Today was a really good day!
I went to the barn around noon and spent quite a while with Galahad. First we did an Easter Egg hunt in the muddy jump arena (plastic eggs with bits of carrots in them, hidden near the jumps; he has to find them and touch them with his nose). It took him a bit to realize there were eggs hidden there—at first all he wanted to do was eat the grass around the edges. Once he saw the first one, though, he was all attention (other than taking time out to roll).
His problem was that I had deliberately put the eggs fairly close to the jumps—and he’s nervous about those jumps, which was my whole point. He managed to touch the first one after I moved it two inches (!) farther away from the post. When I asked him where the next one was, he looked around, saw it (I swear he saw it, over by the next jump), and spent a LONG while examining each and every fallen leaf, clod of dirt, or spot of poop in the area, just in case one of them turned out to be an egg.
Finally he made brave to go and touch the egg—and tried to roll it away from the jump so he could get it himself. No, fella, you have to touch it, raise your head, and wait for me to open it. Nice try, though.
He does love this game. I’ve learned to use only the biggest plastic eggs (so he can’t get them into his mouth) and limit the number of eggs to six or seven so that he doesn’t get bored. So we finished up quickly and sampled a little more grass at the edge of the arena before moving on out to the next event.
I let him graze for a little while near the “bridge” that I’ve been trying to get him to walk over. Back in June, we spent some time working near it, and he would walk over it the short way but not walk along it with me (the photo above was taken on that day). Today I decided to see what he’d be willing to do for me.
What I most love about learning to work with my horses in a less structured way is having a big “toolbox” of techniques and skills and being able to pick whatever tool or method works in the moment. As my relationship with Galahad grows closer, it seems that “less is more” for sure. Our training sessions have become shorter, less demanding, and way more fun and effective.
Today, for instance, he still didn’t want to walk along the length of the bridge. When I asked, he’d paw at it; he’d put both feet on it—no problem. I made sure he knew that whatever he gave me was wonderful—he got praise and grass in between tries…and then I’d ask again. It was a slow process, and very low-pressure.
We started by watching another horse walk over it twice, with a rider. Galahad paid close attention. I asked if he would just follow that horse across, but he declined. Too scary, still. I asked if he’d walk behind me across it. Nope, he couldn’t do that, either. So we just kept at it, slowly, over a period of fifteen or so minutes—not long, really.
What I did was based in the natural horsemanship methods that I’ve studied in the past—from one of the best trainers in the Midwest—and learned quite well. But there was no “increasing pressure.” Instead, I made a request with a gentle “send” signal and the barest hint of a wave with my other hand. He knows what that means, so the communication was perfectly clear. Then I waited for him to respond. And then I’d ask again, in the same, low-key way, and wait. If he tried to evade it completely, I’d gently ask him to back up and try again, but I never pushed, pulled, or smacked him with the rope.
Galahad knew what I was asking, and I think he appreciated the fact that I didn’t try to pressure him into doing it before he was ready. And he got praise for the slightest try! That big horse—stubborn as he can be when he perceives something as “work”—really does like to please. He likes knowing he’s done something “right.”
Finally, he offered to sidepass over the bridge—that’s always his fallback move. “Can I do this instead?” Um, no, buddy, it’s WAY too wide for that. How about you walk behind me, and let’s go across it together.
Suddenly, I could feel him make up his mind. I wasn’t looking at him—in fact, I was already partway across the bridge when I felt the change, through the loose lead rope. No idea what it the signal was that I received—but I KNEW at that moment that he would follow me across, and he did.
Wow—good boy! I turned around to face him as he made the last few steps, and just praised him to the skies! He put his head down and I swear he looked pleased as punch! What a good horse he is! Needless to say, we went and got carrots and dinner after that!
It was such a thrill—a silly little task in the grand scheme of things, but heartwarming to realize how far the two of us have come. Clear communication, mutual trust and respect, and virtually NO pressure…we got the job done and had a good time doing it.
It just doesn’t get much better than that! Boy, do I love that horse of mine!
(“Leading Tarkin” is another post that describes this method I’m using these days.)