Connecting the Dots: Breakthroughs in Horse Training
Those of you who have followed The Barb Wire for some time know that Consolation has been a challenge to train — not because she’s stupid or spooky; on the contrary, Consolation is quite the self-possessed lady. As such, it’s been hard to convince her that between the two of us, I’m in charge.
Our latest (and longest) struggle has been over her reluctance to leave the farm. Months ago, we conquered the associated fear. What has lingered is an abiding desire to be home rather than away, presiding over her herd instead of exploring with me. This has led to many a tedious lesson in which we walk down the road, then back past the driveway and a few hundred feet in the opposite direction, back and forth, up and down, dragging her feet away from home, turning back only when directed, finally ending with ten or twenty minutes of trotting and lateral work in the round corral. Lessons like this, though critical for some horses, are not what makes me get up on the morning.
Yesterday, I spent half an hour commiserating with a friend who is struggling with the very same issue in her green mare. We considered forming a club — the Recalcitrant Mare Owners of America — for support. It was, at least, comforting to know that other competent trainers don’t have perfect horses, either.
Besides, distantly regal or downright rebellious as she can sometimes be, Consolation and I have our moments of intimacy. Just yesterday morning, I found her caught in the fence when I went outside to feed at daybreak. She stood calmly, surveying me with her lovely, liquid eyes, as I evaluated the situation. Though unhurt, she was tangled sufficiently that wire clipping seemed the easiest way to get her loose. As Travis snipped the wire, she flinched but held steady with my hand upon her neck. Moments later, she stepped free, stiff enough to let me know she’d waited several hours for help.
Times like that tell me I’ve done a good job with a horse. Consolation didn’t panic, but gave to pressure. She stood calmly while I, by all appearances a predator, examined her entangled legs. Once free, she waited to move until given permission, and she did so with her wits about her. All those hours of trust-building, those surges of admiration for the lovely way she moves, lesson after tedious lesson when all I could offer her was quiet firmness and consistency…all these things in the hope that one day, our many points of contact would meld into a miracle, like connecting the dots in a children’s activity book to discover a hidden picture.
Yesterday, I saddled Consolation by the golden glow of late afternoon and directed her once more out the driveway. And it happened: She offered to trot.
I was so surprised that I pulled her back to a walk immediately, which was in any case the right thing to do. Energy is always welcome, but gait changes should happen only on command. As soon as my brain caught up with events, however, I asked for a trot and Consolation sprang forward. This was no hustle-forward-under-duress, but a full-on, honest-to-goodness, let’s-go-see-the-world trot!
Almost a mile later, we were still going. Sure, we’d stalled to eye a few new sights, weaved a bit like drunken sailors as she explored the possibility of turning back, but we were moving forward! Happily! For the first time on a trail ride with Consolation, I was actually having fun!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about training horses, it’s this: Don’t press your luck. Get done while the getting’s good. Quit while you’re ahead.
And so, during a particularly joyous stretch of eager trotting, I slowed Consolation and turned her toward home. We walked a bit but trotted more, so well under control that I was free to revel in the smoothest trot I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit.
You know, I could deal with fifty miles of that.
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