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Stop Insisting And Start Assisting

When you're a busy trainer like me, you gotta find unique ways to keep horses worked and on schedule. One of my favorite ways to do that is by ponying. It allows me to work on 2 horses with 2 completely different goals during the same exercise.

Professor has about 45 days of training on him. He is a mellow horse, more whoa than go, and is without any bad habits aside from being lazy at times. He is at the stage in his training where he needs to begin developing true independence on trail. For many horses, 45 days would be way too soon but professor is wise beyond his years. He is a steady mount, a lot like Davidson. Nothing phases this kid.

Unfortunately, a lazy horse can be difficult to put on trail alone. They get their feet stuck a lot and protest the request to move forward if another horse isn't with them. Professor loves to lead when on trail, but it is with the stipulation that other horses are with him. He's the kind of horse that needs a more experienced mount to motivate him to go, but once he is moving it's smooth sailing.

For a trainer, this can put you in a weird position. You can attempt the solo trail ride knowing you are about to burn 1300 calories doing the epileptic starfish on their back. You can kick, pad pop, rein tap, kiss kiss, beg, swear and pray but it is going to be a fight. A lot of people would say to put spurs on, but I'm just not that kind of trainer. If I can find a way to make the horse go without 'em, I will. (No offense to those of you who wear them - I think they are only as harsh as the person using them, but I gotta remember, this horse belongs to a green owner. I have to try and hand him my toolbox at the end of training, and spurs shouldn't be a greenie tool.)

In a case like this, before I ever attempt that solo ride, I need to convince Professor that he is the lead horse; build his confidence a bit and let him think he is calling some shots. I need him to feel more like my partner than my student. Otherwise, I run the risk of building resentment when I start my starfish dance. A horse doesn't enjoy standing there getting heels in his sides anymore than we enjoy doing it....but self preservation is a strong instinct to overcome when you are asking a young horse to leave their herd.

My secret weapon? A younger, greener horse.

I started putting Professor with Mija in the round pen a couple of days ago. I watched the dynamic to be sure Professor had the upper hand. He was smitten, but dominant. A PERFECT match!

Yesterday, I took Professor on a trail ride with Mija in tow. We had Lyric, an experienced trail horse with us for safety and guidance. By bringing Mija along, it gives Professor a natural form of leadership. It helps him deal with multi-tasking, increased sensory and at times chaos. He's got to think on his feet, work as a team and in his mind, is no longer the submissive being beneath me. He now has some control. He can get after her when she goes too fast, cut her off if she bolts up, or turn a hip to her if she climbs on us. He becomes an extension of me. He wont have time to think about stopping if he is focused on doing his new job.

At the same time, Mija, who can be a bossy but insecure mare is learning to build confidence by being out on trail and exposed to all of the crazy shit I seem to run into. She has no choice but to take the back seat to Professor as I am positioning her at my knee until he picks up on correcting her himself. Like Professor, Mija will also learn to deal with sensory overload, multi-tasking, and accepting social cues from other horses on trail with her. All of this will help transition Mija when it comes time to take her on trail.

Over the next week or so we will build on his ponying skills (I already saw a huge difference in his motivation with just one ride). Eventually we will phase Lyric out, she will drop to the back and Professor will have to work on his leading. By giving him this job and position, I am making life much easier on him and me when it comes time to go on that solo ride. He will already be used to thinking on his own, moving forward with confidence and it begins the change from a teacher/student relationship to partners.

When you're on trail, you want a horse who can think for you when you might not see what is ahead. A horse who can alert you to danger without bolting, a horse who can say, "no way Jose, there is a rattle snake in that bush and I aint budging!" If you have a horse that fights you to move, how will you know the difference?

These exercises will eventually help me to differentiate what is 'lazy vs. what is of concern up ahead' as Professor gains some more experience. Yes, we want a horse to move forward when we ask them to...but you also want a horse to tell you when it's not a good idea. If you're too busy doing the starfish, you might not realize your horse saw something you didn't. I don't want to create an anxious horse who has to pick the lesser of 2 evils - spurs or a snake. Instead, I want a confident horse who is willing to move forward knowing I am willing to listen when they don't.

It might be the road less traveled, but I'm the only person to have ridden this horse and I sure as hell won't be the one to ruin him. If I can create a happy, secure and motivated animal while training another - it's win/win! It might take a little longer, and be a little more work but these horses are worth mentally preserving. I refuse to break the spirit of a horse just to achieve results and save time.

We have enough damaged horses out there. Challenge yourself to find ways to build on your training by slowing things down, step outside of the box, breathe and take off the pressure. Training should be fun. Stop insisting and assist them. Your horses will thank you