I tried to work with Decadance on Sunday. It was a busy day. I judged a Ride-A-Test in North Fort Myers and finished early enough to teach a few lessons at home. Danielle, who lives in the neighborhood, rode over on Zanzibar, her quarter horse gelding who she is showing (quite successfully) in Western Dressage. After her lesson, Danielle turned Zanzibar out in a paddock adjacent to my dressage arena, a nice grassy area with a large pond meandering through the center. Zanzibar strolled happily off to graze, and Danielle and I grabbed Decadance out of the back pasture.
After a quick grooming, we tacked up Decadance and I lunged him briefly. He was obedient enough, but his ears signaled his displeasure. He made both Danielle and I laugh at his snarky attitude. Hadn't I worked him once already this week?
After walk, trot and canter both directions on the lunge, Danielle mounted. I asked Decs to move off. He took a few steps, whirled and spun, snorting, head up in the air, nostrils flaring. Danielle was prepared and stayed seated, as Decadance froze, trembling. He stared at the front paddock intently. Zanzibar was strolling along the bank of the pond. Decadance was checked out, tuned out, and completely, totally, absolutely afraid.
There was no rhyme or reason for the intensity of his reaction. Zanzibar had been there the whole time; Decs had seen him, watched him as we lunged up and down the arena. But, frightened Decadance was, quivering violently from head to tail.
In those moments, it's hard not to be discouraged. We'd been making progress slowly, and I'd hoped for another successful session. Was this just misbehavior, a new twist on disobedience? No, this was fear albeit without, to my mind, reason. De-escalating it had now become my main priority.
First on the list, keep everyone safe. Danielle dismounted (gladly) and I asked Decadance to walk off quietly. Instead, Decadance trotted half a circle right, stopped suddenly and froze, facing me. I reassured him, speaking gently. He trotted left, stopped turned, trotted right. Back and forth, stopping, turning; when that didn't work, he tried running. Not a canter, but a gallop, faster and faster around the circle.
If he really tried to, escape was possible, all that contained him was a soft cotton line. But, he stayed with me and eventually settled, as I questioned, can I do this? Should I do this? Is this all just wasted time? Is it folly to think I can retrain him, reach him, ride him? Could we, would we, ever walk, trot and canter like a normal horse?
Two days later, I try again. I've thought a lot about the experience on Sunday. I understand there is very little a horse learns in a state of such overwhelming panic. What it demonstrated to me was a weakness in the foundation of our training. Decadance needed to learn how to separate fear from a state of discomfort. In training, a question is asked, an aid given, and pressure applied. There's naturally a stage of discomfort. A correct choice made, the reward, the release, and a return back to comfort. Fear invokes a physical state that makes focus difficult. For Decadance, the training process in the past too often involved pain and thus panic How to keep him from fear, and ask training questions without being threatening? I must remove any negative associations.....
Why not try riding bit-less?
I grab my Monty Roberts dually halter and attach reins to the rings located on either side of the rope noseband. I get on Decadance and ask him to walk forward. A little puzzled, he obliges, and we wander around in the arena. Now, the test....ask for trot. Will we flip our head and spin sideways? No, although the trot is sporadic, reluctant, and we break into a brief canter. He's hesitant, cautious, and anxious, and yet remains quietly under control.
As his confidence swells, his strides grow more freely forward. His tail swings; his neck stretches. You can see it, feel it, as he relaxes, lengthens, and let's go. There's no ducking, darting, no attitude...no fight, no fear, no foul.
Hope restored, I think, yes, I can do this; I want to do this! I truly love this horse!
"Never give up on something you can't go a day without thinking about," Winston Churchill