The good thing is that once he figures out the lesson, he is foolproof in his execution. When he first came to me in January, there were a lot of holes in his training. He didn't pick up his feet smartly, he wiggled in the cross ties, and he was very protective about his head.
For three months, I did a ton of ground work. He now picks up his feet willingly, lowers his head to be bridled and unbridled, and falls asleep when I groom him. He isn't bothered by the clippers or fly spray, and he waits patiently while I dump in his feed. All in all, he trusts that everything will be okay when I ask for something from the ground.
While I worked him in the side reins with the surcingle and then rode him bareback, things also progressed smoothly. I worked him slowly and methodically. Everything was done just one step at a time. I spent several days just leaning on his back. I added in lying over his back. Then I sat on him for a few days. You get the idea. I gave him lots of time to get used to each little step.
When it came time to saddle and start riding for real, I think I may have rushed it a bit. The "Follow the Fence" thing showed me that I was going too fast for Izzy. After just a few days of riding him with the saddle, he started to show some signs of anxiety. He still stood very quietly for mounting, but once we were walking along or even trotting, he started to flip his head violently, groan, sneeze, and rush forward.
He never bolted or reared, but he did start to balk at going forward, and the head tossing got really bad. The first thing I did was to slow down. I gave my saddle a thorough check (again) and did some tests with my bit. When all of my tack seemed to be in good order, I tried a new approach. I rode Izzy closer to the barn and took a light contact. Before, I had given him a free rein thinking that he would develop some balance on his own.
Shortening my reins helped a lot, but by the third day, the head flipping was back. I decided I needed help. I asked my trainer to come down for a lesson/consultation. She checked over his tack, watched me bridle him, and then we got started.
Within just a minute she had the situation figured out. In her opinion, Izzy trusted what was happening while I was on the ground since I had been so thorough in my ground work, but he seemed very unsure of what was going to happen once I was on board. She suspected that his worry came from what happened while he was with the trainer up north. She worries that they worked him too aggressively with unrealistic expectations.
She instructed me to be very quiet and simply walk him in a very prescribed circle. I was to keep his nose from counter bending and gently ask for a sideways step. Each time he stepped sideways without hurrying, I was to give him a big release with the reins for a stride or two, and then take up the contact again. I was also to insist that he walk rhythmically without hurrying. Everything was about walking in a regular circle while giving to the inside rein.
Both of us got silent and before long, Izzy was calm and relaxed without any head flinging. We continued to walk for a few minutes more until JL could see that his tension was starting to return. She had me stop him and pat him and let him stand quietly. She explained that he was sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Okay ... we've walked, now when does the scary begin? She explained that I need to show him that this is it. All we're going to do is just this - walk in a circle.
After a short break, I asked him to walk forward again. Initially he started snorting and flipping his head, but I continued asking him to step sideways and giving him a release when he stepped over. After only one or two quiet circles, JL told me to stop and get off. The ride was over.
I repeated the exercise the next day, and Izzy was very good. I set my watch's timer so I could see how long it took to get him relaxed and quiet. He started out flipping his head again, but by the end of five minutes, he was walking that same circle quietly without any fussing. I asked him to stop and just patted him for a full minute, and then I sent him forward again. This time, he was quiet and relaxed from the start. I rode him one minute longer and then hopped off.
JL's instructions are to do this same walking circle until it is no big deal. I can move the circle to a new place, but all I am going to do is walk that same circle - no changes of directions, no trotting, just quietly walking. She said that we want him walking into that arena totally confident that he knows what is going to happen to him.
When he feels confident about walking that same circle, I can start to trot the circle using the same technique - nose can't be counter bent, no rushing, and moving from the inside leg. When he feels confident to the left, we'll work to the right.
The good thing is that Izzy doesn't feel as though he's going to explode or bolt or rear. I am not worried about any of that. He was showing signs of building tension and anxiety though, and I don't want that. I want him to feel safe and confident in his job. So far, he's shown me that when he is given ample time to develop some trust and confidence, he learns the task easily and fairly quickly.
I am in no rush with him. If it takes us walking for weeks or months, then that's what we'll do. I have a feeling though that he'll figure it out pretty quickly. That's how everything else has gone with him. I'll keep you posted!