Setting up for a win

Due to high winds, Prince got a reprieve last week.  He doesn’t know that, of course.  He never knows what’s going to happen when I show up, and this week he got a bit of a shock.

The plan was to test the “it never takes longer than two days” theory (meaning that there’s a limit for how long even the most stubborn or messed up horse will hold out before realising that they’re doing things the hard way).  As I’ve mentioned before, Prince has gone from lacking in trust and confidence to figuring out several ways around me.  Like many horse people, I’m too nice, too concerned for the horse, and like naughty children, they play on our insecurities.  Basically, it was time to show Prince that I’m serious, and that if I want him to trot all day, he’ll jolly well trot all day.

There were a few things which worried me about this – mostly different ways of saying, “I think I’ll mess it up, but I so desperately want to get it right” – so I gathered my thoughts and game plan very carefully before going out to work.  Essentially, the plan was to put Prince on a circle and have him trot until he offered proper relaxation.  There would be no whipping and beating, because we have other cues (we reached the point long ago whereby I’d ask him to go and he’d go), and the method we follow believes in telling the horse once what they have to do, and not nagging them to keep doing it when they already are.  So if his attitude changed for the worse or his speed dropped through laziness rather than a genuine incapability, he’d get a reminder of what his job was, but otherwise I’d just walk with him.

I started with a bit of yo-yo to make sure he was connected, and I’m glad I did: the send was great, the draw was terrible, which I think was Prince’s way of saying “I know you don’t want me to circle yet, so if I just stand here twenty feet away, I don’t have to do any work”.  So I changed the game a bit in order to get a reaction out of him and, following an uncharacteristic level of patience on my part, it worked.  But work is still needed there.  If he’s already in motion, the draw is too good; if he’s stood still, there’s no draw at all.  I think there’s a lesson in there about energy…

The circling eventually began.  I honestly thought I’d be sending him in circles for hours.  We had a false start as he managed to stand on the rope (a favourite trick of our horses in order to get out of work), which backfired on him, as it reminded me I really had to raise my game.  I concentrated hard on what I wanted and paid attention to the little things – sending his shoulder away so that the tension in the rope increased, meaning that he couldn’t stand on it; driving him forward if he slacked, but not leading with my hand; watching for the smallest signs of relaxation and rewarding each try…

Fifty minutes later, the relaxation was being offered quickly, and I called it a day.  He didn’t trot the entire time – walk breaks were given as rewards for big tries – but my arms were quite sore and I was pretty dizzy!  I think I’d unwittingly set myself up to succeed: the weather has been beautifully warm for early April the last few days, and given that Prince is fat and still has half a winter coat, he was white with sweat and fairly tired – he held out for less time than he might have had it been a more comfortable day.  We chilled out in the field for a few minutes, him cropping at the grass and me trying to unwind my shoulders, before we hosed him off and turned him out with one of his friends.

The ultimate object of the exercise is that the horse no longer questions your persistence, and the hope is that you only have to do it once in order to teach that lesson.  Time will tell…

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