We played with ground driving again today and in the space of about 90 minutes I learned 7 new things.
Horses teach humans and humans teach horses. – Parelli Principle #7
1. Location matters
I thought it would be fun for Rocky to practice in his own environment, with his herd buddies around, so I harnessed us up in the pen and started us off. Except that Wesley and Quest, both extroverts, got so excited by this that after following us in a line for about 3 horse lengths, they started trotting around with their heads and tails up.
Then when Rocky and I ventured toward the far edge of the pen, they spooked themselves, and started to flee toward the shelter, but then circled in confusion when they saw that Rocky and I were just standing there. They came back cautiously and we all had to stand together for a while until all three of them put their heads down and licked and chewed. And then I took Rocky out of the pen.
2. Pick a pattern with a power and a purpose
Rocky’s steering was worse today than yesterday, so I really paid attention to what was happening between us. I am rather proud of myself for so quickly thinking about using a pattern. I thought that maybe if we followed a pattern, after a few repetitions Rocky would begin to follow the pattern more freely and I could analyze my cues, and see what I could do to become more clear. I also thought the pattern would help him associate the cues with his actions. For example, if the pattern involved turning left, I could give the cue for left as he walked the pattern for left, and so come to associate the cue with the action.
3. Forward is the answer
I think I’ve heard “forward is the answer” from every instructor I’ve audited or worked with in the past 8 years. Part of our steering problem was really a forwardness problem. With forward, there’s some momentum to steer — just like trying to turn your car’s wheels when the car is in Park, compared to when you’re turning a corner.
Rocky has a particular “perky halt” when he’s feeling unconfident, which is very nice in a First Horse, compared to the buck or rear of the left-brain introvert, or the go-forward-really-fast-with-brace-or-defiance of a more extroverted horse. The figure 8 pattern made it clear to me that Rocky was hesitating at the beginning of the circle, which then escalated into turning that whole side of the pattern into a shambles. (The weave pattern is also a great pattern for noticing the hesitation and learning appropriate cue timing.)
Be particular without being critical. Trust that he’ll respond but be ready to correct, not more one than the other. Be as gentle as possible but as firm as necessary, without getting mean or mad. ~ Parellisms
Thus, when I observed Rocky’s hesitation on a few consecutive repetitions, I began to ask for more forward in that spot, trying hard to get my timing right. I don’t want to nag him or cause him to feel like every time he walks by that tree he gets nudged, but I also don’t want to give him a lot of time to escalate his original hesitation into a major off-pattern detour. I tried to wait for the mistake and correct it immediately and as soon as he was moving more forward (even if not with excellence or impulsion), I released. Then, as the session progressed, I was able to become more particular, as I became more practiced with the timing.
4. Learning my lines
Yesterday, I was pretty crude in my steering, trying to turn the nose in the direction I wanted the horse to go, as if using a direct rein. Often this resulted in the horse turning 90 or more degrees instead of the 5 or 10 degrees I wanted, and perhaps stopping, and also bending his body into a quotation mark… but it also helped us both understand that pressure on the nose means something. I was also attempting to straighten him out by having the outside rein touching his ribs as he bent, kind of like trying to put two poles out there and having him center himself between them.
Exaggerate to teach, refine as you go along. ~ Parellism
Today I tried holding the “outside” line away from his body and allowing the “inside” line to touch him on the haunch instead. This translates into more of an indirect rein, and this was clearer for both of us! (For a quick-start introduction to rein positions a la Parelli, watch this Parellitube video. This link should start you at about 0:40, but if it doesn’t, the relevant section is from 0:40 to about 1:02).
5. The marching band wheel turn
In tandem with the new rein positions, I needed to change my position relative to Rocky. Yesterday, I found that I would end up on the “inside” of where I was trying to steer us, usually because he was drifting off the line and I was trying to steer him back to center, but sometimes because we were going around an obstacle. This created kind of a half-circle situation where as I asked him to turn with my direct rein, he was arcing around me, causing the outside rein to press into ribs and sometimes even to come around his haunches.
Today I stayed exactly behind him, in line, so if he drifted, I drifted, and if I steered him back toward center, I went with him back toward center. This meant I had to take some wide, fast strides to stay lined up on the figure 8 — like being on the outside edge of a marching band wheel turn — and it worked really well. It enabled me to keep the outside rein off of him (“open”) and keep the inside rein steady so that he could more easily feel where I wanted him to go.
We walked the figure 8 for at least half an hour. Maybe even for 45 minutes. (Horse time is immeasurable so I am estimating based on what time my last client meeting ended and what time I returned to my computer.)
This persistence paid off. With the consistency he was able to find comfort. His hesitations from unconfidence eventually morphed into hesitations from testing my leadership, trying to see if he could swing out and go visit the pigs or graze with the donkeys. As I responded with a balance of language and leadership, he engaged more and more with our Dance of Infinity in the Trees, which gave us more flow, which gave us more feel. Only when we reached a point of harmonious competence and relaxation did we stop for a break, and there was much licking and chewing, and his whole aura was gentle and happy.
7. Circles + forward = improved straightness
After our rest, we lined up on the driveway toward the barn, and took a few steps and then I asked for a trot. And we jogged together all the way up the slope to the wash rack! It was our best straightness so far, partly because of the momentum and the focus on an obvious destination, and partly because all our practice on the figure 8 had helped us both get organized enough with our bodies, our partnership, and our tools that we had the competence now to go straight.
He only veered a tiny bit off course (Daisy was flirting with him from her pen) and he didn’t hesitate or resist when I steered us toward center, keeping myself directly behind him. He had an even stride and I was able to match him for that short distance. We shared a nice easy halt at the end.
We were both enormously pleased with ourselves and enjoyed a hay bag and rub down before I took him back to his pen.