I mean, I'm in awe of the number of times I've told people "Oh C doesn't deal with X" and they immediately respond with "well you just have to force him". And when I tell them that I don't believe in forcing him (and neither does he), I then get told I simply need to use MORE force.
Whoa. No. Slow your roll. Back the hell up.
See, Courage is definitely a challenging horse. That we can agree on. I've found some guiding principles that really helped me progress and move forward with him.
1) It starts with trust.
For Courage, this is HUGE. I can't begin to emphasize it enough. He's strong minded and independent and he took care of himself physically on the racetrack for a very long time. His track connections called him aloof, and they were right. He's a very closed off horse who's slow to make connections and trust is a precious commodity. That's not because he was treated poorly. The horse lived like a king.
He's just also very, very sensitive and the way he coped with track life was by shutting everyone else out.
So before I could get anywhere with him, he had to learn that he could trust me. That wasn't an overnight process. Think more like 2 years. Seriously. Looking back, there are some things I maybe would have done differently, but on the whole, this required just a very slow, methodical approach that included setting consistent boundaries and being very, very patient.
|and lots of over-the-top photoshoots|
Perhaps you've heard the maxim "the only emotions that belong in the saddle are patience and a sense of humor". This is SO TRUE. Courage learns at Courage speed and that speed varies from day to day. Sometimes we take giant leaps forward. Sometimes we go running backwards. Mostly, we just inch along, day by day.
No matter what, I have to be his emotional center. Calm, relaxed, supportive.
I know as ammies we get so wrapped up in "success" and that frequently just ends up damaging the horse. With Courage, I've learned that bolting and flailing and leaping all just represents him mentally checking out and protecting himself. I took a lot of flak for refusing to punish him for his perceived "bad" behavior, but you know what?
He trusts me now. He knows that if says "I can't right now", I'll listen to him. I'll accept his quiet "please stop" and give him a different option that he can do.
It's really not profound. It's just not being a dick to a horse who's trying very hard.
3) Always build trust.
For us, this meant completely throwing my timeline and goals out the window. I wanted to go out and compete at first level this year and Courage has all the right skills to do it.
But you know what?
He wasn't ready. He told me quietly and then he told me loudly. It's hard to accept that instead of going to the annual banquet and collecting my fancy satin, I'll just shell out and have to explain why I don't jump or show (again), but that's not why I'm here.
Instead, we've spent all summer meticulously building strength and muscle memory. I know that Courage can do first level, but now he's starting to believe it.
Yeah, I could have maybe done the same thing at shows, but instead of picking fights with him and putting him back on the defensive, we did it piece by piece, alone at home. Pressure off, no one watching.
|and over and over and over|
Courage really is an amazing horse--for as aloof as he seemed to be, he's probably one of the most relational horses I've ever been around. These things are important for any horse, but they're doubly important to him. He's definitely pushed me to improve as a horseman, but he's also pushed me to improve as a human.
He's taught me to stay calm in the storm, to always ask why, and to be steady when everything else falls apart. He's not the horse for everyone, but the more time I spend with him, the more I realize that the reward with this horse isn't the yards of satin he might eventually bring home, but rather every step of the journey we share together.
He isn't a means to an end. He's my partner.
So when I hear "just force him", I'm appalled. I've spent so long building Courage's trust in me and his confidence in himself. To force him would be to undo everything I've done and everything we've built together.
|yeah i just love this picture|