I took one of the horses for a hack earlier this week and had a slightly bittersweet time. It's been a couple of weeks since our last hack, and she's not the bravest of souls. But I was disappointed when she flat point refused to go past a monster that has been there for weeks.
The track is very familiar, and she had been past this dumped feed sack, full of weeds, a few times. However, last week's rain had flattened the bag. I guess the weeds have also started to decompose too. So the bag was less visible; invisible until we were level with it.
As she spotted it she stopped politely, and reversed in the most beautiful rein back (far straighter than our attempts in the arena). Once we'd stopped, I asked her to walk on. She did until she got to the same point, and then she reversed in a more committed manner, refusing to walk on.
We had a quiet battle for several minutes, where I coaxed her in shoulder in towards the bag, and she would calmly rein back. There's no point getting angry at her, I did bring out the stern voice because forty strides of rein back really is excessive! But this mare was adamant that she was not going past the monster.
Getting her as close to it, and standing still, as possible I gave her a small pat. After all, we were approaching the monster and not turning tail. I dismounted and led her past the monster. Of course she didn't bat an eyelid, and stood perfectly for me to clamber back on from a nearby bank.
I felt like a bit of a failure. Disappointed in myself. After all, I'm training her, and I've not managed to train her to unquestioningly do as asked. Dismounting on a hack always makes me feel this way.
But then my logical brain kicked in. What is the situation from the horse's point of view?
Horses are followers, and they accept their riders as the herd leader, or at least higher up the hierarchy. So they gain confidence from them. In the wild, if they come across something unknown, the leader or dominant horse will approach first, with the submissive ones seconds behind.
This horse didn't want to go past the monster, but when I (the leader in our relationship) took the lead, and went between her and the bag, she instantly felt safe. After all, I was protecting her.
I still felt that my training was lacking slightly because I hadn't given her enough confidence from on board to pass the bag, but I was mollified later in our hack when we had another monster.
We needed to cross the road, but a large banner had been put up on the opposite side. That was scary. Added together with the large puddle on the side of the road, it took my a few attempts to cross the road. In the end, I turned her away from the banner, so she could concentrate on negotiating the large puddle. Which she did happily. Then I double backed along the road and entered the woods calmly next to the banner. All very calm really.
I should stop beating myself up really. Not long ago, this mare wouldn't have passed the bag with me leading without snorting and prancing past. And she would never have walked within touching distance of a large, white flapping banner without kicking up a fuss. So she's definitely growing in confidence.
Surely the point of training a horse is to develop the relationship and rapport that means they will do anything you ask calmly and happily. Therefore, surely the ultimate test of good horsemanship is the ability to bond with a horse, who has a very strong flight instinct, and to face their fears is the total opposite of their character, so that you can ride them past monsters and in new situations with them calm and relaxed?
So I'm not quite there, because I had to dismount and show her that the bag wouldn't eat me, but we are definitely making progress because her reactions to scary situations and less extreme, and more "I'm not sure about this… I'm a bit worried" rather than the "oh my god it's gonna kill me!" response that we used to get.