Going slow is really hard. I’ve been inching along with Venice, trying not to scare her timid little soul into panic mode ever since she arrived. And sometimes, I just want to completely overwhelm her and force her to accept human contact. More than likely, if I hadn’t broken my elbow, I would have lost patience somewhere along the way. Knowing that I didn’t have the strength to engage in any kind of battle with a horse has prevented that. But it didn’t prevent a whole lot of self-doubt and worry that I was never going to progress with her.
Lately though, there has been a change in Venice. She’s initiating contact with everyone, not just me. She has been reaching out to touch people when they have their backs turned to her. Lately, she’s been reaching out even when they are facing her. She’s learned to take treats (carrots mostly) from quite a few different people.
I can walk directly up to her in the stall and touch her shoulder. After a few minutes of rubbing her neck and talking to her, I can snap a lead shank to her halter. She leads quite easily and softly, but if something startles her, she bolts. I use a 22 foot line and gloves so that I can stop her if that happens.
Yesterday, I started working on circles. I used the 22 foot line, but no stick or whip of any kind. She’s extremely reactive, so all I have to do is raise my hand slightly to send her with energy. The first send was actually more of a controlled bolt. Because I spent so much time working with her at liberty, teaching her that I would remove pressure if she turned to face me, that’s become her default behaviour. When in doubt, turn to look at the human. That really worked in my favour for the circling exercise. She initially panicked when I sent her to the right, but hit the end of the line and turned immediately to face me (wide-eyed and snorting). I told her she was a good girl (she recognizes that as praise) and she took a deep breath and blinked at me. I let her stand for a moment, then sent her again. She semi-bolted again, but this time in more of a circle to the right (or maybe a triangle, but close enough). As soon as I dropped my driving hand (my left hand) and turned slightly away, she stopped and turned towards me. I told her she was a good girl and she stepped towards me (again, something that I have taught her… if she steps towards me, I will take pressure off her. NOT something I’d have taught King or Dressy!)
Yesterday’s session was pretty good, and she showed some progress. After I got two sort of oval-ish circles, I called it a day and turned her loose.
Today though, she was a star. I guess she’d thought a lot about that lesson yesterday, because she responded instantly to my cues. She was circling beautifully, at a trot, with her head down and eyes soft. I never asked for more than two full circles before halting her and telling her what a genius she was and giving her neck a rub. After a few minutes of that, I decided to try her bad side. It took a months before I was even allowed to look at her left side. So I was expecting circles to the left to be considerably harder for her. She definitely spooked when I asked for it. But settled after only about two repetitions. She’s a bit more lateral – her hind end was scribing a much larger circle than her front end. But she understood what I was asking and was not terror-stricken.
Within a few minutes, I had her doing quite credible inside turns on cue. So I could send her to the right for half a turn, then switch hands, lift my right hand and have her come around and circle back to the left with no hesitation at all. And I really think, for the first time, that she was pleased with herself and aware that she was accomplishing something. She looked at bit smug by the end of the session. The first signs of real confidence.
For the last week or so, it’s finally felt like Venice is calm and confident enough to actually learn. She’s starting to think about what I’m asking her, instead of trembling and fleeing madly at every new movement or noise. And as a result, I’m seeing noticeable changes in her every day.