Going out on our own is rarely chilled. Abbey is always on the look out for monsters and while she doesn’t ‘do’ anything, sitting on an unexploded bomb doesn’t make for a relaxing walk through the English countryside.
When I first had Abbey flight mode was too easily engaged. If something rustled, moved or was different to the last time we were out, Abbey’s bottom would hit the floor and scoot forward in trot or canter.
Abbey is getting better and now, given a little time, she will think before taking to flight mode.
It’s taken a couple of years and lots of work. From regularly hacking in company and interval training on our own to taking every opportunity to desensitise Abbey.
Hacking in company means she’s seen our local routes many times. She gets her confidence just from being in the company of another horse, even if that horse isn’t particularly confident.
Interval training on our own has been just as important. The field is a much safer space to tackle some of her undesired responses. There are no cars to worry about and a lot more space to play with.
How I react depends very much on the situation. If she’s run because a pigeon took off from a hedge, I quietly bring her to a stop, reward her for listening to my request and carry on as if nothing has happened. We regularly used to get 6 strides of canter but now, more often than not, I can catch her with a half halt when her bottom clenches.
If it is an object that she’s spooking at every lap then I’ll give her a moment to look, and ask her to step towards it, if she does she gets a pat.
Abbey’s particular fear is things in her blind spot behind her. So if I can, I will school her around the object, moving the circle in towards and back out (leg yield) around it. It’s a form of ‘pressure and release’, when I get calm behaviour from Abbey closer to the ‘monster, she gets the ‘release’ of moving away. I’ll work on both reins but change rein well into her comfort zone and prepared for the ‘scoot’ when she has to turn her bum towards the ‘monster’.
If I can’t work around it (because it’s on the perimeter of the field, for example), I’ll school her with lots of transitions, serpentines, figures of eight, circles etc. gradually getting closer to the object. Each time she gets closer without reacting I’ll reward her by riding away from the scary object (pressure and release, again). This also helps as it gives her a moment to relax and keeps the adrenaline levels as low as possible.
By focusing on the schooling and planning the next transition/change of direction, and thinking about my own riding (left hand up, long legs, shoulders back) I control my own fears and stop worrying about ‘what could happen’, as well as taking control of her feet.
Sometimes Abbey gets herself in a right tizzy and almost all my requests get ignored. The way I manage this situation is to get my big pants on and push her forwards onto a large circle, normally in canter. This does two things, it burns off the adrenaline she’s produced and it retakes control of her feet. More often than not, she’ll calm down but if not, I control the speed by making the circle smaller, once I’ve got her ‘back’ I’ll make the circle bigger and push her on, then bring her back etc etc.
‘Pressure and release’ is a technique used a lot in natural horsemanship. I use it on the ground too. If I pick up something and Abbey reacts with fear, a plastic bag or a new spray bottle, for example, I’ll treat a distance and approach her with it again (but not as close as to make her shy away) and move it away when she doesn’t react.
It’s important to set her up to succeed. So the first time I’ll be 6ft away and I’ll take a step forward, if she doesn’t react, I’ll back off. (Removing the object rewards Abbey for reacting the way I want her too, it also gives her time to digest what has just happened. It’s the most important part of the process.) Then I’ll go for 5ft away, then 4ft until I am rubbing the object all over her body and can wave it in the air without her moving a muscle. It’s also important to keep these sorts of sessions short as it is tiring and it’s too easy over do it.
I know I’ve overdone it when our progress starts going backwards! In which case I’ll go back 3 or 4 steps (or 6 or 8ft), get one improvement and call it a day.
Abbey has been subjected to balloons (helium filled and normal!), squeaky chickens, carrier bags, feedbags, flags…anything I can lay my hands on!
I’ve made a point of tackling spooks head on. For example, a little while ago I was turning Abbey and one of the liveries girls did a cartwheel behind her. She must have been 50ft away but Abbey spun round, grew a foot and snorted like a piglet.
Rather than ignore it, I had the time to work with Abbey and teach her that very occasionally little hoomans like to turn themselves upside down! I asked the girl the keep cartwheeling and I let abbey watch, when she chilled a little I backed her up to give her a breather. Then I asked her to follow me towards the gymnast and she did.
When we were about 12ft away I gave her a treat and took her down the field.
We’ve walked over different surfaces too – tarpaulins, wood, a big tyre filled with sand to name a few. Using a similar technique, I’ve used a training head collar and asked her to take a step foward, only releasing the pressure when does.
I’ve ridden over these surfaces as well. With Abbey constant pressure results in a fight so while I am persistent it’s much of a ‘nudge nudge’ than ‘kick kick kick’!
I take every opportunity to desensitise her to things we might see on the roads. When the YO parks the tractor and trailer up after hay making, we’ll go and investigate (and maybe help clear up some of the bits of hay left on the trailer). I’ll walk her through small gaps, show her the tractor with fork on or with a round bale on the front. We’ll school in the ménage while it’s being harrowed, say hello to the cows, work in the field while the irrigator is on or when they are trimming the hedges. Every experience helps!
Teaching Abbey to move her hind end away from my leg with leg yield and turns on the forehand has been crucial to getting her to a point where we can hack on the roads. It means I can control that back end and normally prevent her quarters swinging into the road because a squirrel moved in the hedge.
Timing and flexibility is the final piece of the jigsaw – I pick my moments. There are days when I have planned to hack but Abbey’s been in season or something has wound her up, so I’ve done something else. Going out when she’s already in a tizzy is not going to be a pleasant experience for either of us and will only put us back.
Yesterday Abbey was not in one of those moods, she was obviously tired and seemingly very relaxed so out we headed. I have to say it was lovely 😊 Yes to I had to work hard to keep her engaged and listening (focusing on me rather than than finding things to spook at).
I used transitions (within the paces as well as up and down through halt, walk and trot) and leg yield. When we did come across ‘monsters’ we stopped and looked for a moment before walking on, we also paused for some time to let traffic pass before tackling the road barriers that had fallen over.
We’re finally getting to a point where flying solo is becoming a pleasure. Happy hacking!!
If you are looking for more information, check out Richard Maxwell, Jason Webb and Monty Roberts (there are some good videos of their demonstrations at Your Horse on YouTube. Check out the loading ones too, the principals are the same).