August 12, 2010

Taking it to the trail

One thing about cramming for my Parelli course is that it’s easy to get distracted from actually keeping my horse fit. I mean, I’ve been riding him every day, which is a deal more than he usually gets, but we’ve been spending the majority of each day in the ring and at the trot. Polocrosse practices got us briefly doing more cantering in the field, but those are on hold right now and Lupin has been starting to lose some of the fitness he’d developed there.

So I decided to make a concerted effort to get out and about at higher speeds. Today we did a fairly hilly and long trail after having done a shorter version of it two days ago. Although we had some initial disagreement about Lupin’s level of motivation for hitting the trails, we used the savvy Dan taught me for this—let him turn around if he wants, then ask him to keep turning until he’s faced back the direction I want to go. Repeat as necessary. This strategy is excellent because it doesn’t set me up to get in a fight with him, as I had been doing before. Instead, I go with his idea and ask him to keep going with that idea. So although he continues to test me periodically, it is now a non-issue to deal with it, and he eventually goes, “Oh alright then. Let’s go.”

And usually we have a few rounds of that somewhere, and then he’s okay with going adventuring. Today was no exception, and we got most of the way around the loop before we had any other challenges to deal with. Then we encountered the inevitable: a fallen pine tree blocking the trail. We’re quite used to blazing our own detours, but this one was tricky: banks almost straight up and down on either side of us. I didn’t want to go all the way back around, though, because doing so would functionally double the length of our ride.

I tried moving the tree to no avail. I looked at the down-side bank: no way. I looked at the up-side one: okay, a little tricky going up, but it looked better coming down on the far side of the tree. So I decided to go for it. But I decided to go for it off of my horse.

The bank was probably about 8 feet tall and slippery with sand, and I couldn’t have gotten up it myself without the fallen tree to hold on to. Lupin tried to come up behind me, but he couldn’t go slowly up the bank without sliding back down and I was in his way the first time he tried. But I had just enough rope to be able to get to the top myself and then ask him.

He barreled up with enough momentum to get purchase above the bank the second time. At that point, we were committed to my decision. At that point, though, Lupin had also gone a little right brain, and he started beating his own trail through the trees in the wrong direction. I had to do some hard work to get both back in front of him and above him on the slope (as I didn’t want him to slide down it onto me); then we began the process of backing him out of the spot he’d gotten himself stuck in.

Finally all turned around, we made our perilous way around the tree, only to discover that the bank I’d optimistically thought was easier wasn’t: it was still about an 8’ drop down a sandy slope that gave way under foot. At that point, I decided that Lupin and I were something of a liability to each other if we stayed attached, so I dallied his reins up and left him to decide whether to follow me as I tried to beat through a bramble to a better descent or whether to go for it.

I’m not sure whether he decided to go for it or whether the bank gave way beneath him, but he went careening down the bank, landed on the trail, and just managed to apply the brakes before he went over the other side of it and down the next bank. He bucked a little then and looked fairly perturbed, but as I held my breath from the bank above, he did not go galloping off down the trail, for which I was very grateful, as there was still a good climb and then a long walk back to the barn. He also had kept his feet the whole way, and I’ll say this for Thoroughbreds: they may be frail, but they’re also terribly athletic. Which, all things considered, may be a necessary trait for the horses I own.

As I slid behind my leading foot down the bank to join him, I had a feeling familiar to me from our previous years together of successfully overcoming a challenge with my capable partner. There was a time when I had utter confidence in Lupin’s bravery and abilities, and he seemed to have much the same in mine. It’s possible that we were just both equally deceived in each other—certainly my judgment, anyway, might be a bit suspect after the day’s detour scheme. But while Lupin would have been reasonably well within his rights, I think, to have said a big F U to me and cantered off, he remained with me instead. Maybe he was just still standing there in shock that I’d asked him to do anything so ridiculous. But I’m going to hope, for now, that he stood there and waited because my partner has returned and is ready for further adventures.

August 10, 2010

And, in short, I was afraid.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I signed up for the course I’ll be taking in September, and at that point I was up to my eyeballs in the self-assessment lists I’d been required to fill out for my application. Parelli believes in progress, and he likes to give you lots of tasks that you can use to gauge your progress, test your relationship, and motivate yourself to move onto the next level. I remember talking to the gal handling registration for the course, who looked over my paperwork and said that, if I had been planning to take the course soon, she wouldn’t have recommended it for me, but since I had a year to get ready, she thought it would work fine.

So I set off with my list of holes I needed to plug in: leading Lupin backwards by the tail, 6-10 laps at the canter in our circling game, all 4 feet on a pedestal, and on and on. But what was increasingly concerning me was the resistance I was finding in Lupin to things he could already do. The horse that had once run in from the pasture beside me with no halter on was violently breaking away from me and galloping off when I tried to lead him in. The horse that had been much admired for his willingness to trailer load at our course in Florida was refusing to let me close the gate, and often refusing to load altogether. The horse that had trotted off gamely down almost any trail for years was suddenly turning around and refusing to go further.

And the horse that had felt like a perfect partner just a year or two before now felt, as often as not, like an antagonist with malicious intent.

The yearly clinic that had happened in our area was no longer available, so I looked for an instructor nearby and found Dan Thompson in Georgia. By the time I went to my first clinic with Dan, I had lost any idea of how to deal with my horse. Technically, we could still do lots of cool things, but emotionally I never knew where we would be. I almost started crying when I first introduced us and began to describe what was going on. And I spent the rest of the clinic either on the verge of tears or actually in tears.

It wasn’t that the clinic was horrible. To the contrary, it was populated almost exclusively with really cool people who had problems very similar to mine—it was a clinic filled with mischievous left-brained horses that had begun to get the upper hand on their owners. And Dan did an excellent job of keeping things fun so that we all kept a sense of humor. But I was nonetheless forced to come face to face with the fact that I had become afraid of my horse.

I’ve rarely found anything to fear in horses—unless they have extreme emotional problems that cause them to be highly dangerous. And I’ve certainly never been scared of my own horses. The pony I had as a kid was, to be sure, a holy terror, but I just kept getting back on, figuring that’s the way it was. I’d had more spills than I could count off of Lupin’s mother, but she’d had a heart of gold and it never even occurred to me to be scared of anything she might do. And I had built my entire relationship with Lupin on tackling things that had been scary to Limerick: dump trucks, new places—anything that bothered him I made a point of seeking out.

But what nonetheless became clear to me during the clinic was that, bit by bit, I had lost my trust in my horse and my faith in myself. This had happened, it turned out, because Lupin, being the kind of horse who tests things, had repeatedly tested me, often finding a lack of knowledge here, a disinclination to be particular there. And I had responded, without knowing it, by just backing down—sometimes only in my body language without my mind ever knowing I was doing it—or by avoiding certain things. So while I had pushed Lupin’s tolerance about environmental stimuli, I had done nothing to develop his tolerance for having to do things he didn’t want to do.

The most obvious example of this was tying. I had thought I had taught Lupin to tie as a youngster, but then he went through a period of breaking free. I didn’t really know how to fix this, so I just left it alone until later. But that was no doubt the seed of his later revolts when he would break away from me coming in from the pasture: in both cases, the porcupine game (yielding to steady pressure) was broken. So was our relationship, because he knew that I had backed off rather than pushing him, so he lost respect in me.

Dan agreed to work with Lupin on tying over lunch, and if up to that point I had only suspected that I’d become afraid of Lupin, I learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was scared then as he reared and jumped violently around, displaying not just fear, but also anger. I knew I didn’t have it in me to do what Dan had done. I just didn’t have the knowledge and timing—not to mention the emotional collection—to pull it off at the stage I was at. But Dan had done the hard part, and he’d given me the key I would need: it was all about my own attitude. If I began to insist on things with Lupin—politely, but nonetheless firmly—everything would start to get better.

And that has proven, over the last year, to be the case. I never had to work with Lupin on leading in from the pasture per se, because my attitude changed across the board and so did our relationship. I did have to go back to Dan for help with some of our other problems, but always the answer has been the same: firmly but politely push him a little beyond his comfort zone until he learns greater tolerance, then push him further. Once Lupin learned that this was going to be my consistent plan, he settled down and the temper tantrums have all but disappeared. And, equally importantly, we've both started to have fun again.

This is, after all, a horse who has strong opinions, but one who also fundamentally likes to learn new things. When I teach him a new pattern in the ring and then do a passenger lesson the next day with my eyes closed, I open them to find that he is, on his own initiative, going over cavaletti or squeezing between barrels. He wants more than anything, I think, a human who will be a gateway to new things but who will give him the leadership he needs when those things overwhelm him. In short, if I can just be the human he needs me to be, he can be the perfect horse again. Partnerships do, after all, work two ways.

At our most recent clinic, which was a trail clinic, pushing boundaries became an excuse just to plain have fun. Whacking branches with our sticks, doing packstring-long yo-yo games on the trail, asking our horses to go away from the group to circle trees, etc.—we took all the things that make both humans and horses right-brained on the trail and made them into games instead. Which is what Parelli is all about at the end of the day: developing the knowledge and the confidence to transform things that once created fear into things that create playfulness.

And while we ate lunch on the trail and discussed the morning's activities, Lupin stood quietly tied with no indication that it bothered him in the slightest.


I haven’t gone back and looked at those self-assessment lists in preparation for my course. I may not be to the point where Lupin can canter 6 laps on the circle. But I do know how to laugh about it instead of freaking out if he breaks away from me when I ask him to, and I know that, with enough knowledge on my part, I can turn it into a game that he’ll enjoy playing enough to want to canter for 6 laps. Most importantly, I know that we can ultimately do anything we put our minds to because we now have our fundamental relationship restored. And that’s a lot more important to me as I head to Colorado than any list of specific tasks that we could have accomplished this year.