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Scary Moments Can be Teaching Moments

What a new year! I hope everyone had a great holiday. Here in Iowa we had a beautiful white Christmas, which has been followed by a bitter blast of single degree weather. Training Slider has been uneventful, since many of the days I plan to go ride, especially on the weekends, have been too cold to ride.

Slider and his Christmas present.Slider and his Christmas present.

I usually do not teach or ride in weather colder than twenty degrees, because the barn isn’t heated and I do not want my lesson students or horses getting sick from breathing in freezing air while their muscles try to keep warm. I have had to cancel lessons two weeks in a row due to the cold.

It has been an eventful month at the barn, though! Slider is a fluff ball of winter hair, and he has been getting plenty of indoor turnout. He runs like a wild man, and sometimes shows off at a huge trot, with his hocks popping up and his tail flagged. He likes to dodge around the shavings, stop and snort, and then spook himself and run off again, head held high. His confidence seems to be going up, at least during turnout.

I have been doing a lot of riding with him when I can, because the Iowa Horse Shows Association has two schooling shows coming up in March and April that I would love to take him to. So, I have been doing some bending, cantering, trotting and the likes with him in the indoor arena to build his cardio as well as his attentiveness to my commands. He seems very comfortable in the arena, and does a good job going around the rail. That is, until the blizzard came, and a small collection of snow came under the large arena door.

When I say a collection of snow, it was probably enough to scoop up and make into two snowballs, at the most. It was just a few inches out from under the door, and most horses wouldn’t have batted an eye at it. But for Slider, this was a whole new level of scary. This was not there yesterday! Looking back on it, I probably should have walked him toward it when on the ground, but it never really occurred to me until I was already on board. Honestly, it may be good for him by this point, to be faced with scary “obstacles” and have to go near them, because in a show arena, there will be lots to take in and lots to potentially be scared of, so it may be a good thing to make him face his fears and walk past the door with the snow on the ground. When we approached it, he abruptly stopped and snorted. I urged him forward after a time. He tried to swiftly walk right and I pulled him back left, and then he tried to leave to the left, and I pulled him back to the right. It was a kind of dance, making him stay close to it and not allowing him to leave. Step by step, snort by snort, we reached the door, and I let him put his head down. He exhaled sharply several times, snorting at the scary snow. All in all it took a good ten minutes to get from point A to point B, but after taking it slow, he did trot and canter next to the door during our ride. He always kept one ear on the door as we went by; you never know when the snow will come alive.

Slider was tired and steaming from our hallway adventure ride. Slider was tired and steaming from our hallway adventure ride. About a week later, I arrived to teach lessons. I was a bit too early, and therapy lessons were still going on. I couldn’t stay late, because I had a lot of errands to run after lessons, so I decided to ride in the hallway. The barn where we are located has a long alley of stalls, and I remember from my William Woods days that Virgil Helm has a barn that is a long alley way, and he works his horses up and down that alley. I hadn’t done that with Slider yet, but thought it would be a great way to work on canter leads.

I quickly discovered that Slider has no comfort level for riding in new locations. We walked up and down the alleyway, which he did comfortably enough, and his trot was strong but he was paying attention. He was moving off my leg well, which I was strongly using to remind him to get back to the rail. He is getting much better about responding to leg pressure, when he is in a comfortable, relaxed state at least. I asked for his left lead canter, which he took decently enough. That is his good lead.

Then came his right lead, which he is starting to get very well in the arena.

But … we weren’t in the arena. He had completely forgotten what I was asking and took off at a leaping cross-canter into a slow gait into a wrong lead with his nose thrown in the air.

I was a bit frustrated, to say the least! We had gotten so far with riding in the arena that I felt he could handle just back and forth in the alleyway. I went back to square one and kept asking for that canter, lifting my hand with his leading leg, cuing with my outside leg, just like in the arena. When he would take off, he would take the wrong lead almost all the time. We had to stop and re-cue about three times down the straightaway to get it. When we would turn around, we had to then canter back on the left lead, and because of how he was acting with the right lead canter, he had himself all wound up and would leap into the left lead and fly down the hallway. Now, I am not one to give up, so we went back and forth, up and down the hallway, me trying to get him to take his lead and him always taking the wrong one.

We finally got the lead about twenty minutes into his speedy canter tantrum, and I verbally praised him and petted him AS we cantered. I know this isn’t the safest, but it felt like after all the frustration I was under, and that he was probably under too, he needed to know he had gotten it right. We took a break at the end of the straightaway. For me, and for him!

Slider's birthday cake.Slider's birthday cake.

This is the moment that I feel could have been a teaching point for him. We did continue cantering, and while he did then take the wrong lead a few more times, when he did take the correct one, he picked it up quicker each time when I stopped him and asked him again. I think maybe he is a horse who takes a while to adjust and become comfortable with certain locations, because he mentally stresses out or worries about where he is. I hopped off him right after he picked the canter lead up from the get go; I would rather end on a good note than try again and again to get him to canter, when he was already stressed out and very hot.

Needless to say he spent the rest of the evening under a few coolers while I taught my riding lessons.

In my riding lessons, during the winter, I try to incorporate teaching about aspects of our equine industry as well as equitation and collection. The first week of January, I have made it a tradition to make birthday cake (made of oatmeal, applesauce, molasses, shredded carrots, and flour) for the lesson horses and put a candle on it, and have the kids sing “Happy Birthday” to the lesson horses. All horses turn a year older on January 1st, mostly so it is easier to keep track of horse ages for shows. I can imagine it would be difficult for a show manager to determine how old each competing horse is at their show. There was enough cake for Slider, so we sang him “Happy Birthday” and he got to eat his cake. It is his Sweet 16 this year.

I always try to make goals for myself for the New Year, just like everyone else. I will put them here and revisit next year, and we can see how I did!

  • • Get Slider in a curb bit
  • • Get Slider to a horse show and complete a class!
  • • Get that right canter lead down

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