Last night, Krisen and I brought Rockstar into the arena while the rain poured down and made the canvas Cover-All roof very loud. He came in and followed me into the dry sand easily enough, but then he got sticky feet and lifted his head and stopped blinking. One of his hind legs was out at an awkward angle, too, but he just stuck it there, all tense and still.
I remembered the mare in the Horsenalities section of Liberty & Horse Behavior and I just … waited. Kept my body language and eyes soft and friendly. Talked to Krisen. Put no pressure on him at all.
Guess what happened!
He dropped his head, blew out his nose, licked his lips, blinked, and moved his feet under him, then looked at me and perked his ears forward: What are we gonna do, mom?
I was so happy because:
- I read him correctly.
- I responded with the opposite of normal (“you’re fine, move along, follow me, let’s go”).
- I waited long enough for Rocky to decide it wasn’t scary.
- I suspect that in doing it this way, Rocky won’t be scared of the rain sounds on the roof again. Or, if he is, it won’t take him as long to dismiss it, and he’ll stop being scared in the future.
We then played as follows:
- Weave pattern: At the trot he responded to just my pointing and I hardly used the stick (which had a flag on the end, not a savvy string).
- Yo-yo over a pole: He asked questions and kept trying when he couldn’t get his hind feet over the pole on the way back, and then finally he figured out how. I gave him lots of rest time.
- Sideways over a pole: We got to a point where he could stop with just two feet over the pole, after much “oh this must be squeeze game.” I left it at that.
- Circle around while I stand on the pedestal: He offered trot then canter and I let him because he got tense and keyed up, and I’d watched a session earlier that day in which I learned how to let the horse go until he relaxes, then give him rest to say “yes, that’s what I want, relaxed gait.” Signs of relaxed moving horse: skin moves, flab under the skin moves, head lowers, gait rhythm steadies. I am finally starting to see what horse people call “brace” and what it means when they let go of brace. I have been so worried that I was crossing from circle game to lungeing that I didn’t let him go around as much as he needs to, until I watched Erin and Danielle with Bautisto.
- Maaaaybe the feet: Nose/neck on the pedestal are no problem. Feet, more so. I picked up each front foot in turn and set it on the pedastal, then left him alone to feel the pedastal under his hoof before he moved his hoof back. Adding a bit of pressure to him after that, he lifted his foot and I’d drop all pressure. We left it at that.
- We used Krisen as his resting place for most of this, as he’s not seen her since he left L.A. and he recognized her and likes her. With the weave pettern, when we did a full up-and-back around 4 cones, he could then stand with Krisen and be left alone and then petted, which he enjoyed very much.
It was wonderful to see him thinking his way through puzzles (“is that a wall behind me? but she’s asking me to go back. maybe it’s not a big wall. maybe it’s just a pole. maybe if I lift my foot just an inch higher…”) and to be so enthusiastic about trotting with me in the weave. And to see him ask questions and understand my answers!
I think the playtime went well because I gave him time to think for himself about the scary rain on the roof rather than reassure him to follow my lead and get back to our Task At Hand. I think that way works too, in that you give the horse a moment, then say “c’mon sillyhead you’re fine” and keep going. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Parelli way of building Rocky’s self-confidence, not just his trust in me or another human as a leader.