So keeping in mind the incredibly low bar I've set from a technical point of view, most of my attention is on confidence and trust as we build up to our last show of the season. Yesterday I decided to give mi papi a test and see if we had a snowball's chance in hell. I tacked him up and set out with the goal of 1.5 hours on the trails, including some loops we hadn't done yet and going backwards through most of it so it looked completely different. I'll admit to being a bit horrified and I almost backed out to go the safe, well known way. Mi papi is a wonderful partner but if he is genuinely afraid, there is no trick in my bag that can stop him. I was throwing him in the deep end to see if he could swim.
I'm here and typing so we clearly succeeded in the most basic goal: don't die.
Theo actually impressed me. He's still uneasy on the road, but that seems to be more about the asphalt than anything. When we have a shoulder to walk on, his walk is normal and his body is more relaxed. When we have to walk on the black top, he's tense and takes small steps. Not a shocker, that stuff is slippery since he has four shoes on. I can actually let him walk on a longer rein now and not keep him constantly on the bit, which is hard on him and irritates him. He needs chances to stretch, especially when we're out for a long time.
We did get a couple of extra surprises. Heading down the road (so already tense since we're on asphalt and going the wrong way for the loop), I heard a weird, sharp sound. Mi papi stopped and snorted and I couldn't identify what it was. I thought I heard kids, so I called out 'hello' a couple times. A boy of about 13 came out and yelled 'oh my god it's a horse!'. His friend came clambering out of the bushes to see this amazing sight. Both were carrying toy guns. As soon as they said something, Theo relaxed. I asked them what that weird noise was and the boy said 'oh, we're playing with our cap guns!'.
He was right across the street, about ten feet away from Theo. You can guess what happened next.
The young man, being a 13 year old boy with no horse experience but at least some gun common sense, aims the gun straight up and fires it three times. Theo's eyes almost bulged out of his skull but he actually stood his ground. I immediately fed him a cookie, which was good timing since the boy's friend copied the move. I asked them to reload and do it again since my horse had never heard a cap gun before. They thought that was a great idea and reloaded before aiming at the sky again. By this point Theo decided this wasn't a big deal. I thanked the boys for their help and they dove back into the bushes. Mi papi barely flicked an ear when they went back to playing their game.
We also found tree work, complete with chain saws, and a car parked on the trail where there never was one. Very scary business.
We spent the afternoon randomly wandering. We even did some bush whacking to get around leaning trees and access parts of the trail we usually skip. We jumped the downed birch (about 2'3"), crossed a fairly busy two lane high way, and passed several joggers. Theo was feeling a bit sassy, so we did a lovely fifteen minute trot down the old rail bed to get home. I took a chance and let him travel with his head lower than usual. He has a history of getting his head down, then unloading his riders. I let him chew the reins out of my hands to he could stretch out over his back and focus on tip toeing around roots. Yay, ground pole work being put to use! Once we got back to the road, I let him walk home on the buckle.
Trail horse super star letting me take his picture while waiting for traffic to pass
The best part is that he actually seems to enjoy these outings now. When I first took him out back in June, I thought my days of relaxing trail rides were over. He hated it and just wanted to go home. It was like riding a ticking time bomb. Now? He still stops to stare at things and spooks at unexpected obstacles, but I don't feel like he's constantly upset. He travels in a swinging walk with his ears pricked, just heading out for an adventure.
Theo is teaching me something very important: the power of positive reinforcement. So much of riding is based on the idea that your horse behaves to avoid punishment. If they don't go for a squeeze, we kick. If they drag, we use a chain shank. There's a lot of dominance going on. I do all of that, of course. Theo is far too big and powerful to have him dragging me or being pushy. But I carry cookies in my pocket at all times with him. When he does something special, he gets a reward. Special can be loading on the trailer with no trouble, pivoting around on the verbal cue, or marching past helium balloons on the first try. He's learned that if he walks up to the scary thing and touches it (the command is 'touch it'), he gets a cookie. If he jumps the scary new obstacle, he gets a cookie. A scary thing is no longer about being punished and driven forward. It's his choice. He can't run away, but it's his choice to go touch it or jump it. Being very food driven, he considers possible death to be secondary to peppermint treats.
If he stops dead and throws his head up, I hold still and pet his neck. I count to three out loud so he knows it's coming, then he gets a squeeze. He always steps off for me. It's a compromise to be sure, but it works for him. He is a thinking, alive being. If he's scared, better to give him a second.
Neither of these are popular training choices. Feeding a horse treats from the saddle? Giving him a count of three when he stops? I know Trainer A is grinding her teeth about the treats at least, but I can't win a pushing match with this horse. Some horses will let you shove them toward something, Theo is not one of them. It has to be his idea. I just have to convince him that it's in his best interest to keep going forward. I'm certain our work with positive reinforcement is why I was able to keep him from spinning and bolting when we found something that frightened him on the trail. It took us a minute, but he walked by it politely.
I'd say that Theo passed his test. He went out alone into places he'd never seen before and even trotted on paths that were new to him. We've been practicing leaving other horses behind and he doesn't like it, but he's learning that I'm still with him, so it's okay. Now I just have to put it together in a show environment.
Who knew 18" could be scary?