This pretty boy's name is Rawhide. He arrived a couple weeks ago for training, after coming to me initially for an evaluation. What we know of his history is sparse, but he's been fairly willing to confide in me what he understands and doesn't. During his first visit when we did his evaluation, I took him to the round pen and removed his halter and lead rope. I had been told by his humans what they knew of his story, but I wanted to give Rawhide a chance to tell me himself.
I know this kind of conversation with a horse sounds strange, but they communicate significant amounts of information to me through their body language. Rawhide was very friendly with me, and despite not having a halter or lead rope on he was willing to follow me around the round pen, wanting to stick close by my side. At one point he paused to sniff some manure in the sand, and I continued to walk away. When he looked up and I was gone, he hurried over to me at the trot. This told me that he trusted me, and was willing to stay with me and sought me for comfort in a new situation despite me also being new to him.
After I'd properly introduced myself to him in the round pen, I put his halter back on and proceeded to lunge him both directions. This was to assess how he responded to my voice commands (his owner has done extensive ground work with him), and see how well he could balance himself on a circle. He's twelve years old and so has a better control and balance with his body than the average baby horse. However, he struggled with maintaining his gaits when tracking right, and had difficulty with staying in the canter both directions.
Next was evaluating him under saddle. I don't always do this portion of an evaluation on the first day, but I knew his owner had thoroughly practiced ground work with him over the past year. He had come mostly so we could find out what he knew about riding, and then he stayed to learn more. One interesting observation was that he seemed concerned about my metal stirrup irons. He eventually relaxed about them and let me ride. Later rides showed me that he was concerned about the metal irons because he was worried about spurs. I rarely ride with spurs, and he has figured that out, but it was very telling that he spent so much time shoving the metal with his nose before I got on, and after my feet were in them.
It turned out that Rawhide knew very little. He had perhaps a teaspoon of knowledge regarding how to be a riding horse. He stood quietly at the mounting block for me to mount and dismount from both sides, which was nice. But once I was aboard he had no idea what to do from there. When I bumped him with my legs he would turn his head around and snurffle his nose up and down my legs asking what on earth I meant by it. I was able to bridge that gap with the voice command, "walk on", and got him going that way. I got a little bit of trot work both directions, and then I quit.
We decided to leave Rawhide here at Bit of Honey Training to see what he could learn in a month, and hopefully by then be able to recommend whether he would be a suitable mount for his owner or not. Over the course of the next two weeks we went from walking and trotting in the round pen to walking, trotting, cantering, and doing circles and serpentines in the arena. Rawhide is probably half quarter horse and half mustang, and I definitely see the mustang mind in this horse. As a very intelligent creature, he is smart enough to both learn quickly, and attempt to get his own way about things.
Rawhide is always ready to argue, but when I don't engage with him he settles down nicely. He seems puzzled that I don't get wound up about things, and that if he makes mistakes it just earns him another try. I started him as I do most of my horses under saddle, with a simple routine we repeat every day. Grooming at the barn, tacking up, going to the round pen or arena, lunging a little bit, mounting and walking, trotting, cantering, practicing starts and stops, then walking back to the barn when we are done.
I do things in this same order because it gives the horse a chance to feel confident since they always know what's coming next. This is really important in the beginning so the horse can anticipate what the "right" answer is to each of my cues. Today was his seventh ride total, and he decided to get it done in a hurry. I mounted and when I asked him to trot he did for a length of the arena, then burst into a canter. His thought was to hurry up and get his canter work done then he could go back to breakfast sooner. I let him canter on a circle until he slowed down, and then resumed my trot work doing figures. Then we did our starts and stops (which would normally be last).
When I asked him for canter work he was confused, and didn't want to work anymore. He figured he had already cantered at the beginning, and we had done our starts and stops, so he was done. I insisted that he at least try to give me a canter in both directions. He responded by trotting faster. I gently encouraged him to pick up the canter coming out of each short end, and eventually he did it. There were a few bucks each direction as he protested the work, but ultimately he did do what I asked.
He's an interesting one, because he is smart enough to realize when I've changed the order of things in our routine. He also is always ready to argue. If I were to get rough with him, or even be too liberal with my crop or spurs, I have no doubt he would blow. Since I don't fight with horses, so far we've had success. It's always in the back of my mind, though, that this horse is one to be careful with for safety reasons. He's learning fast, but I'm still doing a tremendous amount to balance him and diffuse his tension. Hopefully as time passes and he makes more progress he'll realize that riding can be fun, and his confrontational tendencies will abate. In the meantime I'll continue to be careful with him, praise all his good efforts, and this week we should get to riding out in the back forty!