I study a great deal on the subject of horse training, and I've a good memory for words. The result is a mental collection of phrases that guide me every time I work with a horse.
"Where you release is what you teach." (Jeff Spencer)
"If there's a problem with the horse, look to the trainer." (Robert Painter)
"Emotional control is crafting cues around the horse's own flight mechanism." (Charles Wilhelm)
Lately, the mantra that has surfaced most often is one of my own: "If it isn't easy, it isn't time."
This concept is applicable to almost all horse training situations, but is was tiny, fiery Acey who really drove the message home.
Alternating Current came to me straight from Quien Sabe, completely untouched but nearly mature. She's seven now. Plenty old enough to be not only under saddle, but out on the endurance trail. She would be, too, except that I made a mistake.
I should have known better. From the earliest stages of gentling, Acey has proven the kind of horse that reacts to new situations with intense emotion. Only through patient, persistent, steady progression was I able to touch her face, halter her, lead her, pick up her feet.
When I first mounted Acey in Summer 2009, she responded with the strongest "freeze" reaction I'd ever experienced. Days passed before she attempted to take a step, and then it was sideways, backwards, any direction but forward.
Eventually, I got Acey to move out. Fine. We spent a couple days walking around the round corral, reversing, circling, and learning to pivot...and then things went wrong.
With most horses, I ask for a trot very early on. They tend to accept this with a moment's confusion, a lightbulb moment, a hesitant attempt, then success.
Not Acey. In her characteristic fashion, she reacted to my new request with emotion. Her head went up and her back stiffened. And I (fool!) kept asking. In fact, in a classic "training FAIL," I asked more vigorously. I tapped her sides with my heels (new to her) and even flicked her rump with the rein (also new).
She panicked. Bolted. Bucked. After a couple rounds of the corral with no sign of stopping, I initiated a less-than-graceful dismount before she could manage to do it for me.
And then I spent the evening licking mental wounds that hurt much more than the bruises I incurred.
And then I spent months making it up to her.
You see, I'd asked for something that was too hard. I should have recognized Acey's obvious signals that she wasn't prepared to attempt a trot. Had I waited another few days, another week, maybe more...until it was easy...then it would have been time.
The second time around, I remembered. I led Acey back through all her groundwork, and didn't so much as put a foot in the stirrup until I was sure she was prepared to stand quietly when I did so, despite her bad memory of that last, fateful ride. Then I spent days getting on and off, never asking her to move.
Eventually, when she felt relaxed and balanced beneath me, I requested a pivot. She obliged. We backed a little, sidepassed some. A few days later, she moved forward -- just a few steps, and we wrapped up the session there.
The weeks since have seen extraordinary progress. We've walked over and among obsticles in the round corral, practiced bending, and reinforced one of my favorite commands: whoa. We've even left the round corral for a couple rides along the road, which she has handled with admirable quiet and enthusiasm.
Have I asked for a trot? A few times. Have I gotten it? A few steps. Have I requsted more? No. Because it isn't easy yet.
Any decent trainer knows to break concepts into bite-sized chunks. But this goes a step further: You don't introduce the next chunk simply because it's the next puzzle piece that's supposed to fit. You wait until it comes naturally.
The day will come when Acey offers to trot. It will feel almost as though we've done it a hundred times before. It will be simple, not scary. Fun instead of forced. We'll wonder why we ever worried.
It will be easy, because it will be time.
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