Dawn and I had a challenging work session today, but we made it through to good. It was a good example to me of how important patience, persistence and having a clear, specific objective in mind makes a difference to getting to good.
I brought her in from the pasture - wading through the mud - and as I started out towards her - holding onto the fence to keep from falling in the mud - she headed for the water tank to take a drink. I always take her for a drink before I bring her in, and I guess today she decided to take care of that part herself.
We went inside, I rinsed her legs off - she was muddy to the knees and hocks - and we groomed and saddled up. I led her into the arena - all the doors were open due to the very warm weather - and we discovered that a horse in a paddock next to the barn, and visible from the arena, was running, bucking and sliding like a maniac, with his owner chasing him around and trying to catch him - this was a horse who had just come off stall rest after surgery for a fractured splint bone and wasn't supposed to be running like that. Dawn finds other horses being upset, or acting crazed, very disturbing. So she started to have a meltdown. She did stay aware of me - she didn't mow me down, or rear, or bolt - all things she used to do in the past - but was circling me, very upset, blowing and with huge eyes.
We did a strategic retreat. I put her in her stall to chill and eat hay for a while while I did some chores. She called to me with her anxious whinney from time to time, but kept eating hay. A while later, we returned to the ring - she was still worried and upset - and we did some lungeing. She was still worried and not very happy about having to lunge. My objective was simple and very specific - I wanted her to to do canter departures from trot nicely on my voice command, and canter nicely until I asked her to stop, on both leads, without bucking or kicking out. I wasn't interested in her running in circles or tiring her out - I just wanted to get the connection back. Easier said than done . . .
It took a while to get there. Dawn is a very emotional horse - a diva if you will - she's incredibly responsive and cares a lot about whether she's connected to you, but she can be very reactive. I've learned that horse express their emotions - anger, frustration, fear, anxiety and pain - through their bodies - there's a direct and immediate connection - it's not at all a case of "my horse is out to get me" at all - horses don't plan or scheme - but rather "I'm upset/worried/scared/anxious about x, so I'm acting up by throwing my body around".
Dealing with Dawn's tendency to get emotional under stress has been a big challenge for me - she can be plenty scary/big when she's upset - it's important to keep myself safe, and her moves can be big, but if I can be patient, quiet and calm but also persistent, we get to good.
Today it took a while to get there - there was a lot of bucking and kicking out towards me - I made sure the circles were large enough to ensure my safety - she was expressing her anxiety at the upset she'd experienced and her frustration with me, and she kept stopping and turning in to express her uncertainty. But I just quietly kept asking for what I wanted and ignoring the rest. And before too long, we had nice quiet canter departures on my voice command in each direction. You could almost hear her sigh and let go of the anxiety. I had her canter only a few strides after a good, quiet departure, then asked her to stop, which she was glad to do.
And we were at good. I mounted up, and we had a good short walk/trot ride with lots of really nice forward and relaxation - there was lots of loose rein trotting where she was stretching down. The security of feeling better again, and sure of our connection again, seemed to make a big difference to her.
Dawn has been a real challenge for me, but I'm very fortunate to have her - she's make a huge difference to my horsemanship.