One Step Foward, One Step Back

It was a pretty chilly night and I awoke to the first real frozen ground this winter. I had roofers coming again bright and early, but I was hoping that once it warmed up some I could get out and try a training session with my new gear. I had to wait until about 1:30, at which point I went out and caught Dharla and slipped on her new rope halter. As expected, she was very “head up” and snorty. *Sigh* Arabians. You just can’t slip anything by them.

I put Dharla in her stall, threw the buckskin a flake of hay, grabbed the rest of my gear then went and got my horse. We cut across the paddock, out the main gate and began our walk down the road to the riding ring. Our ring is down behind our house and the only access to it is via the back road. It can’t be seen by the horses at the barn, though if they holler (and Bullet always does) the sound carries down through the valley and we can hear him calling. Dharla is quite familiar with this routine … we’ve done it a gazillion times, but she still has to blow and snort and look all around in case some evil Mountain Lion decides to suddenly leap out of the woods and eat her.

Once we got down to the ring I began with the rope desensitizing exercise. Basically, this involves casting a long rope over the back and around the front and hind legs of the horse repeatedly. It doesn’t hurt them, but teaches them to stand and hold their ground when something “scary” touches them. Dharla does great with this exercise and always has so I’m guessing it was done with her before I got her. She sometimes raises her head a bit the first few tosses, but usually relaxes and licks her lips soon after. I work this exercise from both sides until she’s calmly accepting the rope anywhere on her body.

Next, I move to using the stick. I rub Dharla with the stick all over, looking for any “Don’t touch me there” spots. She’s a little “heady” so when I move up her neck I usually find a DTMT spot and work it until she relaxes. The premise is similar to the exercise above and I do this from both sides.

After that I moved to something I haven’t done with Dharla before. Moving the hindquarters. Here, you use the stick to tap on the horse’s butt, increasing pressure every 4th tap until they submit and step their close side hind foot under their body and in front of their off side hind foot. A multitude of things can “go wrong” and it takes a bit of coordination to operate the stick, manage the horse and stay with them if they move. I had no idea how Dharla would react, so I began by tapping her rump gently and rhythmically, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 … increasing pressure after every 4th tap. It took about one and a half sets before Dharla quickly moved her hindquarters a step away from me. I was very pleased!

We worked on this exercise, getting to where I could ask Dharla to move her hindquarters three steps before I stopped tapping. After each success, I’d rub her rump with the tip of the stick, just like in the exercise before. She did very well, actually better than I had dared hope. I tried using less and less pressure and looking to see if she would move away sooner. I had moderate success, which means (to me) that we’ll need to do this a good bit more before she begins to develop a better sensitivity to it. She was indeed less responsive and cooperative on her other side, but that’s not unusual. She had a tendency to want to walk forward instead of stepping away with her hind end, so I tried to use the fence to block her forward motion. I’m going to review the DVD again tonight and see what Clinton said about how to fix that.

Overall, I was pleased with what we did. After that, I put Dharla on the longe line and we did some walk/trot circles in various parts of the ring. I have a length of PVC pipe laid in one corner of the arena, partly to desensitize her to foreign objects in the ring and partly to use as a cavaleti. I had her trot over that several times since it’s been awhile since we’ve been down in the ring. First time near it she hit the brakes and had to snort, but after that she figured out it wasn’t a big deal. Grrr. I find myself wondering when she’ll stop with the everything scares me routine, but I don’t have any answers for that.

After that I tacked up and went out for what I thought would be just a brief trail ride. Turns out I ended up with a bit of a battle on my hands because icicles are lethal aliens and can’t be passed. Ahem.

We live alongside one of those railroads that was converted into a State Linear Park. The Airline Trail (ALT)was widened to about eight feet and covered with stone dust. It passes through a corridor of this state that has quite a varied topography, which means there are many different things to see on this trail. Sometimes we must ride through places where the old rail bed was literally carved out of bedrock and steep rock walls rise about 2-3 stories on both sides of the trail.

That doesn’t make a horse feel real comfortable and in the places where the rock ledge is on both sides, a horse can get feeling kind of “squeezed.” Naturally, there’s lots of water in the form of small streams, puddles and even springs that seep and drip from the rock walls in places. In fact, in one area there’s a beautiful waterfall that gushes down the face of the rocks right next to the trail.

In another spot we have to pass bright blue picnic tables and benches right alongside the trail.


Believe me when I say that some of these things were very new and intimidating for Dharla, not to mention having to learn to cope with bicyclists whizzing past us form both directions and baby strollers being pushed by people who were usually walking with dogs of all shapes and sizes. I spent many rides just working on desensitizing Dharla to all these things, but the worst of our obstacles have turned out to be things I never in a million years would have dreamed would be such a problem.

And that’s only one of the trails I ride routinely! Believe it or not, that’s probably the easiest trail of them all, too. But all this stuff was new to Dharla when I brought her home last April. Granted, she was a “started” young horse, but the type of trail riding I would begin to expose her to here, was nothing like anything she’d experienced in her short life back where she was born and raised.

It turns out Dharla’s biggest trail issues are with odd things. She continues to be very uncomfortable by the steep rock cliffs that we pass through in several places along the AL Trail. Water was a HUGE issue in the beginning. I mean, I spent literally a ton of time just trying to desensitize her enough so she would step over a puddle or walk through a damp spot on the trail. Our first few real stream crossings caused a real battle of whits. But I persevered (and won) because you can’t trail ride anywhere here if you can’t deal with all different kinds of water.

Dead brush continues to be an occasional forward-motion stopper. Then we had that freak October snow storm that brought down tons of branches still bearing leaves. The town parks department sent workers out on the AL Trail and they pushed all the downed branches off to the sides of the trail. Now those branches have dead, brown leaves still on them that rattle like snakes in the breeze. Oh joy. Needless to say, we get lots of exposure to these things on every ride, which is good, but sometimes …. to the moon, Dharla!

Today’s issue? Icicles. I mean, really! With the weather turning suddenly colder the water that seeps down the front of the rock ledges has frozen into a beautiful display of icicles, which apparently Dharla has never seen in her life. Suddenly, she hit the brakes and stood head up, stock still. She blew loudly through her nose. I knew what her problem was right away, but I didn’t expect such a ridiculously strong reaction. She tried to do a 180 and head for home! Not so fast, little sister!

We circled several tight circles. I was silently grateful that this reaction had occurred in a spot on the trail where I actually could circle her. Sometimes I’m not that lucky. I pulled her out of the circle and asked for forward movement. She locked up again. So we circled more. We did this routine repeatedly as I hoped she’d soon find moving forward when asked much easier than the alternative. And every few circles I inched her a bit further down the trail until eventually, we were circling right next to the icicles. I pulled her out of the circle again, asked for forward movement and lo, she waked on with trepidation. We passed through the icicle area, turned around and walked back past them. Wash, rinse, repeat, until I was satisfied we’d be OK on our way back home.


I must admit, sometimes this gets tedious. I try to have a lot of patience, but I find myself wondering when (if) Dharla will ever become desensitized to all the things we meet out on the trails. I certainly don’t expect perfection, but I’d like to see her start to use the thinking side of her brain more often than the reactive side. I know we’ll get there … it’s only been 8 months.

All in all, It was a good, albeit short and chilly ride. By the time we got back to the barn I was freezing and anxious to get inside and warm up. Tomorrow’s another day!

PS. The horse in the header is/was Tia, my beloved Arabian mare that I lost at age 28,  Jan 2011. I decided to post her picture in the header as a reminder that the finished product is worth the work and the wait. I miss her every day.

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