Don’t give up on me… I won’t give up on you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Monday was cold and rainy. A good day to take a barn break- do some actual work – and let the horse have a non-human day to just be horses.

Tuesday was overcast and damp. I dragged my feet getting things done in the house and found a million excuses not to go to the barn through the morning.

Not only was the weather uninspiring but I was feeling a little foggy from my experience on Sunday. Usually pretty sure of myself (even if I have to change direction) I had more questions than answers and felt lost at sea when it came to what next.

Maybe I should just work on my paperwork today… What would I do? Ride? Groundwork? Relationship building? How? 

Ok- you’re an endurance rider now. Not only does that mean you ride in crappy rather if it’s the day you have to ride, but also you have to get back out there and find some answers. You don’t give up because you don’t know what to do- you put one foot in front of the other and you go to the barn and say “hello girls- I’m not sure what the plan is today but let’s figure it out together.”

Since when has a plan actually been the best choice for the day anyway.

So I went.

Thankfully Khaleesi and Faygo still came to wait at the gate for me. If they’d have walked  across the field away from me I think I would have given up and gone home.

Khaleesi avoided me slightly – she let me know that she’d prefer me to just bring some lunch and leave it there for her. She wasn’t very interested in the halter and going in to the barn for whatever I had in mind today.

I hear you girl- but we can’t give up. Don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you.

I did leave lunch for Faygo who was sweet and grateful (not to have to work today). Khaleesi let me halter her when she realized that was the deal and we walked a halfhearted dance to the barn together. A little forward, a little back… faster and slower… yep. We got this part.

Meanwhile the plan was forming.

I have to follow up on Sunday somehow. I wasn’t able to let her do her own thing completely, but she was so happy and did so well when she was able to express herself. How do I create an opportunity for her to be able to feel like she is making choices- yet still work within a framework I can accept? She is wonderful and fun to ride when she’s motivated. How do I find some motivation for her?

I think she was telling me she didn’t want to go in the trailer, and that she wanted to go home.

Plan: I will trailer her just up the road to the recreation area, and then I will let her take me home from there, much like the ride we enjoyed together on Saturday with Susan- only then we took a very long way through the mountain trails. There are a lot of ‘roads’  home from there. Most are a fun short ride. I will let her choose the way home!

We started the process to saddle up standing in place.

This about took every bit of my patience today. I didn’t time us, and truly it was probably only 15-20 minutes but with each step she would walk off. After a few times just putting her a few steps back in place I went farther and would back her until she was backing quickly and well and then put her back in place (extra work). The process did improve as we went and after putting her in place I would wait on her to be sure she truly was in the mindset to stand still again and I did a lot of rubbing her or just standing with her (which I think she prefers to the rubbing) quietly to reward her for standing in place.

I believe she knew what her job was, and she was telling me she wasn’t interested in it today. It reminds me of the vet that came to look at her in the fall- thought she was quite a nice horse and in her words “very opinionated”.

Once ready to go we walked out to the trailer. Just a few weeks ago I have video of her sailing right on faster than I could keep up with her. Today I had to work to get her on. She dodged and avoided more than usual.

I drove especially carefully in case I’d been careless lately and that might be part of it. We unloaded, tightened up, took the bit and I got on. Then I said “Ok – lets go!” and allowed her to start out on the road most directly toward home.

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We are now on the same page.

Each time we came to a choice on the route I tried not to influence too much with my seat or eyes and just allowed her to go the way she wanted. She was that lovely mare I enjoy so much- forward moving, happy, and no arguments. Most of her choices made sense…… until the one that didn’t.

We were within inches of a main trail that was a great route home and pretty direct. She stopped and asked to turn right into the woods instead. Just through some trees that direction is another path that we could have taken also to get to that grassy trail home- but she got on that path and started heading back toward the road we’d left a while back. This was vaguely in the direction home (as the crow flies) but by my human brain it was backtracking.

Ok- what are you doing here? I’m still with you! Let’s go.

She picked up speed and eventually before hitting that lower trail we went into the open woods! I have to admit she did a pretty good job of navigating the woods so I wasn’t clotheslined by too many trees- and we ended up on a deer trail that paralleled the lower trail (I kept my GPS going to be sure I at least knew where we were). When we got very close to the trail I suggested to her we get on it so it would be easier for me. She agreed to that and picked up speed again heading faster and faster for a long driveway that went right by my house. NOT the barn- my house, which is about a mile from the barn- on the highway.

Ok- I can’t let her take us home on the highway. Just not safe.

I encouraged her to pop off the gravel road where we’d end up in my front yard (still as the crow flies in the direction of the barn) and she wasn’t thrilled but went along. Here I tied her up in my front yard and put the dogs in the house while she munched on my grass. I wasn’t planning to hit the highway- but at this point I wasn’t sure what the route home would be and thought it better to leave the dogs out of the mix for the last part.

Now what?

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It tickled me a bit that instead of to the barn she brought ME home. But I don’t think she realized that was what she was doing. She’d been to my house one time and we’d come at it from a different direction- that was not an option- the trails were very compromised (we’d ridden them to see how bad they were, and they were bad) and in the snowy-icy-muddy condition the detours would be downright dangerous today.

We were in a place where “you can’t get there from here”. So much for our quick easy ride today.

I suggested heading back toward the driveway and she began but kept asking to head North (barn direction- crow flies) and I knew that was a bad choice- but I let her try a handful of times. Each time we hit a briar patch, a laurel thicket, or a cliff (thankfully each time she seemed to realize this was not an option and turned back).

After enough trial and error we hit the driveway again and started backtracking- at a fast trot. It seemed she agreed this was the best choice. We went all the way up where the road turns to wooded forest road and I knew there was another connecting trail that we could cut back toward those grassy roads and get back on the good route home. She seemed to understand and hit her fast trot then a little canter- right past the trail head.

This trailhead is hard to find. I can usually get it when I’m really looking and it’s a decent trail once you’re on it, but it’s not very obvious and slightly overgrown. I had my GPS and knew we’d passed it, but again- where was she going to go? At some point she slowed and stopped. She stood there for a moment as if in thought. I waited.

I suggested turning around and she did.

Walking back down the trail we were both looking to the right. I checked my GPS and we had a ways to go backtracking to pick up the trail. She was impatient and headed once again in to the woods.

It was less obvious once in the woods where we’d pick up the trail and I was trying to work together so I asked her for the direction I knew was better… we ended up in some circles as the woods were more dense and I pushed her back to the road so we could pick up the trail just a few yards down more easily.

Now we were in for an argument.

She went from a joy to ride to turning me around pulling her head and fighting me. However this time I insisted.

We circled, argued, and get a few feet at a time until we reached the trailhead where she seemed to see it, say “Oh… This is what I was looking for anyway” and picked it up at a good clip.

I felt like I’d just been fighting with my husband over directions on a road trip (except my husband and I don’t usually fight) then we saw what we were looking for and were all fine immediately.

This trail is in fair shape but overgrown with some light bushes. She was eager at this point and I had to hold her back as she was ready to gallop through the bushes and mud if I let her. Even so, we were going fast- and I noticed that if the footing truly wasn’t good she slowed herself down- so I trusted her when I could to choose as quickly as was safe.

(of course I can remember seeing her leaping and running around the field and busting her ass in the mud, then getting up and looking around wondering if anyone noticed her ungraceful crash… I thought my own human ‘adult’ sense should help with the safety factor at least a touch)

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Now we were on a roll. She was on the best path home and she knew it. The entire ride had been at a great pace and the trails and footing in this area are overall good- a little muddy ground to take care of, but they are rarely traveled so we didn’t slip much. With a few exceptions I asked her not to canter. I wanted us to have the discipline of staying to a trot- and if she wanted speed she would need to stretch her trot, which she did.

At one point when I did allow her to canter up a grassy hill I looked down to see we’d lost a boot bottom. [I believe this is due to the same adjustment reason we lost the previous one- and I know how to keep it from happening in the future but it’s possible my adjustment on some of the others from before might still give way. I don’t want to take them all apart- so I’d been trying to keep watch.]

I decided not to go back for it at the moment. She was so forward and we’d been doing so well with this experiment of letting her express herself, I didn’t think she’d understand backtracking for the sake of a hoof boot, and I know the area of trail it’s on and believe we can go back and have a good chance of recovering it Friday. I was choosing my battles.

We had a fantastic rest of the ride. She was moving out well and everything was right. I felt like an amazing rider when we were not expending energy arguing. She made it effortless, our transitions were so much better, the saddle felt perfect, I was able to think much more about my riding and changing diagonals as well as practicing posting trot, a balanced 2 point, and even experimented with the sitting trot with my hips being more open to move with her back laterally to make it easier on her and me (something I’d read in my Sally Swift book).

I thought some might have said she was being ‘barn sour’ and wondered if I was encouraging that ‘bad habit’. I don’t believe so. In fact there were times as we got closer to home she slowed on her own to walk a stretch (a great forward walk), and when we came to the woods I’d taken her in to practice our serpentines around trees, she went off the trail again and we weaved through the open woods parallel to the trail on her choice- and not overly fast. Very close to home there is one hill ALL horses want to charge up, and she pulled her head down and shook it as if to start that charge and I told her “no, please, you can trot but not bolt” and she softened instead and trotted nicely.

The closer we got to home in fact the more she seemed to slow down and relax. She even stopped a few times to listen and smell the air when were at the last switchbacks down to the highway. She walked across the road and onto the property completely relaxed and it might have been the best ride together we’d ever had. Without me ever pushing her for speed we rode 14 miles at an average pace of 5.8mph- and it was effortless riding. In the end she had almost no sweat, and only once after a canter was she breathing hard.

We were in alignment and working as a team, but not completely. The few times I had to step in and suggest the better path she fought me. We had the same end goal, but it seems she didn’t really trust me.

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I’m so glad I got out there and took another step, but now I have more questions…

Did allowing her to make choices that didn’t work out the best (ending up and my house, coming upon briars and cliffs, and chaving to backtrack) teach her that she might not always have the best answers? In the moment she fought against me to find the trail- then I led her to it- did she realize that sometimes I can HELP us toward our goals? Do horses think and reason in that way? 

I’m not really sure. But I still believe it was a worthwhile experiment.

What can I learn from this? Does she feel like I’m always forcing her to do things she doesn’t really want to do? Does she feel that her opinions don’t matter at all in our ‘partnership’? Always going on rides she doesn’t want to take? Can I find more ways to set up my rides that she is more motivated to participate? Would she be more willing to partner with me if we found some common ground in the process?

One thing I can say with certainty: I love riding her when her heart and head are in it with me. She is athletic and fun and smart. I hate fighting with her. She is strong willed and pushes to communicate when she is NOT happy with our plan.

I have to find a way to work in better partnership- a new kind of partnership. As Buck said: the trick is to make what you want the horse’s idea; or another mentor of mine put it: you can never put your goals ahead of your relationship.

Somehow I think the key to this puzzle does lie within our relationship- which I thought was pretty good. I’m not so sure now.

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