly do not have to agree with my logic within this post, and that's fine. I'll respect your thoughts and views just as I ask you to return the favor. We're all entitled to possess our own philosophies regarding horsemanship... this so happens to be mine.

Blackbuck spotting.

Within my previous post, I broadly described Leah's transition to semi-retirement life as 'culture shock.' Basic ranch-hold items became her worst nightmare - ha, see what I did there? - and don't get me started down the rabbit hole regarding our neighbor's cattle once again. I'm not exaggerating when I say that quite literally everything gave her a startle. From the hose-container box thing to the pool guy making a subtle splash with his cleaning net, Barrett walking in crunchy leaves, the Texas flag waving in the wind, our water storage trailer, the shredder that attaches behind the tractor, plant covers... I could continue naming the generally unassuming objects but you're most likely picking up what I'm putting down. I do think it is sometimes easy to pawn our horse's behavior onto professionals when boarding in a business-based facility - in a sense best explained like "hey trainer, Daisy is afraid of the wash-rack and won't follow me into the slot, can you do it for me?" and while there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with this script (I have been here many times my own self), when your horse is at home, their insecurities become your sole responsibility. You do not have a professional to intervene. Yes, I am beyond thankful for Barrett's guidance... but at the end of the day, Leah is my horse. She is my liability.

It is our duty as responsible horse owners to provide our partners the tools necessary to cope, rationalize, process and mentally move forward. This is archly true in spite of your particular stabling arrangement. I find it somewhat upsetting when I hear fellow equestrians chatting about that one competitor who barked from the saddle that they made their horse spook in one capacity or another. Don't be that person. Realities of our sport happen to include two individual souls with independent thoughts. Every horse does have the ability to spook, it just depends on their magnitude of choice. And, it's bound to happen at a bustling competition especially during a test if you're speaking dressage language. It's part of the game. If you are not fully capable to handle a spook, then I believe you are not ready to compete... because again, it's GOING to happen at a show. You do have an option, though. You can either blame your surroundings for your bobbles OR use the opportunity to desensitize your horse and strengthen their bravery. Chances are the ice chest on wheels or crying baby will make another appearance at a future outing.

Do you see our onlooker in the background?

Here are my facts. Leah was an exceptional competition teammate. She spoiled me... She took every show atmosphere in stride. Her demeanor became a shining example for the phrase "cool, calm, and collected." I think I stuck maybe a mere handful of spooks during our centerline days, and I couldn't thank her more for bringing my confidence back on track. From the moment she set her hoof onto our property at home, Barrett and I formed a pact that we would introduce her brain to all different types of adventures. I don't know much training history when it comes to her youth other than her fear of cattle has been a longtime anxiety producer. What I can infer is this: while I'm certain she was familiar to typical performance horse settings, I am unaware as to what "real-life" experiences she gained in the process. Judging on her behavior from the beginning of her semi-retirement chapter, I wouldn't necessarily say she wasn't sheltered. I could be completely wrong, but the proof is in the pudding. We were inarguably unprepared for her reactions to the slightest entities around the ranch, and I was totally dumbfounded by her behavior.

In my humble Adult Amateur, non-professional opinion, I believe horses require exposure to the things in which they classify as "scary." Obviously, I am not referring to anything that could potentially cause physical or mental harm. I mean things like tarps, barking dogs, strange or loud noises, the horror inducing plastic bag, balloons, bicycles, tractors, so on and so forth. I do fully understand the safety aspect and no, I wouldn't want someone to approach us shaking a grocery bag in Leah's face while I was in the saddle. But, what would happen if one came dancing along the trail while we were out for a hack? Both Leah and I have to be mentally prepared for any factor that might pop out of the bushes at any given moment. Shielding our equine partners might sound like the logical reaction at first, but you're doing their psyche a major disservice for those of us who might have to mitigate their emotions come later in life. Last year during a clinic, Leah and I were walking back to her stall from the wash rack when a nice lady offered to stop rolling her tack box so Leah wouldn't jump at the noise of the wheels. I politely smiled, encouraging her to continue the motion as we passed. Or, just last month, I was lunging Leah in our homemade arena while the pool guy skimmed the pool for leaves. His net made the water ripple, and Leah "butt-scrunched" to escape the sound. I'm sure the polite gentleman thought I was crazy, but I asked him to repeat the splash a few times over so Leah could comprehend that the water wasn't going to engulf her whole. In my less confident days, you probably would have found me harboring her from any spook-enticing predicament. This simply isn't the case now. We want to continually offer her the reassurance needed to feel confident in her surroundings.

Working with the boys nearby the cattle.

Teaching Leah to rationalize rather than react has become our new cynosure. We have rightfully made it a mission in exposing her to handfuls of alternative happenings besides dressage principles! So far, her curiosity has blossomed and I've noticed she has become more personable during daily interactions. Groundwork became a reintroduced foundational skill which only benefitted her body awareness. She learned to "pony" behind Blue while he and Barrett trail blazed around the ranch. L must be the exception to the rule because she took to this foreign form of exercise without much attitude or resistance. I'd catch the trio trotting along the creek, Leah happily chewing and flopping her lips as Blue paved the path. I think she's come to appreciate the low impact training alongside her favorite brother, Blue. I'm forever indebted to his patience, his confidence-boosting abilities, and his capability of easing L's mind.

She and I cantered bareback for the first time! Label this a new experience for both Leah and myself; a milestone moment in our partnership that I don't know I'll ever forget. The way her ears bounced in sync with her three-beat rhythm made my heart happy. Perhaps this could be my favorite class of "exposure."

During our grooming/saddling or after a cool shower, we have lengthened the time Leah stands tied at the fence. We're nearby at all seconds for security reasons and I'm talking maybe an extra ten minutes while we finish cleaning tack, groom Tecate, or place our saddles and bridles away in the tack room. Tying is not a form of punishment. Contrary, we view this basic adeptness as a method to improve her patience, and never leave her unattended. Patience training is progressing wonderfully, granted she is accustomed to standing tied at horse shows for tacking-up but still, now she is accepting the "challenge" in a new setting like the professional that she truly is at heart.

Put us in coach, we're ready to rope!

Leah made her team roping debut! ... And by "debut," I mean kinda sorta not really, ha. HOWEVER. Barrett and I caught a wild hair this week and decided we'd give it a shot because why not? Naturally, the cow-loathing locomotive was a bit apprehensive at first. It's almost like I could read her expression... seriously, mom? I hand you seven blissful years and this is how you repay me? Much to my surprise, Leah came to grips with the rope, its swooping bluster through the breeze, and the clank the tip made upon its impact to the steer dummy. Barrett tried first, I followed shortly behind. She stood uncomplainingly still while my beginner hands tousled with the rope, and didn't blow sideways when I accidentally yanked said rope underneath her hooves. If you saw the Instagram post, I made a legal catch! Barely! Even though a career in warmblood team roping isn't likely for our future, I do think playing with a different discipline is an avenue Leah and I will continue to pursue. Exxxpooosssuureeee, and a fun variation at that.

The last facet in our "operation transform Leah into a well-rounded ranch horse?" Exploring the ranch without another horse has been our recent integration to confidence building bootcamp. Let me break our system down for you: I drive the Gator, our all purpose vehicle, and Barrett sits on the tailgate while Leah follows behind wearing her halter and lead rope. We meander around the massive oak trees, cruise through the fresh green grass, and allow Leah to absorb the sights and sounds without relying too heavily on Blue or Smoke. Personally, I much prefer our inventive conditioning as opposed to lunging. Her brain stays stimulated and I'm not asking too much from her joints like lunging in the deep sand on a circle would often require. She absolutely loves our adventures - all the happy ears and calm eyes.

I'm really proud of Leah. The kickstart to semi-retirement might've been incredibly turbulent, but watching her revel in newly acquired self-esteem has really been the most rewarding aspect as of late. I have a new appreciation for the term "desensitization." Barrett and I have contributed countless hours into Leah's adjustment to her new phase as an eighteen year performance retiree. I'll be carrying this fresh perspective with me into any horse that may cross my path. Desensitization is a lifeskill that should be instilled into everyone's training program. Set your horse up for success, and don't be afraid to upset the apple cart through spooky scenes every now and then. Spooks aren't necessarily the most joyous feeling in the tack, but if we can look at them like an occasion to reassure and build confidence, then they don't seem as daunting. I have a running dialogue in my mind whenever Leah switches from sensible to overly sensitive. My narrative goes a little something like "it's okay to be afraid, and I understand. Let me show you why you shouldn't be." Sure, I sometimes let frustration get the better of my reactions, and I'll grab the bit a little too sharply or ride in a more defensive, forward seat. I'm a human, that's a fairly natural knee-jerk answer. Making a conscious effort to act with empathy is my key to creating breakthroughs with Leah. If I can understand her fear, I can better assist in feeding consolation. Then, the next time we pass a deflated balloon somewhere on the property, we'll both understand how to rationalize our emotions.

Riding without arena walls has been a huge psychological adjustment for both of us. I now realize just how dependent we were upon their sense of security while in training. Looking back, I wish we would have had more time riding outside away from the indoor.

Barrett and I will continue down our journey with Leah, and I couldn't be happier. I feel as if I'm offering her a second job, one that is less stressful, rigorous and demanding than FEI dressage. This is exactly how I foresaw life with Leah at home. Relaxing, fun, zero pressure and full enjoyment of her golden years. Our partnership is reaching different levels of trust, and I now feel closer to her than prior months or even years. Things are finally falling into place... If you're navigating similar waters, let that be a calming sentiment for each of you. It takes time and extraordinary amounts of patience, but if Leah can find comfort in retirement living, chances are your horse will too.


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