The boys and I had a chance to practice some good skills this afternoon. It was a beautiful sunny day, about 80 degrees - just perfect to ride outside. And there was a pool party going on . . . so a perfect training opportunity. Pool party? Let me explain.
The family that owns our barn has several houses on the property. The house immediately next to the big front pasture isn't occupied, but is used for parties as it has a pool area. One of the daughters is leaving for college next week, so there were swarms of older and younger teens. The pool is behind a slatted fence - you can see people moving around. There are umbrellas showing over the top of the fence and several large flags (that were new today). There was lots of shrieking and screaming. There were groups of teens running across the grass to and from the tennis courts, and playing tennis and waving racquets around as they ran (I was riding Red during this). There were teens riding golf carts to and fro, including one cart that had a horn like the one in the Marx brothers movies. There was a bunch of teen girls running around with a small puppy (Pie got to see this one).
The large pasture is about 5 acres, with the outdoor arena at the top of a hill about 100 yards from the barn. There's a large flattish area at the top of hill outside the outdoor (in the big pasture itself) that's particularly good for working. Red and Pie and I rode out there today during all the commotion, and both boys did exceptionally well. We weren't right up close to the people, objects and noise, but we had a good view from the hill. Both horses were nervous at first - they weren't particularly worried about the noises but were somewhat concerned about the people running around - both boys are more prone to spook at people/animals moving fast, rather than objects or noises. For both rides, we were alone out there with no other horses nearby.
But we had no spooks, and both boys worked well. When Pie's or Red's head would shoot up and they would lock eyes on something that was happening I didn't sit there like a lump and let them stare and get more worried - I've done the lump thing before and believe me it's not an effective strategy with these boys when they're worried - that's how I came off Pie back in the summer of 2011. Instead I actively rode. Now, what do I mean by that?
The moment the horse's head went up and the eyes started to lock on something - the exact moment, not moments later - delay can result in trouble - I started asking the horse to do something - actively giving them direction and a task to do with me - circles, serpentines, figures - using a soft opening hand and not a lot of leg. And I asked for softness. Any time they were distracted, I instantly asked for them to come back to me with softness - I don't care if they get distracted - it's my response to their distraction that determines how well they do and how quickly they come back to me. Both boys know exactly what I want when I ask, and were immediately able to deliver. I don't think this strategy would be as effective, although it might still help, if the horse didn't already have the ability to deliver softness without even having to think about it - all that softening work we do, every day, has made it easy and automatic for them. And since we were doing together something they knew how to do, it gave them something to focus their attention on, and more confidence since we were doing something together at my request. It's my job to set things up so the horse can be successful - this is what builds trust.
Since we were doing circles and figures, they got plenty of opportunity to look - without stopping what we were doing and without putting their heads up or bracing. As they offered softness, this helped them relax through their whole bodies. The size of the circle depended on how amped the horse was - with Red at first the circles were fairly small so he couldn't build up too much momentum. We started at the walk, and as the horses worked and began to relax a bit, the size of the circles could get bigger and we could progress to trot. Eventually, once they'd relaxed a bit and didn't feel a need to rush, both horses were doing a lot of straight line work as well. Any time a horse would get a little too amped, we'd go back to figure work - worked like a charm to settle and relax them.
Both boys did exceptionally well - I was delighted with them and told them so. Both were able to walk back to the barn on a loose rein - the commotion was still going on - and we did a bit more work in another pasture after we walked back to the barn. I expect they're pretty proud of themselves - that's how I want my horses to feel any time we work together.