This is a long post, but I am writing it for myself to record what feels like a completely new time in my relationship with Ben.
I have taken Ben out of his comfort zone by introducing in-hand work.
It is proving to be a most interesting, and revealing, exercise.
I thought we had a good relationship. I thought boundaries were in place that were flexible yet attentive. I thought Ben trusted me. After all, we had worked through being hard to catch, through not wanting to load, through barging through me for his bucket of food, through the full gamut of Ben’s sourest expressions and now, at Sandra’s, in holiday mode if you like, Ben was still coming to me despite eight acres of escape routes with an open, bright-eyed, soft expression on his face.
Until I asked him to stand still. That was the first indication that we had far more to work through. Asking Ben to stand on a mat produced sourness, barginess, stubbornness. “Stand.” A foot would creep forward. “Back.” He would move to the side. “Over”. He would move through my blocking schooling stick. “I insist.” He would move too far in the other direction.
I removed all treats from the exercise. And Ben somehow gave the impression that he would always have the last word. As soon as my attention dropped, he would move.
A few consistent days produced standing still and flexing of head and neck. So time, I thought, to move to walking. We set up some cones, of the tall type that are used as jump standards, around the yard to provide a visual guide as we walked together, in hand, around them.
I was going to make this simple and start on Ben’s more flexible side, his left, where he bends well around my leg when I am riding him. Push, push, push with his shoulder. I put up with it, trying to push his shoulder back – a hopeless move of course. So he pushed me, right up against one of those cones. If it had been fixed to the ground I would have been hurt. I slapped him against his shoulder. He reared up. And we had a confrontation. I was pleased that I could stay calm as my energy came up as, at other times, I have found myself becoming irritated as I brought up my energy. I have become aware of this and know that it is something I need to work on. That discussion with Ben was settled, and Ben, now quite cross but in self-carriage, bent beautifully around the cones. Later, in the field, he vented his feelings on poor Minnie, sending her shooting out of the way.
Ben has recently been kicking Cassie as well as aggressively herding Minnie and Rosie. My beloved cob is displaying the manners of a playground bully.
I thought long and hard about this and decided that the work in-hand was a step too far for Ben so the next day I took him into the picadero. Loose lungeing, I asked him to move, walk, trot, canter, turn, looking for up and downward transitions. He just about cooperated, swishing his tail and kicking out when I ask for a change in direction until I upped the tempo. He tried to fall in, hide by the gate, break from canter and, when he did stand on request, half turned his bum towards me. This was going to take work, and energy. At the end, he stood quietly where I asked him too, his eye was soft again and his head was lower.
I thought further and I reached for Klaus Hempfling’s “Dancing with Horses”. I have had this book for years and Mali was always very responsive to my body energy when I led her following Klaus’s suggestions. I can remember leading her out to her field on a loose lead rope, slowing my steps and she would slow, despite approaching grass, quickening and she would quicken, stopping suddenly and she would stop. I often wish I had taken this approach further with her. I was inhibited by being on a livery yard but she was looking for leadership and responded so well when I gave it in that way.
But Ben is not Mali.
I could engage in a direct fight with him easily, he seems to provoke it and if he were a bigger horse he would be dangerous. I could be a pushover, and he would be dangerous. He has been dangerous. He has charged my daughter’s friends at home and even kicked my daughter in the early days. In the past he was ridden by a girl and handled by her father. He understands the stick, the growl, the rough handling.
I am doing this in-hand work, not to torment him, but to ask him to use his body in a way that will straighten him and improve his strength to carry a rider. I have no grand dreams of dressage tests, I wish to continue with our long rides, which we both enjoy, and to do so with a stronger, suppler body. Of course I can’t explain that to Ben, so he has to trust me. And he clearly doesn’t; not enough.
I have known for a long-time that his default position is “no”, and if I listened to that we would never have left the paddock at home.
So this morning, I led Ben around the cones, on a headcollar and loose lead rope. Sandra was behind to back up my “walk on” signal. I asked Ben to walk and to stand, from my body language, as advised by Klaus. My goodness I need to develop my presence and vitality to a fire that would shoot from me in a ten mile radius. He requires so much of me; so much to walk with energy, but not trot, and to stand, without creeping forward a few steps. If I had not done this before with Mali I would have thought that somehow my body energy could not be read. We go on each rein a couple of times. He finds it harder to stay in walk on his stiffer (right) side. And he would far rather gaze everywhere else than at me. And he does not want to stand without creeping into my space. We finish when he does.
I get my reward when I lead him back to the field. His head comes up and he walks faster, looking to pass me, as we approach. I stop and raise my hand with energy. He stops and waits for me to move before walking on again. I repeat this a few times as his excitement rises again.
We have a lot of work to do that calls for consistency, calmness, alertness, presence and vitality from me. And from Ben.