Sunday, November 25, 2012


We've been out of town for a few days, which means none of our horses have been ridden. Sometimes when we have our pick of who to ride and we're not in any sort of pattern, it can be hard to decide. Today I settled on Steen and Brian decided to ride Bear.

Seen's leg is STILL not done healing, and a few days without me tending to it meant the scab had built up quite a lot. He also still has some lingering rain rot and a bit of puffiness all around, so I thought a light ride would be good for him. When we were getting the horses out of the pasture we noticed the gate out to the big pasture is now closed. We often enjoy riding in the big pasture in the fall after the horses have been shut out, so decided to ride out there today.

Laredo made us feel bad by trailing after us to the gate and nickering at us when we left him behind (although it was nice to know he was keen to hang out with us).

We headed out through the tree lot, and I didn't do any groundwork. I knew Steen would be fresh, but I wanted to see what kind of a ride I would have without starting our usual way. It was quite cool today, and cold days always translate to an energetic Steen. Between that and exploring territory we haven't ridden through since last year, I thought it would be a good gauge of where he's at mentally coming off his many weeks of rest. And as soon as I got on I could feel he was wound up.

We walked through the treed lot and into the big pasture and saw they have been doing some work on the drainage ditch. The little canyon that has been developing down there the last couple of years is now all smoothed over and filled in. Steen saw the piles of dirt and different colored earth and his energy level came up a few more notches. He wasn't too bad though. He was eyeing the ditch and veering a bit, but I was able to block him and kept him moving forward without trouble.

We went through the bottom of the pasture and saw the gate from the big pasture to the strip was open. We thought it would be fun to ride out that gate and back to the barn, but we'd left the gate to the tree lot open, so had to ride back up there to close it.

As soon as we turned back towards the barn, Steen's behavior went from just barely acceptable to pretty bad. He went into "brainless Steen" mode, and started prancing.

I was riding in the hackamore. I have been hesitant to trail ride in the hackamore because of the way Steen can still sometimes go a little batty when presented with new situations. I have been afraid my ability to control him would suffer if he got wound up enough, so this was a test. Of course if I have learned one thing about riding in the hackamore it's that dragging on the horse leads to having no control, so I positioned myself squarely in the saddle and took the slack out of the rein, asking Steen to walk. He coiled up and pranced higher.

So I pulled. The pull in the hackamore is something I'm still far from mastering, but when the horse has been given a warning (taking the slack out of the rein) you have to follow up with enough force to get their attention. I pulled fairly hard, but I didn't throw my body weight into it or anything. Steen is a sensitive horse and I'd never tried this before when he's in one of his moods. I didn't want to overdo it.

The key to the pull, of course, is dropping the pressure before the horse can brace against it. I pulled hard and dropped the rein. Steen's head popped up and his feet stopped moving and he stood there quivering for a second. I asked him to walk again. He chose to prance again. I pulled again.

It only took three pulls before he was walking on a loose rein back to the tree lot. Brian closed the gate and we turned around. We headed back out into the pasture and Steen was doing his power walk, so we got ahead. I stopped to wait for Brian and Bear and when Steen's wanted to jig around instead of hold still, he got another pull. He went still again and his ears flicked back and I could practically see his brain re-engaging.

We went out the bottom of the pasture and up the strip. Steen eyed a pit full of junk and a plastic bag caught in the fence that was shaking in the wind, but he walked on. We drew closer to the top of the strip, and Brian and Bear trotted past us and continued  up to the top. Steen tried out the prance again, and got a few more pulls. Then I asked him to walk a circle. Once he tried to charge out of it towards Brian and Bear and I administered my hardest pull yet. He went still and again the ears flicked back and he stood. His head came down a few notches. He sighed. I asked him to move and we walked three of the most perfect circles he's ever given me.

We walked up to the top of the strip and by the time we got to the end he'd reverted to being attentive and awesome. He was paying more attention to the hackamore than ever before, and was soft to my legs as well. We trotted a few figure eights and my hands basically didn't come into it at all. He was energetic, but trying hard to behave.

By then we'd already had a rather more demanding ride than I'd planned for, so we mostly just sat around chatting with Cathi. I took a few bad photos of Brian and Bear.

Then it occurred to me I could hand the camera to Cathi and we could get a rare shot of Brian and I riding together. Woohoo!

So, it was a really interesting ride. This was the most success I've ever had getting Steen's mind back quickly after he's gotten riled up by something, and I think it was the hackamore. It is interesting to be able to be more and more effective about my release. I used to think, "My horse is going crazy and you want me to let go?" It seemed like a recipe for disaster. But now I see the only way to teach a horse is let him make a mistake. The key is being prepared with an effective response to the wrong answer.

In the past when Steen's brain has clicked off I have responded by increasing pressure on the reins. His response then turns into a reaction to that pressure. Pretty soon he's prancing and chomping the bit. Even if I keep pressure on one rein at a time, or do a lot of turns and stops, it's trading one kind of pressure for another kind of pressure. He builds and builds and builds.

Today I was able to trade pressure for release for the first time ever in one of his meltdown moments. And it worked. Without his bit to lean on or battle with, Steen had no option but to think. He did not like those pulls on the hackamore. He didn't like them enough that he put some effort into figuring out how to get them to stop happening. And just like that, his brain reengaged and the ride didn't turn into the war it would have not all that long ago.

So, as much as this ride wasn't the relaxing amble I was expecting when we got out of the car, it was a really good ride. I had been afraid push would come to shove and I would find I did not have the same kind of control in the hackamore as I do in the snaffle. And it turns out I was half right. Except I have better control in the hackamore than I do in the snaffle. That's really good to know.

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback hours YTD: 142:45


  1. Really liked this statement...

    "I used to think, "My horse is going crazy and you want me to let go?" It seemed like a recipe for disaster. But now I see the only way to teach a horse is let him make a mistake. The key is being prepared with an effective response to the wrong answer."

    so right, and too true. I am currently having this same mental block with Jingle and I must constantly remind myself that every little try, requires a release.

  2. It is definitely hard. It feels like I've been thinking about release and very little else for like a year now. And I am getting better about it, but I guess you can't break 20 years of programmed responses in a day or a week or a month. =)


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