Yesterday's ride had me thinking about how often we ask a horse, a prey animal, to put their trust in us. And how often they resist their natural instincts and trust us to protect them.
Every time we are with them, whether it's just hanging around, grooming or riding, we are developing a little more trust, a stronger relationship. We ask them to stand nicely while tied up, a compromising position for any prey animal. We ask them to walk quietly through the woods when by instinct, they should be hyper-aware of mountain lions in the trees or wolves lurking behind bushes.
We ask them to trust us enough to go out into the big, scary world without the safety and companionship of their herdmates and yet, still continue to be on their best behavior. That's a lot of trust we shoulder and to let them down can set back training by leaps and bounds.
For the first time I took Gabe into the woods and fields next door to our property all by himself. It's a gorgeous piece of property, half of it woods with trails cut through it, the other half a big beautiful meadow with trails all through it. It's a beautiful, perfect place for conditioning work. A grass road follows the edge of the entire property, gently rolling, through woods, around the meadow, along the edge of a pond and perfect for galloping and speed work. I haven't done that YET, but it's on the list.
I think he trusts me. He walked willingly across our bridge (it's just a concrete slab over the creek) and into the woods. He watched and looked with interest, those cute little ears pricked forward, but never hesitated. Never even hesitated to cross the bridge which in the past has presented a bravery challenge for Calypso.
He walked through puddles and mud without blinking. He did, however, have a little bit of an issue figuring out where to put his feet when we had to walk over a downed tree and negotiate the tangle of dead branches. He got a little confused about where to put his hind feet and just kind of crashed through the rotten limbs. It's good practice for him and when we went back over it he didn't hit a single branch. He jumped a little bit when a rabbit whipped out in front of us. It startled me, too. But he never hesitated or refused to do what I asked.
At least, not until Calypso started calling for him about 20 minutes in to our ride. We were far enough away that it was a faint call, but definitely Calypso's high scream opposed to Chief's low neigh.
Gabe's head came up when he heard her, he took smaller, faster steps and started jigging. Oh. Great. I can tolerate fast walks, but the jigging drives. me. crazy. Jig. Jig. Jig. Jig. GAH! I continued to ask for forward and he tried to rear and spin to go back towards his herdmates. A quick, tight circle and a heel in his side straightened him up.
He then grew about 6 inches and continued to take tiny, mincing steps, obviously wanting to go back from whence we came, but really trying to listen to me and trust in my direction. He was having a battle inside his head: Herdmates! Rider! Herdmates! Rider! AHHHHHH!!!!!
With every step he snorted, the steps got higher and slower and pretty soon I was riding an un-asked for piaffe. He had decent form for an untrained movement! Perfect? Not hardly, but it seems a very natural a movement for him. Hooray! So, I took the opportunity he presented and I went with it. I asked for a little more forward (since he was already balanced well back on his hocks and coiled up like a tightly wound spring) and we had a dozen or so wonderful steps of a very powerful passage. Woo hoo! I was ecstatic!
He started losing his balance a bit (it was muddy in the woods, not the most desirable place to school dressage movements! And, he's not fit enough to sustain it for any length of time.) so I pushed him into a nice canter and he responded with controlled enthusiasm.
I got his brain back by making him work and concentrate and his trust settled back to me instead of reaching out to his herd mates. Yes, he was listening for Calypso's call, but he was listening to ME instead.
I wonder if it helped that I started singing to him after Calypso's first holler? I won't tell you what I serenaded him with, but it might have to do with a lamb and a little girl named Mary. And a later song might have had to do with sunshine and making me happy.
In the end, he could have easily ditched me and left me sitting in the mud to go galloping back to the safety of his friends. There is no way I could win a real fight with an 1,100#, 16.2hh horse who decides to listen to instinct instead of throwing it away and trusting in the human.
I must be doing something right.