Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Art of Weightlifting

Courage is probably the most challenging horse I've ever owned, and that includes the bitch mare that tried to kill me on the regular. I mean, he only has one move, but she only had one motive. He flails. She would rear, buck, bolt, leap, stop or go as it suited her in her quest to be rid of me. Courage is never trying to get rid of me, but that actually makes him a lot harder to deal with.

Because I'm not (always) the problem.

It's not "if I ride better" or "if I don't piss him off" or any number of easily fixable things with Courage and it rarely has been. If I put a pro on the mare, she quit all the shenanigans and minded her manners.

But not Courage.

When Courage flails, it's not because he wants me off now or even usually because I did something wrong. He flails to protect himself.

Almost 100% of the time, it's because he's in a situation that overwhelms him and he doesn't understand and his only defense mechanism is to leave, so he has a huge physical reaction. If you've been around Courage, you've seen it. It's actually quite dramatic.

And when he has these huge physical fear-based reactions, I have to 100% keep myself from reacting to him. He's not doing it to be naughty. He's doing it to survive.

And that's hard to deal with.

It's taken a long time to suss out with him because it LOOKS like naughty behavior and people like to treat it that way. But it's not and if you punish him, you scare him and that makes it even worse.

The other approach people like to use is overloading--just hit the the trigger over and over and over until it's not a trigger any more. But like. That works if you're a rational human being with a moderate trigger that isn't life threatening and you can sit there and say "totes cool, not actually going to die here", but not so well on a non-rational prey animal with years and years of baggage and trust issues.

Don't get me wrong here--I really and truly do not believe Courage was ever abused. I don't. I think he has had lots of good handling, which is why I think I can reverse this at all. Had anyone ever laid a hand on this horse, I don't think he could come back.

He's just deeply intelligent and highly sensitive and when he doesn't understand, he's afraid.
and has great outfits, but who's counting?
It is changing, very, very slowly. At home, we almost never have an incident with him any more. He's started to trust me and he's learning to trust my trainer in the saddle, and when he trusts his person, he's a thousand times braver.

So at the show, I had a horse that trusted himself and trusted me enough to be successful at the walk and trot.

But canter is hard for him--it's a gait he's spent a lot of time in for his previous life and that means I have years of muscle memory to retrain. So when we got to canter, it was a bridge too far and he left to protect himself. The fact that he did come back to me in the walk and trot tells me that he's still mentally with me, when he can be.

I'm a highly analytical person, so I can sit here and explain to you my plan of action--build more trust and more strength and more muscle memory at home and prep him better. Overloading for the sake of overloading breaks down his trust rather than builds it, so I need to be sensitive to his mind each day and only work within parameters he's comfortable with until he's ready to move forward again. I can tell you that a running martingale would shut down his expressions sooner rather than just limiting their scope, but he also has a lot of history with them and not only does he know how to brace on them, but they also tell him to run.

But see, in addition to being a highly analytical person, I'm also deeply emotionally invested in this situation. It takes two to tango if you will, and Courage is the one I'm tangoing with. Rationally, I can tell you that if show success was my motivator, this isn't the horse for me. But I like this horse and I'm willing to work with him.

And really--despite all the high drama theatrics, Courage honestly doesn't scare me. It's more and "aw shit here we go again" sort of thing. That's the nice thing about him only having one move; I know I can ride it and I know we'll survive. It's not my favorite thing ever, but I'm far more worried about running up on another horse and scaring it than I am about anything that might happen to me in the saddle.

I really think the part that's the hardest to deal with is accepting other people's reactions without internalizing them.

See, in order to get Courage past this, I have to 1) not punish when he appears to misbehave 2) not bring up the issue on days he can't handle it and 3) accept and encourage even when he tries and fails. If you've read this post, you're nodding along with me. A trust and balance issue, not a behavior issue.

But if you haven't read this post and you see my horse go leaping and bolting across an arena, then see me drop the reins, pat him, and not readdress the problem, you probably think I'm a shitty incompetent adult ammy rider with sparkles in my eyes and one of those maddeningly stupid imaginary "majikal" connections with ponykins that ruins horse after horse.

You respond to me in kind--you lecture me on how to handle my horse, you make an example of your horse, or you even give well-intentioned, sound, and logical training advice THAT TRUST ME I HAVE TRIED, and the net result is that everyone I talk to thinks they know better than I do how to train my particular horse, who again, is anything but easy.

And just as I can analyze and understand Courage, I can also analyze and understand the motivations of well-intentioned help. I get it, I really do. I'm sure I've been that person. I know they don't mean to sound like they're attacking me (usually), but that's how it comes across. It takes a really strong person to take that sort of criticism every day from every corner, know that no matter how it's delivered, it's still wrong, believe in my own methods, and continue to treat my horse in a way that encourages his trust instead tears it down.

If there's one thing I'm learning from this horse, it's strength of character.

It's not always fun. It's never easy. It's definitely getting worse before it gets better. I don't know if there's a light at the end of the tunnel, but I know we need each other right now.


  1. And this is why I haven't taken Stinker out in public really. I can handle my horse but I can't handle people who don't know our history telling me how to ride my horse. You can't get after a terrified horse and expect good results.

  2. You NEVER know the battles someone is fighting at home when all you see is a horse melting down at a show. You don't know what their struggles are, how far they've come with that horse, or what the horse's issues truly are. Giving unsolicited 'advice' just ain't right without having the whole picture!

  3. OMG all of this! Every bit of it. I could have written it. From the not actually being afraid no matter how scary it looks to others on the ground. To trying to figure out how to mentally cope with mostly well intentioned, misguided advice. It's hard. Like really hard. I have gotten some pretty harsh words over the years and have had to learn to consider the source. Do they know and understand my horse? No, then their opinion just doesn't count. Then learn how to file that information away because as much as I'd like to ignore it, disregard it and never think of it again it doesn't work that way for me. I have to ponder it, analyze it, over think it, cry about it, get mad about it then ultimately move past it. Man I can't believe how spot on you are with my journey with Steady in this post! If you ride a warmblood, quarter horse etc you just cannot get a TB brain coupled with their insane athleticism. There is no forcing them, cowboying them, working them down, winning with them. If you create a battleground with the track horses you better be prepared to loose. It just is never going to work with them.

  4. After following your blog for a while, I think you have a really good understanding of what is going on with Courage mentally and also a good progressive dressage training plan. I know you have delved a little into Natural Horsemanship but have you ever looked specifically at Tristan Tucker's TRT Method? It is online, in easy to use modules, and has helped my pony deal much much better with pressure and fear. The method is a little different because it uses some ground work but really it retrains the fear response in very small steps. I also found it changed my pony's response to slightly harder pressure during under saddle work. Just a though of something that has really helped my hot, bolty pony tremendously. Tons of info and video on the TRT method website...

  5. This is one of the reasons I so rarely try to give advice, even when someone directly asks my opinion. I haven't walked a mile in your boots and I have no desire to tell anyone what they should be doing with their horse. I'm sure you get a lot of practice in the "nod, smile, and do whatever the fuck you were going to do anyway" method. You keep doing what you know is best for Courage -- it's obviously working, no matter how incremental the progress might seem to people who don't know him.

  6. Just one more thought on the matter. The very worst of the well meaning advice is when it comes from a really, really, really, really good rider. Like Olympic rider who you are paying money to give you advice and you know it just isn't right for you or your horse. For me that has been some of the absolute toughest advice to disregard. I mean they "should" be right they are the best and I am just "ME". It literally makes me question my sanity. But no matter how good someone is you have the distinct advantage because they do not know your horse or your journey.

    1. Haha yeah. If there's one thing Courage has taught me, it's how to leave a trainer and believe in myself. It's a mixed blessing.

  7. I rode one like this for a while as a reclamation project, sort of: she had competed really successfully until hitting a wall and melting down in spectacular fashion. People had LOTS of opinions about how to MAKE her behave...but I found that approach only made her more claustrophobic and panicky. When I rode around all sweetness and light and it's-okay-we're-in-this-together -- which clear boundaries and requests, yes, but no confrontation -- she tried really hard for me and we made progress. I've never sat on another horse like her; there really was something, I am convinced, that was just not quite normal about her brain. But I loved her to pieces and really wish I'd been able to take her with me when I left that barn.

  8. I actually could have written this post- I've said it before but I have the mare equivalent. And I get lots of advice- some which is good and some not so much but it he end it's my ass in the saddle and I have to figure stuff out for both of us. It's slow, sometimes I despair and then days when it's good I end up in tears anyway because I'm so fucking happy.

    Courage is your horse and you know him. I hope that I have never come off as lecturing or giving advice. I might share what worked for me and carmen but that doesn't mean it will for you.

  9. This post speaks to me about Reef. He too has huge physical fear-based reactions when he sees dogs on leash or if he get's cornered or snuck up on by a dog. His only reaction is SAVE MYSELF TRY TO GRAB ONTO DOG. We've been working with a trainer to build his trust in us when on leash--he doesn't need to worry about the dog across the street. We slowly push him past his comfort zone, so that that zone gets larger (really smaller though) and dogs can get closer to him before he reacts.
    I also struggle with how people see me handling my aggressive dog who looks he wants to kill them and instead I turn him around give him treats. Outsiders don't see the whole picture, and they can't, and their advise is usually from a good place, but I just smile and say "We're working on it" and walk away. We now know what works for Reef and how to help him, and we're sticking with our trainer. and her advise, thanks.
    But like Courage at shows, Reef wont get over his dog-on-leash issues without more exposure. SO we gear up and get ready for the explosions and looks we get each time we go for a walk, and already he's so. much. better.

    1. Dog reactivity is SO HARD and people are SO JUDGY about it. Kudos to you for listening to the dog. It does get better!

  10. Great post. It's taken me many years to learn that even when I doubt myself for doubting the advice or someone who 'knows better', if I listen to my horses they will unfailing tell me what works & what doesn't.

  11. As someone with a horse who was abused and who flails to survive...I can say it can be turned around. It will always be his default, but it does get better.

  12. That noseband tho!!!! And also yea. Nobody knows your horse like you do, and nobody cares more about his progress and development than you do. You are literally the biggest stakeholder here, and therefore most motivated to set him up for success.


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