But you know what they say about best laid plans ...
When I pulled into the barn, I heard a chain saw buzzing quite loudly. One of the barn owners informed me that the neighbor was having their massive tree pruned that morning. This particular tree is right next to the arena in the corner that has been a bit scary in the past. I almost got back in my car and left. Instead, I kicked myself in the butt and came up with plan B.
I just don't like riding Sydney around the neighborhood trail. There, I've said it. It's stressful, and I feel like we waste valuable arena time. I know this isn't true as every time I leave the safety of my white fence, we get better together as a team. So with a less-than-enthusiastic attitude, I tacked up and grabbed my reflective vest. The weather had turned windy and cloudy so I suspected that Sydney would be a little bit on his toes. Great.
But you know what? Even though we had a number of scary encounters, he was the best away from home that he's ever been! My "plan" was to work on my own relaxation and allow him to be a giraffe as long as I felt safe. By the time we got back home, I was all smiles!
I had a little chat with him as I mounted up: I would point him in the right direction and do the thinking if he promised to carry me safely and be the brave one. In fact, I continued the same conversation with him throughout the whole ride.
As we passed by the road leading to the chainsaw, Sydney craned his head and neck to check out the noise, but other than that, he left the property with a willing attitude.
As we passed by JL's place, a horse galloped up to the fence as we passed by which got Sydney's blood boiling. He thought about spooking or bolting, but I did a quick turn and was happy to feel that he was staying with me. He gave some very light steps, but I patted his neck and reminded him of what his job was that day. Within twenty feet or so he had resumed his happy march.
As I neared the little hill climb, I was dismayed to see a gardener furiously mowing the bottom of the hill. I timed our approach so that we arrived at the climb while the gardener was at the farthest point. I got his attention and gave him a hold up sign which he respected. He waited patiently as we made the little climb. Sydney never even looked at the mower.
As we squeezed through the narrow trail, fence on one side with fruit trees on the other, I laughed at how shaky my arms and legs were. I thanked Sydney profusely for being so brave. He definitely gets all the credit for carrying us through that little section!
For the first time ever on the trail with him, I started to feel a sense of confidence in him. This was fun.
And then we turned the corner. Sydney froze and his heart rate went through the roof - I could feel it through my saddle. It took me a bit to find what he was so fixated on. And then I saw a flock of ducks and geese in the neighbor's yard. They are a new addition. Sydney was really trying to keep it together, but there was no way he was moving forward, and backwards was starting to look good to him. As much as I hated to do it, I got off.
Not one to walk away from a teachable moment, I asked Sydney to follow me up to the birds' enclosure. He took one hesitating step after another, but he followed me. His head was so high that I was barely able to keep hold of the reins. I just stood casually at the fence talking to the ducks and geese and my pony. The birds were quite helpful as they continued their chatter, but they didn't offer to come any closer, and they kept their wings mostly in check. Little by little, Sydney's head started to come down a bit and his breathing got closer to normal.
I don't know how long we stood there, but it wasn't any more than 10 minutes. Once I could see that the initial terror was gone, I led him back to the other side of the road to see if I could get back on. Fortunately, the woman who owns that property has a whole herd of horses and horse friendly objects lying around. I found a mounting block and asked Sydney to sidle up to it.
I'll admit that I was totally shocked when he positioned himself perfectly next to it for me to get on. He stood patiently as I mounted, and he even waited for my cue before he walked off. He continued on without any extra "giraffing" of the neck.
At the end of the road is a large enclosure for a rather loud and sizable dog. Sydney planted himself in the road and ignored my forward cues. I felt a difference in his resistance though. This wasn't an I'm terrified balk, but rather a let's see what she's going to do refusal. It wasn't overly defiant, but I put my spur into him none-the-less and told him quite matter-of-factly that we were going past that dog because I was the smart partner and he was the brave and strong partner. Right then, our relationship took a big step forward.
For the rest of the way, Sydney started offering a more trusting walk. He was still looking around with a high head, but he also had a lot of swing in his back and he lost the stiffness in his neck. I was so proud of us both and so grateful that we were forced to hit the trail that day. I say this over and over, but we really need to do that more often!