How to Regroup and Keep Improving with a Challenging Horse
When working with horses, sometimes in order to go forwards, we have to go backwards. With my troubled mare Willow, it can feel like one step forward, then two steps back. Because she is a highly anxious horse with a history of dangerous bucking and spooking, I have spent a long time doing groundwork with her.
Eventually, I was able to get on her bareback from the fence with no issues. Then I progressed to getting her OK with a saddle on, and then finally the big day came; I was able to put my foot in the stirrup and swing my leg over. And what happened – nothing. Well, I breathed a big sigh of relief, because all the stories I had been told about her had messed with my head, and I was worried she might explode. But after the relief wore off, I soon discovered something I didn’t expect: Miss Willow "Doesn't Like to Walk During Groundwork, Only Trot" had no forward under saddle.
So now that I was on, I had to get forward, and to get forward I would have to put pressure on Willow. She seemed fine. We spent a couple of sessions poking around the arena with me in the saddle, and even stood quietly next to the fence soaking in the attention from people who knew her history and were giving her pets and congratulations for being a quiet horse with a rider on her back.
But a quiet horse isn’t necessarily a safe horse, and something niggled at the back of my mind; she didn’t seem calm so much as resistant to going forward ~ unlike the horse I was used to on the ground, who would move her feet at the lift of a finger.
Before I put more pressure on this horse while on her back, I decided to go back to groundwork to discover what I might have missed. And if I am going to get bucked off a horse, I prefer to be standing on the ground when it happens. I decided to use an exercise that Buck Brannaman teaches called the Half Circle Exercise. And that’s where I found a hole.
When we did this exercise, her anxiety level got higher with each request to turn. This is an assertive exercise, since we are moving the horse down the arena, the trainer going forward while asking the horse to change direction by moving the hindquarters over and then shoulder over. There’s some PUSH going on here, and Willow didn't handle it very well at first. But after a couple of sessions, I began to get some nice quiet turns without her breaking into a trot, which is how her anxiety manifests.
She was mellow, I was mellow and feeling successful, so I decided to finish off our session with a little gentle jog trotting around on the line, just to get her moving a bit. And . . . she bolted. Then reared and bolted again!
I felt like I hadn’t fixed anything, just uncovered more anxiety. One step forwards, two steps back.
"If I am going to get bucked off a horse, I prefer to be
standing on the ground when it happens."
This is where having PATIENCE and a POSITIVE ATTITUDE really need to come into play. Here are three steps that will help to regroup and not get frustrated.
1) Focus on what IS working. Willow bolted, but I didn’t have a hard time stopping her, she hadn’t forgotten I was there.
2) Look for hidden progress. Doing the Half Circle exercise improved Willow’s lateral flexion by leaps and bounds even though it's not a lateral flexion exercise. What we had been doing seemed messy and disjointed, but it had helped her to get softer everywhere.
3) Take a deep breath and start again. This is key: you aren’t going backwards, you are exactly where you need to be right now.
To read more on this subject, check out this post on Goals vs Process
Click on the YouTube video for a short clip on Buck Brannaman doing the Half Circle Exercise.
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