“Request often, be content with little, reward lavishly.” François Baucher (1796 – 1873)
The day before yesterday I had one of those days as a trainer that I am not proud of. I had a very good in-hand session with Rafonna, the 12 year old Arabian mare, during which she and I communicated very clearly and calmly and she gave me everything I ask for; partly because she is a very willing mare and quite fond of me, but mostly because I was clear and gentle and consistent, while never asking for her to do anything she was not ready for. The session was a pleasure from beginning to end.
Afterward, I went and got Orion out, intending to have just as nice an in-hand session with him, after all, isn’t he the wunderkind? Hasn’t he picked up everything I have ever tried to teach him faster than any other horse I have worked with? Isn’t he the one who is never scared, never overly excited, never a problem? Yes, all of that is true, which just goes to show that a trainer losing his focus can create problems for even the best horse.
All went well at first, he was very compliant and willing. We managed a nice collected walk, shoulder-in on the circle and on the wall, just a nice and relaxed as you could want, neck down and extended when I ask, or elevated with a relaxed poll and mobile jaw when that was my request. Where did I go wrong? Well you may ask.
Things had been going so well that I decided this was a great time to start him on haunches-in, still in-hand. This is not something easy to communicate to the horse, but surely Orion would get it on the first try and in fact, he did take a single step, slightly to the inside with his hind foot the first time I placed him in the position for it. “Excellent!” I thought “He is so smart. Let’s keep at it and by the end of the session he will be doing travers, no problem.”
“Nothing is so dangerous to proper training than quick success.” This is one of my own quotes. I say it to riders all the time. So why did I forget it this day? As one might expect, when I kept pushing Orion to achieve some arbitrary goal AND kept moving the goal further down the field, there was only one possible outcome. He was going to start getting bothered by me continuing to push him and I was going to get so fixated on getting something that I missed the point where I pushed my wonderful, brilliant, willing horse too far and he shut down.
I kept pushing and kept insisting and got more and frustrated. The little devil on my left shoulder kept saying “He almost has it, just keep after him. You can’t stop when you are so close what will he learn from that?” Where the angel, who was supposed to be on duty at my right shoulder, was at this time, I have no idea. I wasn’t until I actually heard myself say out loud “Damn it horse, what is wrong with you?” that I felt the smack upside my head that should have come long before.
I never beat him. I never intentionally scared him, but never the less, I was what was wrong with ‘him’. I formed silly, unrealistic expectations because he has always been so smart and so quick to pick things up. I had not asked Rafonna to do anything beyond what she was happy to do, so why had I pushed Orion harder?
Once I came to my senses again, we worked a few more minutes on walking long and low, and when he finally blew out and let go of the tension I had loaded him with, we stopped, I gave him is treats and I put him back in the pasture.
I gave him a full day off, where I asked nothing of him but that he be a horse and hoped he would not hold the experience against me. Of all the human traits we attribute to horses, a sense of injustice is one I believe does exist. I believe horses do have an understanding of what is unfair, even if it is more like that of a child than an adult. They do hold us accountable when we treat them unfairly.
The next day I saddle him up and rode for about an hour. From the moment I fetched him from the pasture to the instant I released him back to it, he was a perfect horse partner. No look of distrust ever entered his eye. He didn’t hesitate to try to give me what I asked of him, every time I asked, and it was one of the most satisfying rides I have ever had. We did things he did well and we did thing he had struggled with, including travers. All I had to do to correct the issues I had with him last time, was just not demand anything from him.
You see, the other quality humans and horses share is the ability to forgive. In this area I deem them superior to us; or at least to me. Orion forgave me my previous failure and seems to have forgotten it ever happened. It always takes me longer to forgive myself, but because of this, I hope I learn from my mistakes.