Relaxation and Trust: One Month With Thunder

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I’ve had Thunder for a month. My game plan with him is first and foremost to help him relax under saddle. On a trail ride, he’s the happiest fellow around. He knows what’s expected of him (get the rider back to the barn in one piece!); but in a more formal situation, when I’m asking him to trot or halt on command, he acts nervous and confused and sometimes downright annoyed! In one month of riding him, I’ve discovered several big gaps in his training, the worst being trotting and halting. He does neither of those things very well. First let’s cover his weaknesses.

1. Trotting- his old owner cantered him. Pretty much all the time. All he knew how to do was canter. Canter, canter, canter. What is trotting? Poor confused horsey.

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2. Halting- If you ask for a square, prompt halt, he will run right through your hands. Oh sure, if he’s tired and he feels like stopping anyway, he’ll stop. But if you’re headed back to the barn for a snack and a roll in the mud, heck no. Thunder says, “Screw you guys. I’m going home.” When I discovered this little gap in training, I immediately started asking for halts at all the times he didn’t want to halt. He’ll give me six or seven extra strides and completely ignore seat and rein aids before he finally, grudgingly halts, all the while looking wistfully in the direction of the barn. He knows what I’m asking him to do, he just doesn’t want to do it.

Let’s move on to improvements. What has dear old Thunder learned in one month of being asked to do something other than canter through the meadow?

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1. He trots now. I can proudly say that Thunder doesn’t immediately canter with the slightest leg pressure. He goes from walk to trot like a normal horse now! He trotted his first figure eight without breaking gait. It was a proud moment for me. Before, in the rare moments when I could get him to trot, it was a poky, lazy shuffle instead of a busy, working trot. He still tries the lazy trot sometimes but I can get him into an active trot by adding leg. We’ve had some moments of the big strided, swinging his back trot that we’re looking for, but he doesn’t sustain that for long. He’s getting stronger and more balanced with every ride so that will come as his fitness improves (and my own strength and balance). He’s learning that it’s actually easier to just do the work and carry me in balance than it is to hollow and brace and evade. We’re getting there.

2. He’s loads more relaxed. At the walk Thunder will do exactly what he’s supposed to- active steps, relax his neck and accept the contact. He will do serpentines and figure eights and snuffle and chew his bit. I can tell that he’s listening and trying to figure out his job. We do a shit ton of geometry at the walk before I ever ask for the trot. We ride squares, diagonal lines, circles, figure eights and serpentines until I feel like he’s relaxed and thinking. Once I’ve got his attention, we start trotting. The snuffling and bit chewing is starting to happen at the trot too. Where before it was head straight up in the air with crazy eyes and braced back, now it’s a purposeful trot with some stretching down and bit chewing. I honestly think this is the first time in a really long time that he’s been asked to really participate in his rides beyond just going fast and not dumping anybody off. I’m asking for specific, complicated things (like halt right here, right now and I don’t care if dinner is waiting back at the barn).

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I think horses like having a job and like doing it well. Thunder is learning that I ask him to work hard for a few minutes and then he gets his dinner. It’s not a bad gig.

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