I realized I hadn’t given Salsa any undemanding time since his first week, so today his session was merely me taking a chair into his day pen to read, with my back to the gate. He approached and retreated and kept an eye on me and licked and chewed a lot. He nudged me a couple of times but I managed to restrain myself, and only petted him once. Leslie came to take him to the Back 40 for his nightly turnout (and hay) and I didn’t turn around. When I heard her at the gate in the back, I put the chair away and came back into the house.
Rocky had a tough night. I accidentally got him in the face with the leather popper twice. I was way too rough with the snap three times. And he got tangled in the 45-foot line so badly I had to unclip his halter and rescue him so he didn’t get hurt; later he put his leg through a loop of rope tied into reins, when I fumbled and dropped it just as he started pawing.
Yet, we survived.
We worked on circles tonight and I stopped when I got a quarter lap of contact and relaxation, because by that point if I tried to keep going, things would have worsened rather than improved. We worked on stepping over a pole on risers, a total of eight inches off the ground at its height, and he hit it with a hoof four times out of five, whether walk or trot, forward or back or sideways. He had trouble figuring out to go sideways across the pole and I tried hard to reward the slightest try. In the end we got two steps at an exaggerated phase one (“exaggerate to teach, refine as you go along”) and he got a long rest and lots of praise. That was the activity in which I bapped him too hard with the snap a few times, because I was asking him to step two feet over the pole and then stop, and he kept wanting to go all the way over and turn and face.
All I needed to do was a gentle wiggle each time and if he kept going, let him turn but not stop, just keep stepping over and feeling the wiggle until he figured out I was asking for something else, and then figured out what I was asking. By the third time I realized how unpleasant I was being, shouting at him when he was only doing what he thought I was asking, and I dropped the rope and apologized verbally, stroking him lightly around his chin and waiting until he licked and chewed. After that I was probably lighter than I have ever been, with the wiggle-stop, and I vowed to pay a lot more attention to my body in the future — at this point, much more attention to refining my body language and consistency and strength, and less attention to whether he’s walking or stopping!
We did some traveling circles at the trot, for exercise, and for communication, and at the very end, he got on pedestals with all four feet and stood there while I gave him some cookies. Once he even had all four feet on a single pedestal — we have two squares, and I put them together into a rectangle for practicing.
Finally, I tied the reins into a loop and put the small mounting block on the pedestal, so I could try rubbing and stroking him while I stood up there, and see if he shook his head and got all displacey like he does recently when I saddle and cinch. And he did! I thought back to the Fear Makeover video and did the same thing Linda had her student do: match his energy and add four ounces, rubbing him vigorously until he was still. We did this for quite a while before he relaxed his head and neck. I kept one hand on the friendly spot and rubbed with the other. I also lifted my knee and brushed his side with it, which set off another round of head bobbing. I kept it there until he stopped, then released.
I did this on the left side and the right side. He had a much harder time standing there with me on his right, but had about the same amount of head bob — although he stopped sooner, I think because by then he had figured out that I will stop when he does. He did not flinch when I ran my fingers down the sides of his spine, but his headshaking consistently happened when I touched the ribs closest to his hips. Hrm, how interesting! He would shake at the ribs in the girth area too but not every time, and I didn’t get around to touching under his chest to see his reaction.
I was able to lean over him and rest my cheek on his withers on the opposite side from where I stood, and to lean my arms and chest on his back, while he stood still without tension. Again, easier for him to do this with me on his left.
One neat thing was when I scratched him gently behind the poll, along the bridle path, and suddenly he was leaning into it and wanting me to scratch vigorously, and he was making faces! He so rarely does that with me, but there’s something going on right now with the trees, dropping some kind of sticky sappy seeds and they get on the horses and after you scrape off what feels like a blob of dry honey, they have a little puncture, like a bite. Rocky has these all over his body now. I scratched some that were lodged in his mane, until they broke apart and came off. Other than two or three times leaning into my hands and a silly pleasure-face when I scratched his buttcrack, Rocky has never asked for touch like this, ever. I was glad to oblige and it gave us a great note to end on.
I swear he looked astonished when, after a few minutes of both of us relaxed and still, with me draped a little bit over him, I got down and took off his halter. I could tell that he was relaxed but I didn’t want to confirm any expectations that all of this was just preparation for sitting on him. He likes being ridden, or he has in the past, not resisting being mounted, and stepping out nicely, so either he’s very sore in the ribs, or I traumatized him somehow, or he’s bored and annoyed with my lack of progress, or who knows what.
I feel deflated and defeated, normal part of the learning cycle. I don’t know how to teach the circling game. I don’t know how to engage him for riding. I don’t know how to find that relaxed and willing partner to do stuff with. I don’t know anything about riding or horses under saddle — how to tell if they are straight, or relaxed, or bracey, or anything. Just so much I don’t know. I saw playfulness where Erin saw dominance; I saw extroversion where Erin saw introversion; I feel like I am always waiting for something, waiting to get over the next hurdle or climb the next step or something.
I don’t know how to tell if I’m exercising him enough or too much, or to feel if I’m doing too much in one direction or another. I don’t know when I’m lacking leadership and when I’m respecting his thresholds. I *think* I am doing right in backing way off and rubbing him, but maybe I need to be moving his feet a lot more and bringing his life up, to earn leadership and to engage him better? I don’t know!
I’m not crushed or frustrated so much as sad that as we approach our two-year anniversary together, we aren’t out riding four or more times a week, becoming more athletic and having fun with patterns and games and the trail. I feel like I’m letting Rocky down. I know he’s happy, but he’d be even happier if we were really forging an active partnership, and he would still have the other 20 hours a day to eat and laze!
I can see that for the first time in the two years since I met him, he’s fat. You can’t see a single rib, and from the front, his belly sticks out past his shoulders. It only took two years but by golly, he no longer looks like he’s starving at the knacker’s holding pen.
Static electricity is making his tail all floofy, too. He was not swishing his tail when I took this picture, just holding it still and out from his body. Tomorrow I’ll go rub him, or at least his tail, with a dryer sheet.