When you've had multiple negative rides in a row, there's really only one goal worth working toward: have a positive ride. I love the fact that I know mi papi well enough at this point that I can make a positive ride happen. No matter what's going on, no matter the weather, no matter the causes, I can make a ride pleasant. I have cookies. So many cookies.
I got on today with about a quarter pound of treats in my pocket. I would have a pleasant ride, damn it.
Theo's a positive reinforcement pony, a lot of the progress we've made has been built on pets and cookies. He has no natural work ethic. If you punish him, his reaction is basically 'wait until you see what I do to you for that'. When things get difficult, I can fight with him (and probably lose) or I can go to what I know works. No trainer I've ever worked with has supported my positive reinforcement training. Ever. No One. They universally roll their eyes and accuse me of spoiling my horse. So I just do it on my own and ignore the commentary. When they're pleased with the results, I smile and carry on.
After my Saturday ride, we were furious with each other and my left shoulder hurt so much I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get my saddle off. I said stretch, he said no, I said do it now, he said no, and then I tried to push the matter. He's stronger than me. My left shoulder quit and he had me on the ropes. I was ready to get those draw reins out for the simple reason that he was dragging through the contact, running me into the wall, and getting his rewarding release due to being stronger than me. I made myself back up, compromise, end in a good spot, and go for a trail ride. But I was so ready to put a big ol' bit in his mouth and tell him no more! No more dragging on me until my shoulder fails because you know you can outlast me! He shouldn't get a reward for pulling until I can't physically stop him!
Today I broke down the negative behavior. Theo likes to stretch down and release, he's figured that out, but it's not a locked in behavior. He doesn't really 'get' that I'm looking for that. It's just an exercise, not a behavior to offer. I decided to lock that behavior in. For our warm up, I'd get a big, chewing, to the ankles stretch (with his nose in) in the walk and then he'd get a pet and a cookie. Repeat about ten times. Then I sat and waited. Sure enough, with no action from me, he gave me a big stretch and chew, hanging out there until I pet him and gave him a treat. And on we went, him offering the behavior and me rewarding it. I weaned him off of the cookies fairly quickly since it's a behavior he knows and added the cue back in so he did something other than drop his head and chew, but the trick was to get him to do it on his own, to offer the behavior rather than push him into it. He's the king of offering behaviors when he thinks he'll get a cookie for it. If he sees it as a thing that I will reward for, he will offer it happily.
Now this is the part that's probably going to take me weeks. I need to add forward without losing the chill. I played with it today, finding the tipping point between chill and negative tension. I don't think Theo is good at managing positive tension yet and it all tends to tip over into negative tension. I start to create positive tension, I start to feel power and forward, and then it snaps and I have a braced, non-existent connection with fast feet. It's a pretty concrete reaction. We're good, we're good, we're good, we are DONE.
Okay, I can work with that. He has a point where he mentally feels like he can't take any more and he quits. It's ridiculously close to going as slow as molasses in January, but I'm not here to judge. Okay, yes, I'm totally here to judge, but it's where it is and I need to work with it. I ditched my whip because that brings in too much negative right now. I tried gradually building and when he pushed past his previous wall, he got big pats and I removed the pressure. I wanted him to see that I won't, in fact, press forever. And with each iteration, I want him to go a little further. Push a bit more, handle a bit more pressure before I back off again. And when he just coped? Pats! Many pats! Cookies! All the good things.
It's going to be slow. Very slow. I can get quick feet and power now, but it's braced and pissy or it's due to the influence of another. Getting him to give me that power without the bracing and negative tension is going to take a lot of time and work. And cookies and pats. He doesn't like to work hard, he needs to know that there's something in it for him. Any behavior can be shaped if you're patient enough and have enough rewards. I will buy those treats in bulk if that's what it takes. I did have a few moments of a completely tracking up pony that was also stretching nicely to my hand without my shoulders screaming in pain. When I got off today, my shoulder felt okay. And he was like jello again, relaxed and happy.
I'm glad I chose to not get the draw reins out. This was a better lesson. I want him to offer the behavior, not be shoved into it. I can't fall into the trap of taking the mechanical advantage. If my shoulder is too weak to ride in that heavy of a contact, then I'm just going to have to find another way. He will always be stronger than me. I better be smarter than him. You get more flies with honey.