Saturday, January 9, 2010

The terrible, horrible, no good ride

Thanks to everybody for all the comments on my last post. I do really appreciate it, it's just that I had a Bad Ride Friday and I didn't feel like talking about my stupid horse or thinking about her or writing it down. I was sulking.

It's so much easier to only write about our successes and good rides, but that's really not doing anybody any favors. I like to look back and see how horrible my horse was in the past, and if I never write down the horrible, I won't have anything to look back on in 2011. And this is, hopefully, a teaching blog. It's more of a "don't do what I did" style of teaching, but that's valuable too. I remember the weirdest bits of training philosophy from reading yall's blogs - but it's almost always from someone fixing a disaster. It's not at all helpful to me to read "Oh, we did Tevis, I'm tired but it was no big deal" or "Worked on canter pirouettes today; my horse was very soft and round." It's fun to read that, but I don't learn from it.

So. The terrible horrible no good ride.

Almost all of our rides are out the driveway and to the left - that's where the really open space is. Friday I decided to go right out of the driveway, down the road to ...??? She wasn't in a ~mood~ when I got there and headed out, and we made it about 3/4 of a mile before we came upon some barking dogs and she got nervous. I kept pushing her to work through it and keep moving forward, and we made it past a gauntlet of dogs on both sides of the road before she just shut down.

Dixie's scariest habit is just freaking out and forgetting humans exist. When I'm on her back, I can't get an ear, I can't get flexion, I can't get any movement based on any cues. It's a precursor to melting down and bolting, so I don't even try to ride it out anymore. I just get off and wait for her to "come back" to me. It doesn't happen all that often - less than once a month - and honestly, it only happens when I push her too hard mentally. The problem is that the "too hard" point is not static, so I don't always know when it's coming.

Anyway, we'd walked exactly one mile down the road when she came unglued. I got off and got her off the road and checked the GPS - I figured it'd take 5-10 minutes for her to calm down and acknowledge me again. I waited patiently while she circled around me, head up like a Saddlebred. I gently lunged her in small circles - not to burn off energy, just to get her thinking about how I existed and was controlling her feet. I asked her to back up and asked her to follow me as we "crazy walked" (Kate's term, but I love it so I'm stealing it!) I did all these things, over and over, for THIRTY MINUTES, to no avail. She would not even look at me!

She probably would've stood still enough for me to get back on and ride her home, but it would've been either a bolt home or a huge nasty fight to keep her from bolting, so I didn't even try to get on. I gave up. I walked her home. And the more I walked, the madder I got.

By the time we got back home, I decided that I have health insurance and a magical helmet and I didn't care if she killed both of us, we were going back out. I was totally flummoxed about how to help her work around the coming unglued issue, but the only thing I could think of was to work more on cruise control - staying in the speed I ask you for.

When I first got Dixie, she was so terrified of the rider on her back she would've racked off a cliff if that's where she was pointed. It was horrible - extremely unsafe, with a fearful horse who didn't even look where she was putting her feet. I spent a ton of time letting her know it was ok to stop and look at scary stuff, and it was ok to walk slow sometimes. Now she's at the point where she stops and looks TOO much. I hesitate to ascribe human motivations to a horse, but it's like she's sandbagging. Maybe we need more balance - if it's really scary, we'll stop and you can look at it. But I will not let monsters eat you, and I need you to go when I say go.

So I got back on my horse (who was acting totally normal again) and we went back out and worked up and down a short gravel road (to the left!) I carry a spare lead rope clipped to the breastcollar D's, draped over her withers, and I used that as my horse beater. I'd ask, with voice and the gentlest possible leg cues, then again with a good squeeze and some heels, then I'd start whacking with the end of the lead rope. It's just a nylon rope, no popper or metal hardware, so it didn't hurt her, but it definitely got her attention. I probably had to resort to the horse beater the first three times I asked her to move out away from the barn, and after that she'd walk or trot/rack on polite leg cues. No cantering - our minds weren't right for that!

When I decided to head home, I worked her at the driveway too. I'd ask her to trot about 20' from the driveway, then absolutely insist she keep trotting PAST the driveway for another 20'. Then we'd turn and I'd have her walk briskly PAST the driveway. Rinse and repeat probably 10 times.

Dixie actually did very well. She didn't get pissy - no head tossing or tail wringing - so I don't feel like I was unfair or asked too much. I am not sure if getting her more responsive to my aids will help with the coming unglued problem, but it's definitely something worth working on either way.


  1. If that's a terrible, horrible, no good very bad ride, then I don't even have WORDS for some of the rides I've had on Gogo!!
    It sounds like you made the best of a bad situation, and the end outcome was good. I'm not one to give training tips but I'm interested to see if this ride helps in the future. I'm willing to bet it will.

  2. Hahaha, you are young and fearless. I am old and crotchety and cowardly - it WAS terrible and horrible! Also I still don't know if I handled it right, which makes me mad.

    Thanks :)

  3. You ended a lot better than you started, so oddly enough it wasn't a bad ride at all. You found the problem and worked on fixing it - what's bad about that? I think the attention-getting work you did after you (safely and sensibly) walked home (getting in a fight with her at that point probably would have just confirmed to her that melting down was necessary) was just the trick - it gave her something to think about that was a little bit, but not too, challenging and you and she were able to have success at it together - that's a good ride in my definition! Sure you didn't end up where you planned, but who cares (I don't)?

  4. Yes, it was a frustrating ride. But the only thing that I see that would have made it terrible, horrible, no good (I love that book--I have two copies in my office for kids) was if you had let your anger take over in a terrible, horrible, no good way. It sounds like, though your were mad, you redirected that mad energy to working through the problem, rather than taking it out on Dixie in a way that reinforced her fear (as Kate said). I've been at the same frustrating, embarrassing place with Maddie, more than once, and know how hard it can be to do that.

  5. Funder, here's what I learned from Mugwump about this kind of situation:

    Before you go get the horse, take a can of grain, or cookies, or a flake of hay a little bit further than you made it last time, and leave it there. Ride to the cookies, stop, have a snack, ride home. Next time, put the cookies a little bit further away. Ride to the cookies, stop, have a snack, ride home. Your definition of "a little bit further" is self-defined, but I like to put the cookies at the TOP OF THE NEXT HILL. Motivating, oh yes!

    I wish I'd learned that trick ten years ago.

  6. Lilly and I have had a few moments like that... where she stops, looks, and is oblivious to me. I can feel her heart beating and her muscles quivering. NOT FUN! You have no idea what they're going to do... go backwards, go forwards, jump sideways (and which way?!). I can usually get her to come back to me, though, in just a few moments (although it seems like forever).

    I think you handled it well! And if that's something you work on frequently with her, I'm sure you'll make great progress.

    The fact that you were able to end things on a good note is a good ride in my book. :)

  7. They are frustrating sometimes. My horse would also get mindless and it was safer to get off than have a fight or an accident. I think you did the right thing by walking home and getting her attention with another ride. So in the end it all worked out, but it is a frustrating experience all the same.

  8. The one thing that stuck out to me about your story was the very begining. You said you usually ride left to a specific site or area. This day you went right and you wrote question marks as your destination. Did you have a place in mind when you started on the ride to the right, or were you just heading out, no real plan? I ask this because a horse that has had rider and fear issues might really want to feel that you had a plan, especially if your were going a new way to scarey dogs places. ;-)
    You say she wasn't in the mood. Maybe she was looking for your intent. Why are we going this way? Where are we going?
    When I rode with Mark Rashid over the summer, part of my transistion and maintaining gait problems were MY lack of planning. Seems to me, you might be having a little of that yourself with your horse. She needs a plan. We are going here, to this place, at this gait, together, off we go! You can do this walking her in hand or riding. I think leaving a treat at a destination to the right sounds good. Hand walk her to all the scarey dogs and have the treat there. Then stand with her in that place and rub on her . Even if she is antsy and moving, you stay still and calm. See if you can get her to be quiet with you on the ground in that direction and then ride her that way to a treat. The important thing being, ask her to "stay with me" do not ask her "don't leave". There is a difference. If you ask her to move, as circling, or whatever, I think you're just escalting the situation. See if you can get her to just "be" with you quietly. Even for a couple seconds, then lead her off a couple steps. You want her to recognize you as the calm safe place in any situation. I have been thru this with my horse. It won't happen overnight, but if every time you hit a situation like this and you immediately keep calm and quiet, eventually you will become reliable to her. That may mean dismounting immediately if you're riding, to stand with her. Eventually, you'll be able to calm her from the saddle with a word or touch. I started on the ground just leading into different situations, it has now helped when I'm in the saddle. I thought I had all this worked out, but my horse started telling me otherwise in certain situations. "Holes" in our training that surface every now and then.
    Not trying to lecture, just trying to help. I've been there too! Good luck!

  9. Wow, not only are yall cheerleaders when I have a good ride, you have really good advice and commiseration when I have a bad ride! Thank you so much :)

    AareneX, I LOVE Mugwump! She says things in a way that I can really relate to. I'd forgotten about leaving a treat further out; thanks for reminding me. I actually did the "cruise control" based on something she wrote once - she says her horses need to go at the speed she says until she says otherwise, and that's something I haven't been clear enough about with Dixie. While I was walking home fuming, I was thinking "What would Mugs say to do?" I couldn't decide, so I decided to just go back to a known hole in her training.

    Jill - if I go right out of the driveway, I can go to the (scary) canyon or up the mountain toward Palomino Valley or just keep going on the road to somewhere new. You're right, I didn't really have a plan, but it seems like my rides go better if I'm flexible. I hadn't gotten to the turn for the canyon or the mountain, and I wasn't sure about the footing up the mountain. I've never done any of those rides alone, either.

    I've had some success at just "being" with her before when she gets nervous and won't look at me. I just stood and tried to ooze calm vibes for 10 minutes before I thought maybe asking her to move would work better - it didn't, obviously. I generally never lunge her, because it freaks her out, and I probably shouldn't have on Friday either. Sigh.

    I think I'm going to do more work on "head down" as well. She will give "head down" on verbal cue from the ground, most of the time, but I think I will add a physical cue (hand halfway up her mane) and work on transitioning it to u/s work too. My ultimate goals are for her to be able to calm herself and for her to trust me.

    Lots to think about - thank you again for the great advice!

  10. I have not been getting on my computer much, I so I haven't been able to keep up with your posts. Sorry. :(

    As one who hasn't ridden since Sept (but am planning on getting in some serious lesson time come Spring), I won't even attempt to offer advice. Especially since we're the opposite (cowardly rider and a brave horse - really, I'm learning how brave he is!). I'm glad to read how it ended so much better than it started, though! So, it may have been frustrating, but it was still a triumph and not a failure. :D

  11. I feel your pain! I've been there many times and it's completely frustrating to the point where I question my sanity and whether it's really worth going head to head with a creature that outweighs me by some 800 pounds. Worse, I've at the point where if someone had offered to take Max off my hands, I would have given him away and not cared where he wound up.

    I believe that sometimes there are no right or wrong answers, just the one that fits your situation.

    For all it's worth, you did pretty much what I would have done in the same situation- no reason to beat yourself up over it. :-)

    Hang in there! :-)


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