Over the last month, most of my riding has been done during the late morning since I had several weeks off for Christmas. I also administered some Ace and the Fluphenazine. This past weekend, I had three days off (thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and was able to ride three consecutive days in the late morning. By the third day, Monday, Sydney was absolutely fantastic. I had a lesson that day and even JL was impressed by his mellow mood and loose body. I crowed about his success and knew we were over the mountain. Show season here we come!
I worked late on Tuesday and couldn't make it to the barn. Wednesday brought me back to my regular 4:00 barn visit. I try to be saddled by 4:15 and riding by 4:30. This gives me a good 45 minutes of riding time before the daylight disappears. Wednesday also brought out the old, tense, worried Sydney. Really? What the heck? I was completely baffled and couldn't offer any explanation for the complete and total transformation. I chalked up his behavior to the single day off.
To my horror, Thursday's ride was identical. His neck and body were so stiff that he essentially pivoted off his hind end. No amount of rein rocking, counter bending, or cantering could loosen his body. I was completely and utterly dejected and started thinking that maybe selling him was my only option. I came home in a pretty dark mood. Off topic interjection: it was that same evening that my wonderful Hubby surprised me with roses, a bottle of red wine, and some luscious chocolates. It might be that his offering allowed my brain to shift gears.
I continued to mull over the situation and asked myself what had changed between Monday and Wednesday? Even though I am puzzled, I know there has to be an explanation for Sydney’s sudden changes in behavior. I mean really, he’s not a schizophrenic and he’s not trying to ruin my life. So what might possibly be different between the weekend rides and the after work rides? Could it have something to do with dinner time?
With that particular thought, a gargantuan light bulb flashed in my head. It makes perfect sense. It’s not that he’s starving at dinner time, Sydney is well fed and always has hay scattered in his stall, but he must feel the same sense of anticipation of fresh hay that all horses feel. Our evening feeding is done by the neighbor. They feed their own horses first so the horses in our barn know when dinner is about to appear. It’s not always that I am still riding as dinner is being fed, but Sydney certainly knows that meal time is fast approaching.
I wanted to give my new theory a test on Friday evening, but frankly, I was beat after a busy work week and was just not in the mood to fight an anxious, naughty horse. Instead, I turned Sydney out while I cleaned stalls. The neighbor’s barn was quiet. Sydney started out with a few jogs and a roll, and then he started moseying about. Little by little I started to see his anxiety level rise. It didn’t look fear based. At all. He looked pissed. The neighbor started to feed and the squealing and kicking out began. I grabbed my lunge whip and headed out into the arena.
Since the right lead canter is weaker, I sent Sydney away from the gate tracking right. Every time he tried to stop or slam on the brakes near the fence closest to the gate or barn, I clucked and gave the lunge whip a small crack. While he galloped away, I lowered the whip and stood quietly. I let him buck and run wherever he wanted, but I guarded the gate and fence. Any time he bee-lined for the gate, I sent him to the right with a cluck and snap of the lunge whip.
My, oh, my - what a tantrum he threw! Once he figured out that he couldn’t pace the fence line, he started ranging farther and farther from the gate and fence in an angry gallop. When he circled back to the fence and gate, I simply got in his way and redirected him OUT. I wasn’t aggressive about it, but I also held my position and firmly said, NO!
It didn’t take him long to figure out that he wasn’t coming back to the gate. His frantic galloping became a softer canter that turned into a trot. When he stopped, I stopped. I invited him to me, but he didn’t quite understand my invitation. Instead, he stopped and stood somewhere near the middle of the arena, lowered his head, and turned to look at me. I waited. He waited. I approached him quietly and he stood still for me. I patted his shoulder and started walking to the opposite fence line. He quietly fell in step beside me. I slowly turned and made my way to the gate, grabbed my halter, and slid it on.
And no, he didn’t get to go back to his stall. We walked side by side all around the arena. I asked him to move away from me with my body. When he got forward, I lightly swung the rope and smacked the top of his nose. He quickly dropped back and put his nose just behind my shoulder. We did this until his breathing was quiet and his attention was completely on me. I patted his neck, gave him several good boys and returned him to his stall with no hay. During the wild galloping, I had asked the neighbor to let me do the evening feeding.
My plan is now two fold. I think I want to be the one to give Sydney his dinner when I am at the barn. I want him to return to his stall each evening to find it empty. I will be the one to fill his feeder. I am hoping that he will see that dinner comes from me. Maybe this will diminish his anxiety about missing out and maybe he’ll see that there is no rush to get to his stall. Secondly, I plan to hang a hay bag while I am tacking up so that he feels as though he’s already had his dinner. Again, maybe this will diminish his anxiety about missing out.
Form a theory, develop a hypothesis, test it, draw a conclusion. Who knew the scientific method would have anything to do with dressage?