And I learned the most valuable lesson of all: There is hope. You can retrain horses and recode behaviors. I always knew that in a superficial way, but to really participate in the process is totally different endeavor.
I think it’s important to reiterate that I wasn’t afraid of Gracie’s antics. It’s a totally different ball game if fear is added to the mix. I was frustrated and tired of dealing with it, but her bucks really weren’t a big deal. It took five rides (including three days of instruction with Stephanie), two horsemanship sessions, a few days of jumping, and now I have a different horse. I have a horse that has the GO button firmly installed and is ready to move forward at the slightest command.
I wrote about Gracie a few months ago after I rode her in a clinic with Stephanie Durand. In August Gracie refused to go forward. She bucked, kicked out, and did a host of other intimidation tactics to prevent me from riding her forward. At the end of four days Stephanie had improved Gracie’s desire to go and I could ride her walk, trot, canter around the arena with grouchy faced OTTB ears and a few bucks. It was progress but it was halfhearted progress at only 50%.
Our homework was to do just that – ride walk, trot, canter forward on a loose rein. We made a deal about the leg. I apply it once and then tap tap tap with the whip if she doesn’t respond.
And here’s the disclaimer – prior to that clinic we did everything under the sun (you know, new saddles, shoes, ulcers, body work, chiropractic, healing modalities….the works) to figure out why she wasn’t going forward. Really, some OTTBs just hate the whip and don’t want to go forward. It boils down to retraining and recoding the behavior in tiny little steps. Gracie is also a very dominant and strong horse. Stephanie always mentions how strong she is in her body tension. I think strong is a good word, but not the best description. Gracie’s strength is more like a mix of defensiveness, toughness, and distrust that gives her a little “make me” attitude and “don’t you dare rock the boat”. And if you “dare” do something that rocks the boat – be ready for a reactive horse.
I think I avoided rocking the boat in the past because I knew Gracie would get reactive, and who wants to deal with a reactive thoroughbred? How do you work through things with a reactive horse? Before I didn't have these skills, but Stephanie taught me otherwise. She showed me what to do after I rock the boat, and that made all the difference.
So here’s what we did in November. First, Stephanie was really impressed by Gracie’s improvement. It still wasn’t perfect and she still expressed her displeasure (insert BUCK) about going forward, but we were ready for the next step.
The next step was to teach Gracie how to go forward into contact. All too often a horse slows down when a rider picks up contact. Stephanie had a really neat trick to teach Gracie to go forward into the contact without losing contact or having her slow down. She had me take the reins close to the mane in one hand. This hand acted as a filter. It didn’t really hold the reins with any pressure or direct Gracie where to go, but it acted like a filter that sieved the contact up and down. My other hand was raised to hold the slack of both reins, and this is what I used to maintain contact.
We used the technique of action reaction in this format to teach Gracie to tighten the reins and go forward into the contact. If Gracie raised her head too high then I raised my hand holding the slack, while the filter just remained at the mane just to keep the contact even. It was very awkward, but as soon as she pushed into the contact I could give, lower my hand, and let her tighten the reins. Doing action reaction with two hands requires a very steady and independent seat at the trot. By using one hand as a filter in this method I was able to give Gracie a really steady and even contact. It was either black or white. She was inverted – contact remained – then she pushed into the contact, I gave the rein, and then she stretched into neck extension. It also produced HUGE results. My horse was quickly stretching into neck extension and really moving forward.
On the third day Stephanie decided to take it up a notch and help Gracie find more forward. She set up a series of ground poles on one side of the arena and a small cross rail on the other. The exercise helped Gracie become even more forward. For the first time, in a very long time, I actually felt like I had a horse underneath me. She jumped with enthusiasm and actually picked up speed when directed towards the fences.
After the third day Stephanie said it was enough; that I knew enough to continue with Gracie on my own until the spring. I rode Gracie yesterday and she was very forward and willing to go. Her behavior has dramatically changed and I am thrilled to have a horse that is a pleasure to ride again.