I am finally feeling better, although I also feel like I ran the gauntlet this week. There were deadlines to be met, meetings to be had, projects which never gelled, and me with my energy at half mast. I am so glad that it is Friday (yesterday)! This was one of those days where I had to force myself to go to the barn. That does not happen very often, which demonstrates how drained I was feeling. Gray clouds and the weather forecast threatened rain, as I backed out of the driveway. I decided that today might be a good day to lunge.
At the barn, a deliciously muddy Harley met me at the gate. The mud was dry so he cleaned up pretty easily. There is something satisfying about making a dirty horse clean again. Harley was very helpful and bright-eyed, lifting each foot for me before I even reached to pick it up. I brushed him on Wednesday, but we had not ridden since Sunday, which was promptly followed by my cold shutting me down for the week. He obediently lifted a front leg when I touched his elbow. Oops! I forgot that I had originally used that cue to train our version of the Spanish walk. That was a year ago. Harley did not forget! He was hoping that we were going to have some fun together.
Out in the ring, I set up a couple trot poles. Harley stood like a statue while I unwrapped the lunge line and snapped it to his halter. I like to use the inside ring on the nose band to encourage him to flex toward me as he circles. The lungeing session started out pretty normal, except that the trot poles were not working out too well. He has been trotting over them undersaddle better than ever, but now he seemed to be having trouble with the spacing on the line. I adjusted them once and then demoted the trot poles to walking poles when he almost slipped trying to push over them. I guess the ground was too sloppy. Harley stretched his neck very nicely in trot, reaching nearly to the ground at times. I thought how nice it was that we could pick up where we left off the last time we lunged many, many months ago...
...and then I asked him to canter.
HELLO! What is this? Harley started hopping around and then racing at the end of the lunge line. Thankfully, he does not try to run off the circle, but he did show me some creative and rather acrobatic leaps. I tightened my grip on the lunge line and felt like I woke up for the first time all day. It was not totally clear what Harley was doing at the end of the lunge line, but I saw some counter canter, some lead changes, and some cross-cantering. He also tossed his neck, leaped up in a very nice uphill way, and motorcycled like the good ol' days. Wow! I have not seen that Harley in a long time. I felt like we went back in time. My horse turns fourteen this month, but you would not have guessed it by the antics he was pulling on the lunge line this evening. What happened to my experienced statesman on the lunge line?
I do not know if it was fun, pent up energy, better condition (He is looking GOOD!), or some of the disobedience that I have met undersaddle at the canter recently (him wanting to change leads on his own), but Harley was a bit of a maniac. Although I believe that he was having a good time at first, I think that my horse started to scare himself, because the look in his eye changed. I have noticed that when my horse is stressed or upset, he gets this extra rim of reddish brown around his eye. It almost looks bloodshot at the edge of the brown iris. That was how his eye started to look. He may have been goofing off or having fun in the beginning (i.e. being full of himself!), but his fun quickly changed to a loss of balance and that made him start to panic. The more he panicked, the faster he ran. He started to snort forcefully through his nose and turn his head and neck in toward me. This did not help his balance, but it did show me, beyond a doubt, that he was worried and not sure how to stop "freight train Harley". I did my best to stay calm, but I had very little control with the line. Sure my horse was circling me, but the line felt like a wiggly piece of spaghetti. I knew that Harley needed to find me at the end of the line to feel confident. Only then would I have a chance to help him rebalance.
I took up some of the slack in the line and bridged the line between my whip hand and my leading hand. I tried to keep the line from getting slack by keeping some tension on the line with my whip hand and reaching forward up the line with my leading hand (in this case my left hand, since he was traveling left). Harley was bouncing around at the end of the line very unpredictably, so this is easier said than done. I talked to him, but I could see my soothing words were not helping. He would transition down to trot, but the trot was worse than the canter and he kept turning his head and neck in like an exaggerated shoulder-in. He was very off-balance and his nerves were escalating. I was concerned that he might slip and fall, so any hard, fast corrections with the line were out of the question and certainly were not going to take his weight off the forehand.
I asked him to canter again by slowly cantering myself at the center of the circle. Cantering allowed him to slow his feet down, which were moving at a crazy tempo in trot. I exaggerated my canter strides making them as slow as I possibly could. I brought him back to trot and then to canter again. With each transition, the connection on the line became more consistent and his tempo slowed. At last he slowed down enough to find a rhythm in his gaits and a connection with me on the line. I actually saw him lick and chew in the canter. That was a really good sign. Harley's neck arched, his tempo returned to normal, and his hindend engaged with noticeable lowering of his hindquarters.
The year was twenty-twelve. Harley was BACK!
After two very nice canters on the left lead, I was certain that my horse had regained his balance and his confidence. He stretched his nose all the way to the ground in trot and then walked with lots of relieved snorts. He halted on a dime, like he always does, and I walked up to him to tell him what a "Good Boy" he was. For all that activity, he was barely warm with just a little moisture around his chest, neck, and legs. His eye looked bright again and he relaxed his neck down as I stood next to him and patted his soft fur. His excitement was not completely gone. He repeated some of the same airs above the ground going to the right in canter, but returned to the Harley who knows how to balance himself on the lunge line before we were done. He performed one very nice left to right lead flying change somewhere in the middle of his goofing off. I swear he looked right at me to ask, "Did you see that?" I praised him for that one and did my best not to praise or punish for the rest of it.
In my opinion, Harley is a good example of a horse who cannot be chased to "fix" his problem. I have watched horses run in the round pen to fix certain problems. I have even done so myself, with a very lazy horse that I worked with before Harley was around. Chasing Harley would only make matters worse. Creating hard tension against the line would allow him to brace and fall on his forehand more, while leaving the line slack left him feeling abandoned. I had to find a way to keep him calm and slow down his feet, but just stopping them wasn't good either. He stopped a couple times during his second motorcycle impression, faced me, and looked completely frazzled, almost vibrating with energy. Standing still seemed to build his tension, because he had not found the balance that gave him confidence while moving. It is a difficult thing to send a horse moving off again after he has been running on the line and now is stopped in front of you. My instincts told me that he had to keep going. He could only make it back to the future, if he was moving forward.