Saturday, February 04, 2012

Forrest's adventure, Katie's lesson

I felt totally helpless. Poor Forrest was in full meltdown mode and Katie wasn't too far off. The energy roiling off her from the center of the round pen was nearly visible--a dark cloud of frustration anger and fear, leaving her poor pony no sanctuary in a strange place.

But let me back up a little.

Katie has done amazing things with this horse and he will normally do just about anything she asks. She can rope off of him. He goes in the ocean--willingly. He follows her around like a puppy and asks her, "Okay, what's next?!" with shining enthusiasm in his big, brown eyes. He always wants to come out and loads in the trailer like a champ, eager to see where it will take him.

He is, in fact, such a trooper it never occurred to us to prep him a little more for, or bring another horse to, the clinic last weekend.

Let's also remember Forrest's last solo trailer ride was to our barn, which didn't turn out so badly, but prior to that it was all about the track. A strange barn with rows of stalls looks an awful lot like the backside at the track, says Forrest.

Russell and Katie got Forrest out of the trailer and started to walk him around the property because the round pen was occupied. Forrest was anxious and very worried and acting up the way an anxious and worried horse can do. I didn't see it, but he reared at one point and kicked out at Katie, too. When they tied him to the trailer, he pulled back and snapped his lead rope.

What I did see was a horse dancing in place, being corrected and backed up for being scared, which seemed to be escalating the situation rather than reducing the stress. Katie and Russell both wanted to load Forrest back in the trailer and take him home, but not only did I think he was too agitated for that to be a good idea, it was exactly the wrong message to send him. (In my opinion, anyway.)

Note to self: extra halter, two more lead ropes, and a lunge line need to be added to the trailer supplies.

Luckily, we got the round pen vacated, but Katie wouldn't let him off the lead rope for fear he would hurt himself. That meant he felt trapped and couldn't safely begin to burn off his energy. It also put Katie in an extremely vulnerable position. Finally, she let him loose and that gave him some room to start moving, but he still wasn't calming down and neither was Katie.

Had this been Calabar and me, I would have done just what I did with him the day before while we waited for our lesson with Ellen. Get him to switch directions, stay away from me, and move back and forth around me until I had his attention--only allowing him in when he was calm. He danced around me--sometimes with  all four feet off the ground--but always all the way at the end of his lead rope and out of my space. Come down, switch directions. Again. Over and over, talking to him softly the whole time.

But while Katie has been riding for many more years, she has not subscribed to my addiction to ground work and has not done those types of exercises with Forrest. And that's okay for her most of the time. I've probably relied on ground work more than I should have instead of simply climbing back on the horse. The challenge the other day was Forrest not being in the head space to be ridden. I'm not even sure he was in his head at all, come to think of it, and Katie didn't have any tools to fall back on to help him and help herself without getting on his back.

As a parent, the hardest thing was letting it unfold, to resist the temptation to shoo my daughter out of the way and take over. Not that she'd have let me, but I could see things she couldn't from the outside--like Forrest asking her to come in, trying to calm down and having nowhere to go. The other temptation I had to avoid was nagging her to do it differently. I may not have been quite as successful with that, but since she ignored me, it probably turned out the way it should have anyway.

She did finally get him calmed down enough to get up on him and from there went back to some simple backing and pivoting exercises that actually seemed to get him back to himself a little. As I said to Katie later--much later--she went back to something he knew how to do, something familiar, and that probably helped sooth both of them.

At this point, Ellen had finished working with the previous rider and I let her know what was going on. She had Katie get off Forrest (much to both Russell's and my relief) and began teaching Katie and Forrest the simplest groundwork exercise--circling one direction until he gave her his eye, then turning him in and switching directions. Over and over, until he started to come down from the great heights of his anxiety. Katie, too.

Finally Forrest glued himself back to Katie, following at her shoulder, matching her step by step.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. Especially Forrest.

When we got back to the barn, Forrest was very happy to have made it through the day and end up back home. Katie, however, was still angry with me for not simply loading Forrest up and taking him home. So we talked about it and the more we talked about it, the more she seemed to realize we all did the best we could and learned a few things to help us all do better next time.

Since then, Katie has used that lunging technique with Forrest and is going to be taking him places alone to practice. She's also working on her own patience levels and the type of energy she projects to her horse. "Be his oasis," I say. She doesn't gag outright anymore, so that's a nice change.

Peter, upon hearing about the day, shrugged it off as normal behavior considering the situation and no worse than he'd seen at the umpteen horse shows over the years. "And those people had to put little English saddles on and ride anyway!"

I'm certainly not saying this was an ideal way to find out Forrest has some issues going new places, no. We were extremely lucky. Nobody got hurt--besides feelings here and there, and those heal better than bones most of the time. Obviously, there are things we can do to be better prepared in general (like the extra tack), but sometimes you don't know how things are going to go until they go there. And sometimes you have to go there to find out there are still things to work on and learn to make you a better horse person.

Or even just a better parent.


Natalie Keller Reinert said...

This is really, really good... I'm so glad you posted it.

Funny how kids don't want to do ground-work and adults don't want to get in the saddle isn't it?

Guess we've discovered more about the ground than we cared to. Thank goodness you had a round pen... and someone who understands how to use them. There's really no substitute for that sort of work.

Tell Katie to stop her gagging, she should be so lucky as to be a gorgeous Thoroughbred's happy place!!!! :D

Dane Jane said...

The painful learning experiences are the ones that stay with us.
It's so hard to realize that a horse that feels trapped is the one that need to move his feet. We so want to try to shut them down, when what they need is a job to do that forces them to use their minds. Luckily, nobody got hurt, and it sounds like Ellen injected a voice of reason.
There is no such thing as too much ground work, or too much preparation! Way better to over-prepare than to get hurt by under-preparing.
Everyone has their own journey to horsemanship, and let's wish Katie a safe and effective journey!