Last weekend’s trail lesson was my first time being the one with the horse rather than the one walking wistfully by. We encountered several women along the way who had that smiling-with-tears-brimming look, clearly still horse crazy despite an adulthood of denial. I’ve been on that side of the mirror, where one’s heart squeezes painfully and all of one’s love and craving surges to the surface.
This month marks the three year anniversary of my getting my first horse and I just wanted to reach out and say, “You can do it. Don’t give up the dream. Sell the husband and children for medical experimentation if you have to, but don’t go another year thinking you’ll never have a horse of your own.”
I didn’t ride that day, although I did practice climbing up on stumps and boulders and things and having Rocky stand patiently to be mounted. We had so many breakthroughs that I resisted the temptation to push for yet another by getting on. Besides, the more I walk briskly instead of ride, the better shape I will get into for riding. And O! I do so want to hike with horses again as soon as possible. All I need is to borrow a trailer and learn how to hook it up and drive and park and unhook it. No problem!
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the only one who’ll decide where you’ll go. ~ Dr. Seuss
It’s Not About the Trailer
Rocky and Salsa loaded into Erin’s new four-horse trailer without hesitation. Rocky has resisted two-horse straight trailers and so I have worked with him on that. But in a three- or four-horse slant, he’s fine. Salsa will go anywhere there’s a bag of hay, and besides, the pedestal is his favorite obstacle; we think he likes being tall.
But Rowdy gave us a great lesson by not wanting to load up in the other trailer — a two-horse straight. That gave us the opportunity to start the day with a trailer lesson.
Erin showed us how she helps horses become relaxed and willing about trailers. She kept Rowdy moving constantly, trotting circles and hindquarter yields and fast backups. The only time he got to rest was when he attempted to put a body part into the trailer, whether nose, neck, or feet. She made the trailer a place of rest and everywhere else a place of activity.
The first few times he got in, she gave him rest, but then backed him out and started over.
“He’s not as relaxed as I’d like to see him,” she explained. “Sure, we got him in, but we’d just be stealing a ride. Next time he’ll be even more reactive, if we don’t wait until he’s relaxed.”
All four of us students stood there with our jaws dropped. All of us had, in the past, tried the approach and retreat, circle next to the trailer, reward the try, and all that good stuff. But all of us had also allowed our horses to rest away from the trailer — effectively teaching them that the place of release is one to three horse lengths away from the metal cave on wheels.
Within 15 minutes, Rowdy was calm and relaxed and in his slot, munching hay as if nothing had happened.
Up the Creek
I used this exact technique to help Rocky negotiate a scary part of the creek. He was fine and even happy to wade around where the water was obviously shallow and all the river rocks visible. But I asked him to cross one slightly deeper pocket about 3 feet in diameter, where the mud swirled and you couldn’t see the bottom, and he got scared. He scrambled back when his hoof started to slide into the pocket and then got frozen there, quivering.
If we had not had the trailer lesson that morning, I would not have been nearly so confident and persistent in my application of pressure and release. And for the first time, I totally focused on my horse, without awareness of other people walking by or what they might assume. I’ve never managed that before, not even here on this all-Parelli ranch, where anyone observing would understand what was going on.
Rocky’s innate RBI was in full force, and I had to go up my phases to keep his attention and prevent him from retreating inside himself. So Rocky’s beautiful silver haunch was being smacked rhythmically by the end of the lead rope on a slow rotation, with a WHAP <pause> WHAP <pause> WHAP, and I’m sure to some people it looked like I was beating a scared horse.
Walking takes longer… than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. ~ Edward Abbey
Yet I didn’t even think of that until later, after Rocky went through the pocket and up the bank and I was grinning so hard and crying a little and telling him what a good boy he was, so brave and strong, and feeding him cookies, and a lady walking by called out “Such a beautiful Appaloosa!” And I jumped out of my skin and yelped, “OMG I forgot there were other people!”
It wasn’t all pressure. When he made any effort at all to move forward to the bank, I released completely, holding myself as still as possible while breathing deeply and balancing on a riverbed of pebbles and stones, slowly losing all feeling from my toes to just above my ankles.
When he came toward me with his shoulder, I increased pressure to drive him away. I didn’t panic even when his bubble made a Venn diagram of mine. I just made the swings of the rope more intense, and I kept my focus, hard eyes on his shoulder until he reversed his sideways and I let him drift to the end of the rope. I did not let him tilt his nose away from the direction I wanted him to go, though. And I did not move my feet. At all.
He enjoyed a long rest while I stamped warmth back into my feet, and then we were off again, making the circle that took us back to the main trail. He didn’t even hesitate to follow me across the wooden bridge.