(reprinted from the January 2015 Dancing Horse News)
A lesson I learned this year was taught by Taffy, of course. He taught me that even though he seemed to trust me enough to allow me to help him through his fear in most situations, the fact that he didn't trust me to help him in every situation was glaringly problematic at Regional Championships this year. Of course, I never expected the 1350 pound prey animal with a highly developed flight mechanism that I choose to ride to stop keeping track of his environment to protect his life. However, I did think that even when those times happened, he would look to me for more support and confidence than he did in the Rolex Arena. So, I've spent the weeks since then building an even stronger relationship with him by giving him ever more options for working through those moments of fear systematically.
Using treat-based encouragement and never pushing him beyond his stretch zone (I avoid his panic zone at all costs), I've been able to build his confidence and trust so that when he is afraid and he stands quietly near the scary thing, he gets a cookie. Then, inch by inch, he steps closer and closer to the scary thing instead of bolting or shying, getting a cookie for every brave step. When he reaches the scary thing, he now reaches out and touches it with his nose then turns to proudly look at me and ask for his cookie. I've been amazed at the new level of confidence this work has given him, evident in everything he does--even standing in his stall! To really work through this, I've taken us out of the protective bubble I used to work him in so that we could actually get some work done, and brought the scary things right inside the indoor arena.
I now have gobs of flower pots with overflowing flowers of every variety and color, 3' tall flowers, trailing flowers, billowy flowers, grassy flowers, pointy flowers, and some pots even have 1'x2' American flags stuck in them that blow in the slightest wind, or blow of Taffy's nose. Every day, one of my staff moves the flower pots to different places and creates impressive arrangements using my BLOKS and lattice show arena letter holders. We've also brought in a vinyl jump enhancer that looks like a brick wall and attached it to a pole that goes horizontally across one of the doors, so that it resembles a banner attached at fence height.
All of these additions have shrunk the amount of time Taffy and I have each day to get "dressage" work done since we spend however long it takes him to be mentally and emotionally OK with his environment. The time investment has proven already to be well worth it because the improvement in how Taffy (and all the other horses at DHF) deal with seeing new, strange things is impressive! Now, when things change, move, blow around, etc, Taffy acknowledges the scary thing and 85% of the time walks (sometimes more boldly than others) over to it and eventually touches it. Once he can stand next to the scary thing and has enough brain space to do simple tasks like flex his neck left and right and rein back, then I ask him to process it under slightly increasing pressure, first walking up to and past it, then trot, then canter. Once he can handle this series of requests, I am astonished how quickly he becomes completely okay for the entirety of the ride, each success earning him a coveted cookie, of course!
I realize that he will always be a more reactive horse to external stimuli than another horse due to his horribly "close encounter" with a manure spreader (see Taffy's Story for the full account), but I feel that this time has given him a new set of options for processing through those moments when the environment seems overwhelming. As long as I can be in the moment with him, at least for now, he is looking to me for more support and guidance proven by the fact that today he quietly and confidently walked, trotted and cantered beside our big red container that used to send him reeling backwards and sideways if asked to go within 50 feet of it. Whew! Next is testing this work in the show arena!
Jennifer Truett, owner and head trainer at Dancing Horse Farm, Lebanon OH. Jen is a Grand Prix rider and trainer who is one of the few people in USDF history to win all six medals USDF awards: Bronze, Silver and Gold medals and Bronze, Silver and Gold Freestyle Bars.