Up against it

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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Up against it

  1. june

    Why do you think he’s more obstructive and confrontational with this in-hand work?

  2. Pingback: Trouble in paradise | Two horses

  3. As I was reading I wondered if he would be better in hand outside the “work” space of the round pen or arena – if that setting pulls the confrontational side of him forward more…

    A week ago we had the trimmer out and the pony got very cheeky before the trimmer even really got started – started pawing, which I would have corrected with only a verbal ‘no’ – but he then started pawing AT the trimmer, which I felt was over the line. Plus it was near 100 degrees out and we were all, humans and horses, ready to get through this with the least fanfare possible.

    The instant he pawed at the trimmer I went into high gear right down the barn aisle and out into the hot sun with pony in hand. I didn’t do a thing but MOVE, and in hindsight I moved with total purpose and intention and not surprisingly (though as it happened I could feel a part of me thinking wow!) the pony stepped up like a performance pony beside me, doing this very fancy, energetic little trot that kept him right at my side. I stopped – he stopped – I went forward – he trotted with me – I turned – he trotted like a perfectly oiled pony machine around with me, keeping the perfect distance. I had a loose lead line on his halter and really didn’t do a thing but move with all expectation that he would be right with me.

    Funny – the trimmer has probably never seen me do such a thing – it’s rare I need to – and his mouth was hanging open when the pony and I came back into the barn. There was no more pawing or anything else.

    I know if I had walked into the arena with him on another day with no sense of purpose that came from a real need, we wouldn’t have been that attuned. I struggle with how to achieve that level of partnership w/o the intensity that arises in a moment of true need. And I also struggle with the idea that maybe me just wanting to do it isn’t really fair, and that’s why it never works quite as well.

    Anyway, you’ve got my wheels spinning here, so I thank you – love reading about your time with Ben and Rosie and the way you think things through.

    • Billie, Ben has my wheels spinning. It would be all too easy for me to think in terms of a simple dominance issue and allow a confrontation to develop, as it has already.

      I know what you mean about having that level of intensity. It seems to happen for me in a particular moment and is hard to manufacture outside that moment.

  4. kathleen

    Ben reminds me so much of my Appaloosa gelding. He can be so agreeable much of the time…but, like Ben, his “no” can be quite dramatic. I really enjoy reading about your journey with Ben. It has given me a much different and refreshing perspective into me issues.