Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Steen vs the Gate

I have been a bit lame about blogging because our barn trips have really fallen off. I'm trying to wrap up a bunch of work before we escape to Arizona for a couple of weeks, and it's been cold. Not super duper horrible cold, but just cold enough that it's easy to talk yourself out of spending much time outside.

Our last ride was Sunday. I rode Steen again, and he was pretty good. He's mostly just so out of shape now. He has a long back, and when he's not in consistent work his posture gets bad. He has a tendency to let his hind end trail out behind him and heave himself around with his front. Throw a saddle and rider on and this gets worse. Before his injury he was in such great condition. He had the muscles to engage his back properly, he was pulling from behind a lot more and his haunches were strong. It's a bit discouraging to come back to this point. But, on the other hand, it will be fun to see him get back in shape.

We rode on the strip. Brian was on Laredo and at first we tried to play some variations of the cow game in hopes of finding ways to reward Laredo for putting out more energy. It wasn't working as expected though, so we switched to the routine, which was actually pretty good except at one point Steen took it upon himself to pin his ears and try to move Laredo away from him. Naturally he got a correction for that, then he got a bit upset and stopped paying attention to where I was asking him to go, so got another correction, then got even more upset and tried to trot off into the field and got a third pull which finally got him thinking again, but after that he was a little on guard. I think I was too fast with the second two pulls, not giving him enough warning. It's so hard to be both effective and right on with timing, while genuinely giving the horse a chance to avoid a correction. With a horse as sensitive as Steen, one pull he doesn't understand can put him on edge.

So after the routine we worked on a bunch of slow stuff, like pivoting around individual feet. He was inclined to over-respond to my cues at first, which is typical of him when he's in that kind of mood. I'd asked for a movement and he'd rattle out three or four random steps. So I focused down to what Martin Black talked about so much at the clinic. Get ONE step. If it's not the right step, stop, take a deep breath, and start over. Getting the right step after you've gotten three wrong steps accomplishes nothing.

Here we are pivoting on the right hind. I am sporting my "one size fits all but I have to tie it in a knot to keep it from falling off" oh so classy hunting vest.

It took a few minutes but soon he was really listening. We got some great pivoting done on all four feet and by the end he was soft and responsive without so much anxiety.

Some other people had been out riding on the strip at the beginning of our ride, and they'd left the gate to the indoor arena unlatched and slightly ajar. We decided to ride the horses all the way in just for the fun of it. The gate needed to be pushed open to allow us through, so I sidled Steen up to it and asked him to sidepass towards it to push it over. We the gate open but dribbled forward and around, so I went to the other side and sidepassed him away while pulling the gate with us. We've never worked on gates before ever (since there are really no good gates to practice on at our barn) and he did ok. He went more forward than I would have liked, but I wasn't going to be too picky until at the very end he got anxious about the gate following us and dove through my leg and away from the gate in a way that was pretty unacceptable.

So then I decided we would close the gate. The next few minutes were so funny. They were both a reminder of the "underlying Steen"(the horse that can become genuinely fearful about the most ridiculous things and become convinced that HE WILL DIE if he takes one step closer to something scary) and also of how much headway I have made in cultivating the "thinking Steen" (the horse who will hunt for the release until he gets it).

What happened was this: I stepped him over to the gate, no problem. But the gate is a bit too low to make it easy to grab from a horse's Steen's height. He got his front end close enough, but not his hind. So I was asking him to step his hind over.

He would not do it. And it wasn't obstinance. I could tell he was utterly and 100% convinced he COULD not step his hind over. There was a pit of boiling lava where I wanted him to step, a thousand foot drop off an escarpment. We would boil in our skins/plunge to our deaths. I was asking for the impossible.

The more I asked, the more Steen's anxiety came up. He tried to step forward, I blocked him with my hands. I had energy in my left leg, keeping him from moving away from the gate. He pinballed from block to block. Later Brian told me he was standing all tense, not actually moving but shifting his weight dramatically from foot to foot to foot to foot.

Not long ago in this moment I would have escalated things. I would have kicked or pulled harder, and that would have created so much pressure in Steen that he'd have been forced to go through one of my blocks just to relieve his anxiety.

Another thing Martin Black talked about repeatedly at the clinic was doing too much. He said if a horse is uncomfortable, you are challenging him and that means you should be trying to teach him something. An uncomfortable horse will try to get comfortable again. Discomfort is enough. You don't have to do more, you have to wait.

Steen was uncomfortable, so all I had to do was sit there and keep applying the same amount of pressure and let him find the one spot that wasn't blocked.

Of course it felt like it took forever but it was just a few seconds. Just like that, Steen stepped his hind to the fence. I released all pressure and he sighed and dropped his head and licked and chewed like someone just gave him a caramel candy.

After a brief rest I put my hand on the gate and asked him to step over towards it. He complied, except his front stepped way more than his hind so we were out of position again. I asked him for his hind, and we hit the same wall as before.

We worked through it the same way, then a third time, and then finally we got four or five multiple, even, consecutive steps, and pushed the gate all the way closed.

The gate is conquered!

So it was kind of a big moment for me and Steen. I believe that is the first time I've ever successfully worked through one of his major NO moments without getting a single spazzy movement, and it all comes back to me learning the when and how much of applying pressure.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback hours YTD: 148:10


  1. Haha! I loved reading about your gate escapade, your horse sounds a lot like my pony, she is SUPER sensitive and gets really upset if she doesn't know why you are correcting her. With her, increasing cues/pressure never works, its always best to start at the beginning and reward her for a job good done.

    I love that you let him take baby steps. He was obviously confused as to what you were doing, and you didn't push him too hard to do too much at once! Well done!

  2. Thanks Marissa! Finding the right balance of firm and supportive has been my greatest challenge with Steen. Sensitive horses can be a challenge, but as I'm sure you've also experienced with your pony, they certainly are a pleasure to ride when things are going right. :)


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