Friday, March 27, 2009

Being a Leader during Difficult Moments

You ever have those rides that make you think “why I am subjecting myself to this”?

Last night’s ride proved to be less than what I would consider fun. It was a beautiful clear evening and the sun was shining but it was cold. After a stressful day at work, I was looking forward to riding. JB was busting at the seams with energy and before we even got out of the driveway, I could tell there was a storm brewing in him. JB was less then pleased to go out right around dinner time, but he had hay in front of him most of the day so we weren’t exactly heading out on an empty stomach. Beet pulp makes JB kookoo for cocoa puffs because he just loves it.
As we fish tailed down the road for the 1st half mile in pleasant bone jarring jog/walk, I finally let him trot out. Let him burn off some energy. The fishtailing or ping ponging as I call it, continued. It is a direct result of his mind being back at home and him trying to get turned around to go back home. This is nothing new with him. Frustrating as all get out, but usually manageable. Part of this is related to the herd issues that come with riding a stallion and part of it is that we have some relationship issues to sort out as far as leadership. JB has a very busy mind and keeping his mind with me and the task at hand has been our ongoing trouble spot. Unfortunately, his mind is usually several steps ahead of me.
We bee bopped down the road in a tense trot. He was not thinking forward and therefore his feet were not moving forward.

..."If you can direct the thought, the feet will follow "... I reminded myself… Words of wisdom from the clinician Harry Whitney who I would trust with my horses life. Unfortunately, I wasn’t having much success in directing the thought. I added a little squeeze with my leg with each pushing off stride with his hind feet to encourage a lengthened trot and he would blast forward. I then gave a little squeeze on the rein to half halt and ask him to slow, engage from the hind and come onto the bit some. This give and take pattern continued and I was slowly making progress for brief moments. Ok... We can build on brief moments I thought.
Right about that time, I hear a “clank” of metal and then the sound of the buckle on the boot flopping with each step he made. He managed to catch his front right boot with his hind right boot. We have been having this over reaching problem on his right side since his feet are feeling better . To try to resolve this, I have started using cotter pins with the hind boots to keep him from kicking the buckle loose. Well, some how he kicked the cotter pin right out or it broke and the cotter pin disappeared somewhere into the ditch. No use searching for it. I had brought two extras just in case, thankfully.

I hopped off to get things back in order so we could finish our ride and every fiber in my body screamed “go home , have a glass of wine and call it a day”.

In order to recalp the boot and put in another cotter pin, JB would need to stand still and wait patiently. JB had other ideas. He thought this moment would be an opportune time to play ring around the rosy or something. Every time I would step towards his hind end or bend over to grab his foot , he would step his hind quarters away from me at Mach chicken speed and try to head in direction we just came from . Home.
This went of for several minutes and the situation was deteriorating quickly. He offered to rear and at the same time, did what I call a sunfish. As he reared, he turns his neck and head to the opposite direction of where I am standing and pulls away from me. I feared he would succeed and get away from my hold. Then we would really have a problem. He would have to cross a main road and stood a good chance of getting hit. During this fit he was apparently having, he also managed to kick me during one of my attempt to get a hold of his leg. He caught the outside of my lower left leg. These barbs have very fast little feet.!! Thank god he had boots on otherwise it would have been worse. I realized the kick was out of frustration that I wasn’t letting him go where he wanted. It was a hard enough kick that I developed a good sized hematoma by late last night but really didn’t feel much pain at the time, I supposed due to the adrenalin pumping through me.
I realized I needed to change the program because we weren’t getting anywhere. He was not going to stand quietly for me so I could do what I needed to and we certainly couldn't go on with a flopping boot. For whatever reason, JB was well into meltdown mode like I have never seen before with him.
Standing still for JB has always been difficult. It has a lot to do with his busy mind. When I first started JB, he didn’t want to stand still to have the saddle put on him and would run around in a circle. Harry worked with me on this in a clinic a couple years back. He taught me that a horses feet are nothing more than a means to get his body to where his brain is. JB’s brain was back at home. His feet were moving because he wanted to get home. When a horse is not wanting to stand quietly, our first reaction is to keep trying to make them stop their feet to stand still by popping the lead rope. The feet are secondary. It’s the mind I had to get back and the feet will come.
So, not having a safe area to really work this through (busy gravel road) I had to be thoughtful about my approach to keep JB safe while getting him to change his thought about going home. Instead of focusing on trying to make him stop moving his feet, I allowed him to move his feet but the key point here is that I directed his feet…. in a circle around me. It started out as a pretty furious paced circle, a speed JB was choosing. He was still tense, his head was still held high but I wasn’t sending him around at that speed. An important piece that I want to emphasize is that as he was choosing the pace.My role was to allow that but direct the feet and then offer him a good deal to slow down, to show him that it would be a lot less work to choose to stay with me mentally and physically than try to leave. He was still pretty focused on getting home as he went around me. I am pretty sure that he thought that if he could run around the circle fast enough, he might just be able to launch himself home. Every time he made it to the south side of the circle, he was looking hard to the outside (toward home). He was also pulling on me. Guess he figured that since the launching wasn’t working, maybe he could just drag me home. At this point, in the round pen, I would usually do something to interrupt his thought .In this case since I could see he was mentally checking out, I took my stirrup fender and snapped it, timing it with his pulling on me and looking away, to bring his mind back to what we had going on. It's sort of like saying.. "HELLO, I am right here... pay attention..." In the round pen I might have used my flag or even done a cartwheel to get his attention (really, I have done that) You could do other things too I suppose to capture their attention but being that he was on a line ,I had limited options and the leather was easy to grab. I knew it would be enough to get him to think something different anything but than leaving, even if his mind drifted to something else. I was trying to direct his thought, hoping eventually I could bring it back to me.
Sounds easy enough right? Unfortunatley, the next thing is a crucial point and can be a bit tricky. Watching for the smallest sign that he had a change of thought, even for a passing second. That would be the exact time he would need a reward. After a couple of times of snapping the fender, he finally said… “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS IT THAT YOU WANT LADY??”

AHA!!! His ear flicked and his inside eye actually made contact to the inside of the circle, I had him . Finally he was asking the question I wanted to answer for him.

I said, “Well, dear son, I would sure like it if you would slow down a bit and be here a moment with me”.

I consciously made my body language into quiet relaxed stance (without looking suspicious) I let out a deep breath and talked in a quieter voice to him. I slowed my pace and he slowed, just a bit. I gave a small bump on the lead to cue him to slow more, now that he was paying some attention. He responded with “ BUT I REALLY WANT TO GO HOME “

And I said, “ Yes, I know and we will go home, but we are going to have to go home together”.

After a bit of this discussion and give and take, he walked. I continued to talk and stay quiet and asked him to come around me with a nice bend which slowed him more . As he bends through the jaw, that released his entire top line and he came around the circle with the nicest bend that went from head to tail. He was finally letting go , let out a huge sigh and he finally said, “ WELL , THERE YOU ARE, I WAS LOOKING FOR YOU! I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER"

Usually when he gets here, he begins to yawn repeatedly and tt’s at this point, he is ready to move on. Lesson over. I will mention that just because it worked and I was able to get him back, that doesn’t mean he will stay there with me mentally. Given his state of mind, it was a real possibility that I may lose him again. Nonetheless, JB finally stood quietly and I was able to latch his buckle down and insert the new cotter pin. Mission accomplished, for now. I hopped on and off we went.
We now kept on in the direction we were headed. I had another mile before our turn around point. I suppose I could have turned around right then and everything would have gone fine. I wasn’t worried about sending the wrong message to JB had I turned around. I just wanted to ride a bit with him engaged so well. JB happily walked out and was looking ahead. No more weaving or ping ponging. What a relief. Right about then , there was a lady coming toward us walking her dog and then behind her about a half mile was a group of about 8 bicycle riders coming down the road. I may have made a mistake by continuing!! Well , I got him past the lady with only minor concerns but when JB spotted what was coming at him next, his body filled with tension, his head popped up and I could feel his heart pounding. Here we go again I thought. He wanted to turn and run and frankly so did I. I had to remain calm and be ready for whatever was about to unfold, while trying to keep JB as calm as possible. The bikers must have sensed that JB was nervous by his body language and were nice enough to slow up and talk as they passed, which sometimes helps. I have had other horses balk at bikes and have found that if you can get the bikers talking (which can be hard sometimes) a horse usually can recognize that bikers are people with really weird legs if the biker talks. Not this time. Today, it was too much. JB lost it. He spun around and tried to bolt. In one HUGE leap, we landed with all four feet in the ditch which probably saved us. The ditch was full of about 3 feet of snow. It kind of hobbled his momentum , atleast enough for him to stop and think about something else other than the bikers. By now the bikers were past and looking back at us, probably glad that they were on the bikes and not on this horse. He jumped up out of the ditch and we carried on. But, interestingly enough, he didn’t stay bothered. He just resumed a nice steady walk. Maybe our earlier lesson stuck?
We made it to our turn around a point and I even went a little further. He had settled down quite a bit. By now things were calm enough I was feeling the pain in my leg and apparently he had also jerked on me e hard enough that my middle back was also aching. Twisting to turn around and look behind us (to be proactive with oncoming vehicles) was rather difficult. We managed to get home without any more major issues. I unbooted, unsaddled , brushed him off and gave him his beet pulp. I went in for the evening, glad to have arrived with both of us safe but was left thinking about a few things.
JB’s a stallion and no matter how well behaved he has the ability to be, it will always require me to handle things a little differently than I would with a gelding or a mare. Tonight was a very good display of how JB can turn on the pressure because he doesn’t want to follow my lead. The dominance can come on strong. He did everything he knew to try to get away from the perceived pressure, which was to travel down the road with me and be away from his herd.
As I work toward being his leader that he will happily go along with, there may be some times when I have to step out of my comfort zone. Last night I had to be careful since I was out there in the open, my priority was to keep him safe. If I were in a round pen, I may have handled things a bit different. When JB gets “big” and displays behavior like rearing, kicking and these sorts of things, it is no longer only about being his leader, its about safety. Had we been in a round pen, and he had reared, I would have come in alot bigger as soon as he turned up the pressure (rearing) to meet his pressure. Why? To establish those boundaries of what is ok and what is not okay. Establishing clear boundaries and rewarding at the right time is a crucial part of working with any horse , but it seems moreso with a stallion. Last night, I had to choose my battles he may try this again. With any luck, we will have a few things better established if and when it does.
Now that JB’s feet are feeling better, it's pretty clear that he is showing me some things I hadn’t seen before. Being full of spring testosterone I suppose the desire to be the dominant force is playing into the cards. He is testing those lines with me. Last night, his very strong self-preservation instinct was in the "on" position and he wanted the comfort of his herd. He wasn't too keen on my ideas of going out for a ride and so he tried to go over , around and run away from that idea.The hardest part about all of this? Remembering it’s not personal and keeping the emotion out of it. It’s hard to keep yourself calm and not get angry in these situations. Were not there yet, but I am not giving up. We have way too much to do together.


Susan Catt said...

Kudos Jonna for a job well done. I had many outtings like that with my stallion Asad. I handled most of the problems during ground driving sessions which minimalized the difficult riding sessions. However I do remember riding him once while he took the bit and sidled into a saguaro cactus, I lifted my leg out of the stirrup and up onto his back. He slammed full force into the cactus with a grunt, and never pulled that stunt again. Another time he tried to sidle off an embankment to scare me and go back to his mares. I turned his head so that he had to back down it, then I turned him and made him back up it and then back down again. He didnt do that again either. And then there was the time I was ground driving him that he got mad and laid down, for over an hour, on the 200 degree gravel road in mid day summer Arizona. And he never did that again either. In the end he was my best partner and riding horse. We trained many green horses and green riders in on the trails with Asad leading them carefully through the terrain.

Dont lose hope.

Jonna said...

Thanks Susan... no hope lost.. I am confident we'll get there!!