Saturday, September 19, 2009

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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AareneX said...

Ahhh, yes, I'm very familiar with the "boost" after a competition or two. I think it has as much to do with self-esteem as anything else. They have pushed themselves (and been pushed) beyond anything they've done before, and they felt good after. It seems only sensible that their self-esteem goes up as well (I've seen this in my mare after a challenging dressage lesson as well-she is PROUD of what she learned to do).

As for turning spooks into speed, good for you! If you keep up this kind of training, I predict that your horse is going to be awesome--not just at endurance, but at anything you point her towards in the future.

Jackie said...

LOL! I knew she could do it.......
You know, Tamara, Consolation could have turned into a nightmare under the wrong hands. Yours are obviously the right ones. Great job.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

That just sounds amazing that you've figured out what she has been doing and knew how to get her past it and moving forward the way that you want her to. What a wonderful success!


Endurance Granny said...

Arrrrrrrrrrrgh...sucking back, the evil genie that I've yet to "cure". We have days that it goes well- the suggest, ask, tell, and then there are days that no amount of "telling" seems to make a difference. Come on down, ride Lil Bit of Magic (aka:Phebes).

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

AareneX -- How interesting that you've had a similar with your dressage mare. Thanks for sharing that! :)

Jackie -- LOL, indeed! She's made me work for it. If I were a boy scout, I'd demand a merit badge for this one! ;)

Orca -- I can only take part of the credit. Some of it was, I'm sure, just time and maturity on Consolation's part. I kept hoping she'd get there... :)

EG -- These powerful mares! I've been keeping up on your progress in lessons and it sounds like your own confidence is rising. That's bound to be an immeasurable help to Phebes. As you know, a confident leader makes for a confident horse. :)

enlightenedhorsemanship said...

Really insightful analysis.
"thinking forward but looking backward" is brilliant! May she always think forward and look forward. Best of luck to you in upcoming LDRs

Spartacus Jones said...

Familiar process in many ways.
Isn't this how we ALL conquer our fears, if we conquer them?

You're very sharp, Tamara.


giblaut said...

I hope you don't mind, but I was browsing your blog and started researching "IBHR" after seeing the pictures of your horses-- and I was wondering if you knew what color this Barb horse is? Is this a coloring that is usually only in Barbs--I don't think I've seen it before.


Michelle said...

This was a fascinating analysis of your methods. Congrats! It sounds like Consolation is really coming along. You two are a great team.

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, Kim. I'm excited about those upcoming rides...will keep you posted...

SJ -- From one "sharp" to another...good point. ;)

Hi giblaut -- Ah. That's Fuego, a horse I know personally, and the sire of my stallion Tuetano. Fuego is a bay roan with corns (irregular spots that increase in number with age). His color looks unusual in that photo because it was taken in spring. Fuego's winter coat is solid bay. In spring, he goes through an unusually light-colored phase before fully shedding out to his usual bay roan summer coat.

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, Michelle. Looks like we may make a team of it, yet. Whew!

manker said...

awesome advice here


Horseartist said...

How many rides did it take for her to loose the sucking back feeling? I've got the same thing going with Paisano when we ride alone. With other horses, it's not an issue, but we usually ride alone. I've been doing as you do. Just pushing him on and encouraging FORWARD. Improvement has been there, but slight.