This afternoon was beautiful at Bit of Honey Training. My working student came over this week and she helped me finally build my bridge. Our old bridge didn't survive the move to the new facility last fall. The poles were still in the round pen with the jump and my rope gate (lunge line tied between jump standards). Then we moved the tarp and mailbox to the round pen and voila - trail course!
Dewey and I sorted through my vast tack collection and found a dressage saddle that fits him. After I tacked him up we went to the round pen to ride. I introduced the newly built bridge to him and let him snurrfle around the tarp, then we lunged and had our usual WILD seven minutes of romping. After he was done playing he turned into a quiet pleasure horse, and I mounted at the block.
Dewey was great - after his dental work this week his mouth was much quieter, and he really was looking for my hands for contact with the bit. He liked the dressage saddle I was using today, too, and lifted his back nicely into it, stretching his hind legs up underneath himself.
Naturally I had Miles and Mahzi the dogs with me to help, and Miles is wonderful about demonstrating to Dewey what he's supposed to be doing. Miles knows all the cues: voice commands (walk, trot, canter) and their accompanying sounds (clicking, kissing, breaths). When I would ask Dewey to do something Miles was right there with us to demonstrate for Dewey.
Dewey and I had a good time walking, trotting, and cantering. Leads are still tricky for him, but considering this was only his third ride at Bit of Honey I'm not concerned. We rode over the tarp, jump, poles, bridge, then played with the mailbox and the rope gate. The rope gate was familiar to him because we had schooled with it while I was on the ground before I could ride him, but it definitely felt different to him with me on his back.
I walked him up to one end of the rope and asked him to halt. I then leaned over his shoulder a little and stretched my arm out for the rope. He was a bit startled by my leaning and the hand reaching out like a predator claw. It's important to keep in mind that a horse is hard-wired for running away from perceived danger, that's how they have stayed alive for thousands of years as prey animals. They run from the mountain lion. The thoroughbred horses, as a breed, generally have a particularly strong flight instinct, since they have been bred to run so humans can race them. Because of this tendency, it's necessary to keep Dewey thinking about how to solve a puzzle, rather than making him nervous by forcing an issue. It doesn't work to just tire him out. If I were to attempt to exhaust him, we would be working for an awfully long time, since a horse can go much longer on adrenaline than I can! Horses are much more prone to injury when they are worked in a panicked state as well, so keeping him calm is simply in everyone's best interest.
Since Dewey was a little hesitant about me leaning and reaching, we just repeated that a bunch of times before I tried to remove the rope from the pole. To bridge the gap between "Kim on the ground with the rope gate" and "Kim on my back at the rope gate" I had a friend lift the rope up and down a few times so he could see it moving without me leaning or reaching. Once he realized it was the same rope and nothing to worry about he let my friend hand me the rope. We took a couple steps forwards and then backed a few steps, and handed the rope back to her. We took a break and walked a lap around the gate, then repeated the process. I also practiced lifting it from both Dewey's left and right sides.
Going slowly like this, letting Dewey reason through the task, worked really well. It's a classic case of "fast is slow and slow is fast". Within a few minutes I was able to ride him up to the gate, lift the rope, walk through the gate, and replace the rope. We even got ourselves into a little bit of an awkward position, and I asked him to sidepass to the right so I could replace the rope. We had not tried sidepassing before, but Dewey knew what I wanted by the gentle leg pressure and where I had positioned my weight. So despite being one-handed and neck reining, he just carefully stepped first his front legs and then his back legs to the right, lining us up precisely with the pole.
I was very proud of Dewey today, and while he definitely was sporting some "brain sweat" (my affectionate term for sweating around the ears), he seemed proud of himself, too.