Friday, June 18, 2010

two steps forward, one step back

It's a bit lik a dance. Working with young horses, that is.

We had another classic case of two steps forward, one step back recently. One day, the young mare has a breakthrough. There had been some trust issues and some problems with her not wanting to see me out of her right eye. Then she is ok with that. Not just tolerating it, she is ok. I can stand and walk on her off side, I can lean over, jump up and down and be a clown on her off side. All great. We finish the session on a great note and are over the moon with how she's going.

Two days later, different story. She's not keen on coming, in fact, she plays hard to get. Which is back to square one in that department. One of the reasons she is here is to address the hard to catch issue, and we had been making good progress in that area. She is also spooking at stuff that was fine a few days ago. And when on the lunge, she gets upset, starts running and reefs away.

Sigh. BIG sigh.

It was like a different horse. The session essentially ended up just working on walk + trot on the lunge and giving to requests. I did not have the impression that she was worried or scared, more that she was in a shitty mood. Some of the rubbish she pulled certainly appeared pretty deliberate. For example, twice she trots calmly past a corner, third round she starts taking up the slack in the rope and then either stops or starts running and then reefing on the rope. The face wasn't worried, it was more wrinkled. As though it was beneath her dignity to work with us that day.

Oh well, what to do. I was as hard as I needed to be to stop the reefing and I gave her slack and praise when she did as I asked. After a little while, she was fed up and hot and started giving to my requests with greater frequency. She even offered a couple of rounds on a loose rope with a relaxed topline. At that, we stopped and put her away. We didn't even try to work on the stuff she did so well the previous session. We just took the first try and stopped there.

If I were new to horses, I'd be tearing my hair out and I'd be beating myself up over the whole thing. Of course I asked myself what I was doing wrong. But there are some days when, for reasons not evident to us humans, a horse does not want to play. I think that's sort of like the days when I feel like the whole world ought to leave me alone and I find it hard to be civil ;-). Yes, we all have days like that. So why not horses? But the behaviour she showed was unacceptable, so we didn't tolerate it, and we left her alone when she started behaving in an acceptable manner. Some days that is all we can achieve.

Our next working session together will most likely be fine. We never deviated from the general theme of rewarding wanted behaviour and ingnoring and/or discouraging unwanted behaviour, in any of the sessions. So while the apparent progress in the last session seemed nil or negative, in fact it still amounted to a learning experience for the mare (and us!!). And there are unlikely to be negative carry overs from it.

It's not the first time that we've experienced this dance with horses. It happens to a lesser or greater degree with any equine pupil at some point. Sometimes, it seems like three steps backwards for a few sessions in a row before we make apparent progress. Sometimes, I DO tear my hair out and I rummage around in my toolbox of tricks and techniques, so that I find something that will help the horse to understand what I want. Sometimes, it's a rocky road and we go up blind alleys and have to backtrack, and then again it's like hitting a freeway and we race along.

It is from difficulties and problems that we achieve the greatest learning as trainers. The knowledge gained from dancing the training dance with challenging horses is what makes subsequent dances a greater pleasure. For horse and human.

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