Peeling the onion

For some time now, I have been peeling away the physical and mental defects that resulted from Tally’s ill-fated time at a trainer in

Tally modeling her side-pull bitless bridle - really just a glorified halter.
Tally modeling her side-pull bitless bridle – really just a glorified halter.

2013. With each layer removed, I encounter previously masked new issues. Since we are only just returning to the state she was at when she went there, I have her prior behavior and reactions to measure against. This helps me determine whether the issue is a result of that experience or just “who she is”.  By far the toughest issue to resolve has been her reflexive bracing against any touch of the bit. Attempts at reconditioning, even with the softest bit, have failed thus far. In a bold experiment, I have switched to a “side-pull” bitless bridle (more on this decision when I can report on its success or failure). As part of this reconditioning effort, I decided that some long-lining/ground driving was in order – and thus I discovered another layer of the onion.

When Tally was sent to the trainer, she had rudimentary ground driving skills. We had practiced basic steering and stops, and even taken brief walks out back, with me steering from behind. As with most green horses, her biggest issue was accepting that I was occasionally out of visual range – causing some confusion and insecurity. However, I had not encountered any serious issues in the work we’d done.  Unfortunately, I knew that the trainer had used ground driving – for leverage in solving the flexion issues, as well as attempting to address Tally’s insecurity about one end of the arena.  I was prepared that I might encounter some fallout from this … and I did!

The trouble began with our first step.  After attaching the lines, I moved back and to her left, asking her to walk on in a circle left – she turned her neck to the right and plowed forward, ignoring any pressure on the left rein.  In fact, the more pressure on the left rein, the further she bent her neck and head to the right!  At this point I was very grateful for the bitless bridle.  I know that sounds strange, since it gives me very little “power” – but it also meant I could do little harm.  I needed to break her conditioned responses, and I could do that without inflicting unintentional pain or repeating past experiences.

For a number of minutes I was dragged around the arena, traveling right while I hung on to the left rein.  Never, with the dozens of horses I have long lined over the years, have I ever experienced such an extreme and defensive reaction.  She was physically and mentally locking me out.  As luck would have it, she eventually maneuvered to a place where she was forced to bear left, and I immediately dropped the left rein.  She stopped … lots of praise!  This same scenario repeated the next couple of times I asked her to walk forward and left.  On the fourth attempt, we only traveled a couple of strides to the right before we were suddenly making that left turn.

Now that I had her going left, we practiced – straight, turn, straight, turn.  She occasionally returned to bearing right when asked for a left turn. Each time, I just kept the pressure on the rein, releasing it immediately that she made any shift left.  And so we went, making a couple of stops for big praise and carrot.  As soon as my attempts were getting some positive response, I decided to end by going briefly to the right.  I assumed this would be easier and bring us to a quiet end for the day.  Never assume!

We made the right turn with only slight resistance, but once pointed in the new direction she came to an immediate halt.  I gave her a moment,

Tally, just after her fit, wondering what to do next.
Tally, just after her fit, wondering what to do next.

then clucked to walk.  Her head came up, but feet did not move.  Another cluck and a gentle swing of the lunge whip, in her general direction but nowhere near touching her, and the tension that had not fully subsided suddenly exploded!  From a dead stand, she went straight up and unloaded both barrels straight back – twice!  Upon landing, she took one leap forward and hit the end of the lines.  I yielded enough to allow her to continue forward, which she did in what I can only described as a combination jig and hop.  I kept the reins loose, following her angry hops and just talking softly.  Less than thirty feet later she just stopped, turned and gave me the most puzzled expression.  I gave her a moment, and we walked on.

We’ve had a few sessions since that first try at long lining.  Each session has shown

By our third session, she's relaxed enough for some sightseeing.
By our third session, she’s relaxed enough for some sightseeing.

amazing improvement.  We had minor repeats of the same issues in the second session.  By the third session, she was turning on a slight touch, and it took only slightly more pressure to stop.  We’re now confident enough to venture out from the arena and take in the sights!

The drama that arises from each new layer of damage I uncover can take me by surprise – but experience has taught me that we will overcome.  This confidence has taken me past the point of fretting each time, and keeps me focused on finding a solution.  The key, in this case, was to wait for her.  It felt as though she was expecting a battle, and I never gave her one.  She was also expecting pain.  Although the bitless bridle can cause some pressure, it is far from the level of pain that can be inflicted by the bit – so it gave me the opportunity to keep the pressure on (for the left turn or halt) without hitting the pain trigger she was expecting.  The speed of improvement on the long lines gives me confidence that I’m on the right track for reconditioning her iron mouth – only time and miles will tell.

Be good to your horses!


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