A recent insight about leadership

On Monday, Erin (the Parelli mentor who owns the farm where Rocky and I live)  had students in the main arena all day, so I took Rocky to the smaller front arena, which is right along the road. We’ve lived here about six weeks and have only been in that arena two or three times, just walking around. He seemed relaxed and curious though, so I did my pre-flight checks, then mounted up for a Pushing Passenger lesson. This is where you let the horse decide where to go, while you get on your balance point and mirror his movements in your body — bend your ribs when he bends his, lift and lower your head as he does his, etc. Your only guidance to him is to get him moving again if he stops (or drops to a walk, if you’re trotting; you don’t canter in Level 1).

As I see it, the passenger lessons have three desired results:

  1. You gain the ability to ride fluidly with balance, making you much more comfortable and harmonious with your horse.
  2. Your horse learns to take responsibility to watch where he is going and to maintain gait.
  3. Your horse runs out of ideas and starts asking you questions about where to go and why; asking for leadership and guidance rather than having your whims forced on him. (Your idea becomes his idea, in Parellispeak.)

But when we started our passenger session up front,  he started to freak a bit at the cars whizzing by. I got off as he got right-brain and I played games to get him left-brain. It took some time, but less than an hour, and eventually he stood with me calm and relaxed. I didn’t mount up again though. I considered that a positive place to take a break. By then Erin and her students were done, so I led him back into his comfort zone (the back arena) did a 15-minute passenger session there.

The next day, I had a sudden insight. The front arena is a scary place for him still, and here I was, getting on him and asking him to make decisions, because I was just a passenger. But in a scary place, he wants to be led by his leader. He went right-brain because I was not taking charge and giving him direction and that made him feel unsafe. When I got off and started directing, he had a lot of built-up adrenalin/energy to let go, but he was able to because he eventually felt he had a leader to keep him safe.

Monday’s session thus reinforced that the front arena is scary, even though I got him left-brain before I left it. On Tuesday, I planned the next 7 sessions on the whiteboard: they are all going to happen in the front arena.  At first I thought I might give him turnout time there first, then play. But then I decided I would play first, on the 22ft line, at trot and even canter if he can’t help it, matching his energy and asking for more energy than he actually wants to expend, until he asks to go slower.  We’ll do patterns that involve a lot of changes of direction, and many sideways and backs, so he can’t just turn off his brain and go forward in big crazy circles. Then, when he’s left brain, obedient, and relaxed, I’ll take off the halter and give him turnout time.

I did the first of the planned 7 sessions on Tuesday afternoon and it didn’t take him nearly as long as it did Monday to find his left brain, to tune into me, to lick and chew. He offered a beautiful Sideways Game without the fence inhibiting forward motion, for the first time, when I gave him a more-subtle-than-usual cue. (Hrm, how interesting…time to ask more quietly and see what I get.) When he got his turnout time, he stood with one hind hoof cocked but his head up and looking at everything, like he was feigning the nonchalance of his hind foot. But he didn’t spook at anything and seemed mainly curious, not frightened.

I have three business trips sprinkled among those 7 sessions so it’s going to take more than a week, but I predict that by the 7th he’ll be comfortable up front. And that I will be better at recognizing when he needs active leadership (rather than passive passengering), whether it’s a new environment, or having a horse enter the arena with us, or a different trailer, or any other factor that he perceives as a change. Rocky seeks safety, comfort, play, food, in that order; therefore, it doesn’t matter how fluid or comfortable I was for him as a passenger (and new as I am, I probably was neither) until I provide him with 100 percent confidence that he is safe.

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