Emotion in Motion: Turning Spooks into Speed
Consolation has felt different since completing her first Limited Distance race at Old Selam. I hope I’m not anthropomorphizing here, but she seems to have discovered her own athletic ability. (“What? You mean I can go that fast, that far? Cool!”) Always one for conserving energy, resisting haste, and smelling roses, Consolation has recently exhibited an unprecedented level of enthusiasm during our conditioning rides.
Problem is, her newfound energy doesn’t always translate into the much-desired increase in speed. As any rider knows, a horse’s energy most often moves in one of two directions: forward or upward. So. If Consolation ain’t goin‘ forward…
Yes, my little gray mare has decided that conditioning rides are exciting. So exciting that she ought to bounce along at a medium pace, head up and eyes bulging at such formerly uninteresting bits of landscape as rocks, ruts, and tangles of weed. When moving through a particularly nerve-wracking area, she shifts into “suck-back” mode. You know the feeling: it’s visible in the photo below, in which I’m encouraging Consolation to investigate a water trough in ridecamp at Old Selam. The horse is moving forward but thinking backward, torn between curiosity (or duty) and apprehension.
“Sucking back” is all well and good during introductions to new sights. I can hardly expect my young horse, a prey animal through and through, to accept potential hazards without suspicion. However, sucking back while attempting to trot through familiar territory is not only frustrating, but immensely tiring for the rider, whose body must urge forward a horse that refuses to come up beneath it. If you haven’t tried it, just believe me — posting is only comfortable when the horse’s energy fuels the motion.
I don’t like to be uncomfortable. So, I decided to do something about it.
But what? Spooky and “looky” though she was, I had no interest in curbing Consolation’s increased interest in her conditioning rides. My task, therefore, would be to preserve her energy while changing her behavior — that is, to convert her spooks to speed.
Step one was to ensure that Consolation’s “go” button remained firmly installed. Without a clear, mutually-understood set of signals by which to communicate, I had no hope of achieving my goal. Working first from the ground and then from the saddle, I reviewed the familiar progression: think, suggest, ask, tell, demand. (Physically, this translates to: look, lean, click/kiss, squeeze, kick.) After a brief tune-up, she responded well.
Time for step two. We headed out on a stretch of road we’ve covered scores of times during the summer’s conditioning rides. As expected, Consolation’s gait was elevated and her emotions jangling. Almost immediately, she spotted a potential hazard — a fallen tree branch. The instant I felt Consolation begin to check — a tension so subtle that it manifested only in a tiny shift of weight toward her hindquarters — I urged her forward. Her suck-back escalated, and so did my “go” command. It took a moderate knock on the ribs to keep her trotting past the branch, but trot she did, and at a respectable speed.
Step three: repeat as many times as it takes. Obstacle by obstacle, mile after mile, we repeated the process. Hesitate, urge, suck-back, insist. I allowed her to swerve away from dubious objects, but she was not to slow her pace. Gradually, Consolation’s suck-backs transformed into mere elevated trots, and their numbers decreased. Several rides later, she began to exhibit the behavior I wanted: increased speed in the face of increased apprehension.
Instead of stopping to stare, Consolation is learning to charge through or past her fears. In the early miles on a cool morning, when her energy levels and emotions soar, a quick think-suggest-ask progression from me irons her bouncy trot into smooth and speedy extension of the sort I’ve waited months for her to discover. We achieve faster times and better conditioning effect, and I’m looking forward to three LDs at Canyonlands like you wouldn’t believe.
Let me tell you, my friends, it feels fantastic.
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