Easier said than done with Decadance. Ghosts of riders past haunt our under saddle work. The focus of our riding time is on willingness and cooperation, lots of walking, bending, stretching, yielding, flexing on a fairly loose rein. At the moment, the more intense physical work is better tackled from the ground. On the ground, far fewer demons interfere with the process, and I can tap into Decadance's young horse love of play.
Decadance finds endless ways in which to amuse himself. There is chase-the-chickens, into sliding-stop, spin-and-buck, and racehorse-gallop. Not very good for his hocks and stifles, but fun to watch, nevertheless. A saddle pad neglected on the wash rack is clenched between his teeth. He shakes it back and forth and back and forth, then tosses it in the air. He watches as it falls, and places his hoof on top of it. Lowering his head, he grabs it in his teeth again and pulls. The material tears and he stops and listens, then pulls at it some more. A similar fate befalls the occasional polo wrap. Beware of tools left unattended, and your grooming tote. They are lifted, moved, and transported to random locations around the pasture.
Like the desire for food, sleep, or sex, the drive for play is internally generated. Zoologist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz speculates the play drive assists animals in learning which instinctive behaviors are appropriate in a given situation. Sociobiologist Peter Klopfer further theorizes play stimulates proprioception and freedom of movement. Animals that play a lot learn to navigate through their world and adapt to it. Play provides for motor skill coordination. Play is crucial to our brain development.
Scientists make a distinction between exploratory behavior and play. Exploration is information seeking. It provides information about the environment. Leave a gate open, and Decadance will walk through it. Place something down in his pasture, and he will investigate it. He is intensely curious about everything. Exploratory behavior and object play are closely tied and often difficult to separate. Object play is stimulus seeking and follows investigation. Exploration asks, "What is it?" Object play asks, "What can I do with it?"
Robert Fagen, author of "Animal Play Behavior" writes that most studies of object play find it is limited in horses. Apparently, he has not been studying Decadance!
I have two goals for the games we play together. I want to continue to strengthen the muscles of his hind end. The major muscles of the hind end include the driving muscles of the glutes and hamstrings, the stabilizing muscles of the psoas, and the groin muscles. I've noticed that Decadance will often drag his rear toes. Work over caveletti will help him engage and pick his hind feet up and create new muscle memory.
I also want to work on the acceptance of the contact. The slightest hint of restriction sends Decadance into a frenzy. The loosest setting on my rubber donut side reins still set him into a head flipping panic mode. Time to get creative; I use short pieces of a light resistance band to create loops attached to the surcingle rings. I attach the side reins to the resistance band loops which provide enough elasticity to prevent contact claustrophobia. I do not attach the lunge rope to the bridle but to a halter; he needs to be able to work within the framework of bit and side reins free of outside interference.
We use the whole arena and begin without attaching the side reins. We start out walking straight lines and 20 m circles. I move with him, which is not classically correct, but allows for greater influence. I move faster, he moves faster, I stop, he stops. We change direction with just the turning of my shoulders. We transition in and out of trot and canter. We take a break and set up several caveletti, sometimes on the four points of a 20 m circle, other times at A, C, E and B. We walk and trot over the caveletti in both directions and stop and rest again.
Now the side reins are attached and the conversation about contact begins. At first, Decs hesitates to move freely forward. As he grows more comfortable with the contact, you can see the power coming through from behind, up and over his back, recycled not restricted by the bridle. He grows to trust the elasticity of the frame. We use the whole arena, trot over caveletti, transition in and out of canter. We take a break and unhook the side reins, stretch out his neck and just relax. Round two, side reins are hooked back up again and we play trot-caveletti-canter-transition-trot some more. After a few rounds, and while he is still enjoying himself, we call it quits and finish.
Dr. Wendy Ying watched one of our recent play sessions. It is helpful for her to see him in motion. Her comment, "He looks so happy!" spoke directly to my heart. It's just a small step forward in the grand scheme of things, but we are making progress on the way to a willing horse.