One of those days: Front Arena, Session Five

Why is it never as easy as it looks on the DVDs? This time, I took Rocky in the Scary Front Arenaâ„¢ for Session Five, intending to play briefly and then set him free for a long turnout while we headed to mom and dad’s for SuperBowl.

I believe I know the mistakes I made, and, because of that and my growing ability to read Rocky, I was able to correct or at least damage-control some of the consequences. That’s how I’m going to frame it, because it was one of those days where I just felt inadequate and endlessly novice.

I even compared myself to Jenni and how she would be able to ride him up there, so naturally and easily, and keep him focused, and he’d stop being afraid after about 15 minutes, and never be nervous up there again. Even though I’m not Jenni, I have 11 years and 50 pounds on her, plus 15 months of horse experience versus her 21 years. So, ridiculous to be disappointed in myself that I’m a) not as competent and b) not as fast.

Here are the main mistakes I reflected upon afterward, and the “yay me!” moments too:

Direct Line–Why was I so intent on getting the Figure 8? Well, because it’s an older pattern for us, and we both know it, and he was refusing the second loop by squirting forward between me and the obstacle. At first I took this as “meh I am so BORED” but then I realized he was fearful, not defiant: tense swiveling ears, unblinking eyes, quivering skin, feet moving. I did change tactics then to go to Squeeze Game – over the pole, turn and face, wait, then repeat in the other direction. Then because he wanted something faster, we went to trotting Sideways Game along the east fence (furthest from the road).

Pressure–I put way too much pressure on him. I didn’t give him enough time to lick and chew, but instead kept him moving and moving, and I think he felt trapped in the arena corners and that’s why he’d suddenly leap away from the fence. He didn’t go in as wide of an arc around me so I had to use my carrot stick to block him out of my space. I also sometimes used a bit vertical motion on the rope to stop the forward motion, but I did not follow that up with sideways or back, so he got antsy again. He needed to move his feet. I was right to stop the forward motion but wrong to not channel that motion into a left-brain motion. Much more extrovert than introvert today.

And here’s what I did that I think was good:

Stopped Before I Made It Worse–I let all my energy flow out my feet into the earth and didn’t even look at him, just stood with a soft smile and soft eyes, while he stood about 15 feet away, parallel to the fence in the “safe zone” where he feels more comfortable up there. We stood like that for a long time, both of us licking and chewing. He eventually dropped his head and sighed.

Started Slower and Tapered Off–I asked for less, with smaller cues, and said “good boy” because he really does respond to that, then shut up and turned my belly button (“bullhorn”) away from him.

Set Him Free–I stripped his halter and line off, then moved the obstacles past his thresholds, closer to the west fence (along the road). I then put cookies on all of the obstacles, some right up against the fence, others between the center line and the fence. I balanced an apple on a tall green cone in the opposite (diagonal) corner from his safe zone. Then I hung a flake of hay in a net on the west fence, and filled the water tub in the safe zone on the east fence, and left him.

When I got back from SuperBowl six hours later, he had eaten only two of the cookies and half the hay. But when I walked around to check the treats, he followed me willingly, head down, relaxed, didn’t spook when cars zoomed by though it was now dark, and he was very excited to discover the apple. I led him to the barn and we hung out there for 45 minutes so he could investigate everything, and then I gently ran a mud scraper over him (and this horse, who doesn’t like curry combs or brushes, leaned his haunches into and dropped his penis and sigh-drooled, so I kept going for a while). Eventually he stood still and relaxed for blanketing so I bundled him up and put him back in the Back 40 for the night.

Speaking of learning experiences…even if your flashlight goes out and your headlamp drops a battery and you are trying to keep an invisible dog out from underfoot while putting a horse away in the black of night, do not fumble the electric fencing line strung across the gate and drop it in the mud. Sparks, buzzing, hissing galore, and a spooked pasture herd. Not to mention a spooked human!

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