Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rebuilding Feel During a Meltdown, with a Note on Confusion or Pushiness

In addition to reading Ray Hunt's lovely little book (see review a few days ago), I've also been reading, and pondering, Bill Dorrence's book True Horsemanship Through Feel (with Leslie Drummond).  It's truely a marvelous book, with a lot of very good teaching.  The book is about developing an approach to horses that results in mutual "feel", where the rider/handler can present an idea to the horse and the the horse adopts the idea as its own and executes the requested task with softness.  You feel of the horse, and the horse feels of you, and there's where the connection comes in.  Bill's approach is designed to develop respect in the horse - but this isn't respect in the sense of dominance/submission, fear, force (including the use of gadgets that force the horse's body into a particular posture or frame), or punishment, which he believes diminish trust and the formation of a true connection - but respect in the sense of trust and confidence in the human handling or riding them.  Horses with a feel of you won't be pushy or "disrespectful" in the normal sense of the word - this is inconsistent with mutual feel.

There are occasions when working with a horse when the feel is going to be lost.  If a horse is "overexposed" in Bill's sense - from being startled to being serious frightened, or presented with something where the horse's foundation and training don't allow him to understand what it is you're asking of him - feel will be lost and the horse may well take over and do what he thinks is necessary at that point in time.  Another time feel will be lost or absent is when a horse's prior foundation and training have been done in such a way that the horse never developed the feel of a person through having feel offered to him - such a horse is likely to be worried, braced, pushy/resistant or prone to take over.

When a horse is offered softness/feel (which, by the way, is not inconsistent with firmness - but that's a whole 'nother concept), and a proper foundation has been built, the horse may experience moments of confusion when asked to do something new - and it's important to let the horse work through that and try wrong answers on the road to finding the right answer, as you continue to present the idea mentally and offer the softness/feel you're looking for.  This, by the way, isn't the same thing at all as forcing a horse through something or getting mad at or into a fight with the horse, neither of which do anything to develop feel or mutual respect.  Confusion also isn't the same thing as a horse whose foundation is deficient and who is put into a situation of mental pressure where the foundation that exists isn't sufficient to allow the horse to answer the question with feel/softness - you might be able to force your way through to compliance, but that also doesn't build feel or softness.

When I got him, Red was that second kind of horse - his foundation was deficient and he didn't understand feel/softness.  We've made a lot of progress there, and he's much less braced and pushy.  But at certain times, the old behavior patterns will recur if he's stressed or presented with a new challenge.  These days, we can mostly work through things without too much of a problem, by my continuing to offer softness to him.  On occasion, we have to back up a step or two to a place where he's comfortable and can be soft with me before we try to move forwards again.  He's taught me a lot about working with the horse where the horse is rather than where you think the horse should be (in my experience, any time the word "should" appears in connection with horses, trouble is close by).  I've learned not to be impatient or frustrated, but to be calmer and persistent while taking him back to a safe place for him mentally and then working forward again.

And then there's the serious meltdown - Dawn and I experienced one of those today.  There is a new horse at the barn - a young Clydesdale gelding - who arrived last night and is in the large paddock that is visible from the end of Dawn's barn aisle.  This young horse is currently separated from the other horses, and he's not happy about it - screaming and running.  Dawn took one look at this commotion and her only thought was to leave - she wanted the security of her mare herd - the feel was gone.  There was enough feel left that she was able to listen to me enough so she didn't just bolt off.  She was seriously worried, though, and unable to stand safely tied or in crossties in the barn aisle.  So I did what I've learned to try to do in situations like this - take her back to a place where she could start responding again to my feel and do something - anything - with me in a way that allowed her to feel more safe and comfortable and let us begin to get the feel back.  I took her back into the arena, away from the noise and stress, and we worked on our leading, and then on just standing around at different spots in the arena.  (During this, Red appeared at the gate of his pasture and began calling to the distressed horse - he apparently had heard the screaming all the way off in the back pastures and had galloped in to check on things.)

I then took her back into the barn aisle but put her in her stall to groom and tack.  We were able to do this safely and calmly.  Then I went back into the arena and mounted up.  Dawn was trying very hard to be good and even stood at the mounting block for me, but it quickly became apparent that she was having a very hard time holding things together for me, as the distressed horse kept screaming and galloping.  She really wanted to leave, and although we tried some circling to help her calm down, even small circles weren't helping and the pull of the pasture was very strong - she was showing signs that she might even rear - she used to have a real problem with rearing and when she's severely stressed it can reappear, although I headed that off by keeping her turning.  But we weren't accomplishing anything, so I jumped off.

By chance, another mare was coming in to get tacked for a lesson, so we stood quietly in the arena watching down the aisle as the other mare was tacked - Dawn was able to do this.  (If the other mare hadn't come along, Dawn and I would have probably done some work on the lunge.) Once the other mare came into the arena and her rider got on, I remounted and Dawn and I went back to work.  Having the other horse nearby was a great comfort to her.  By the end of our session, Dawn was able to walk and trot in all parts of the arena.  At the beginning, she was still plenty tense, but got calmer, although not fully relaxed, by the end of our session - the feel was starting to come back and she was trying very hard.  I took her back into the barn aisle, and took off her saddle but without restraining her on crossties - I let her move in circles around me, stopping her for a few seconds from time to time - this is what she could do today - and then completed untacking in her stall.  I let her chill there for a few minutes until she started eating hay, and then turned her back out - I was pleased that she walked off, rather than galloping away.

While that wasn't what I set out to do with Dawn today, it was a very good session.

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