The Meltdown

Every once in a while it happens.

You’re training a horse, you’ve gradually gotten him to a beautifully polished level, you’ve even had one of the best, most subtle sessions ever – and then, suddenly it’s as if he’s forgotten things that were a given.

Horses react differently when they don’t understand the aids. Fully “Swiss Army Knife” horses don’t have any buttons not connected to something. When they meltdown, they do things, it just doesn’t seem to have any connection to what you think you’re asking.

Other horses retreat into themselves and do nothing. If they can’t figure it out, they wait until something makes sense.

And finally, some horses buck, kick or toss their heads, – at the low end of the spectrum, they might only flap their lips in distress. But they act out their confusion.

I’ve been working on exercises to help Gunsmoke with balance for lead departures and changes. So, we’ve been doing counter bending, shoulders in / out, two track and half-pass in travers. He could even alternate half-pass in travers from one side to the other. He started as a ranch horse, so much of this has been new to him.

But he’s been doing great until he suddenly forgot how to sidepass right. Not left, just right. So he just wouldn’t respond to the aids, exaggeration of the aids, spur pressure, or even my jumping off to push on his side to try to show him how to react to the pressure. The frustration leaked into an overstatement of my aids, and I wasn’t happy with it as it felt like being angry. “I don’t like myself if I’m angry…”. Especially because these are light horses and I am sure that even “command” (e.g a light spur touch) is like screaming at them.

I always try to remember….

“Be good to me and I will serve you cheerfully and love you. Don’t jerk the reins; don’t raise the whip; Don’t beat and kick me when I don’t understand you. But rather give me time to understand. Don’t consider it disobedience if I don’t follow your commands. Perhaps there is a problem with my saddle and bridle or hooves.” (The Horse’s Prayer)

It was frustrating and I was disappointed in myself, but what had happened was the meltdown.

When things go wrong like this, except in the most extreme conditions, I don’t like to just walk away. I prefer to take the tension down a notch and give him things he can do so he feels better about himself by the end of the session. So we walk and do circles and stay simple. But after a while he feels better and we do some lateral things. I think I may be slightly mis-positioning the left side spur touch too far back when I need to go to “command” for the sidepass. Then, in the slightly different position, the right sidepass unlocks and he can do it again. So I sidepass him to the right along the short wall, around the corner and then partway down the long side. We do a few other things laterally, and then back to simple.

But he’s still tense when we finish. Not so anyone else would notice, but head a little high. Not yawning.

The next day, the aftereffects of the meltdown are still playing out. In the tack up space, he’s tense and doesn’t want to step forward. It takes a good curry and lots of brushing to relax him. He won’t respond to the relax cue until I face him to the aisle – is he afraid of the wall?

Where yesterday I had three out of three correct lead departures on each side from the stop, today the left departure (his hardest one) is a disaster for a while. Backup has reverted also – slow and tentative. It’s like he’s worried and he’s backslid to a place he was almost a year ago.

But the trainer can learn something too, so I just try to be patient and keep letting him be successful. After all, he backs up straight, he maneuvers at the walk with sensitivity, and he trots well, if a bit fast. Canter… well, shoulder dropping into the lead like crazy and I have to correct him several times to get rid of it, and the fix is not fully stable.

Things improve with quiet riding, and I just take the horse I have and make the farthest I push be a bit of two track – single, then alternating sides as if I’m doing a lead change. He does those fairly well.

When I think about the horse learning complex skills like lateral work, I try to remember that the aids are very subtle. A seat shift and a move of a leg no more than an inch is the difference between turn on forehand and turn on hind quarters, and I want my horses switchable between those two without stopping. The same is true for sidepass vs. half pass in travers.

The horse brain is not the human brain. I was taught by one of my early instructors to give horses time to “soak” after they learn something so it sticks. Maybe during that time the neurons reconfigure and the learning reinforces into the patterns of their brain. But the connections can only handle so much complexity so fast. They can become overloaded. And then the entire structure can buckle and separate.

Then we have the meltdown. In this case, the learning collapses back to a prior configuration. All the progress is likely still there – but for now inaccessible. Instead I have a horse I used to have. For a while, But experience tells me he’ll come back in a few days if I handle him gently and bleed off the pressure.

The meltdown is not a pretty place. The aftermath can be painful and extended. But if you know what is happening, it can be much less worrisome and frustrating.

Teaching is Learning, Learning to Teach

Read an article about the lack of good instructors, and it got me thinking…

It seems to me that both instructors and students think the engagement with the horse starts and ends in the stall. Pick up the horse, tack him up, into the arena, work, tack him down, back to the stall.

I’ve been ridiculed for sitting in the pasture having a picnic with my horse.

I watch my horses on cameras for hours and learn their “when I’m not around” behavior.

I sit on a hay box in the shelter when it’s raining and listen to them eating.

I sit beside my horses when they are lying down and try to help them feel comfortable with me.

Today I caught an escaped horse, partly by acting like a horse. How could I do that if I didn’t know how they act?

I’ve been an athlete, and I listen to my horse as an athlete. So I can sense when he needs rest, can tell he just gave himself a cramp, can hear him telling me he knows he did a fine lead change and deserves a pet.

And when I’m watching a student, because I’m a planner, I know how to tell them to organize their thoughts at the goal level, session level and manuever level. How to figure out what to do today, how to align it with the strategic goal, how to deal with it when the horse is telling us to change the plan. For instance – you think you are there to work on lead changes, but the horse shows you that he needs to work on straightness or obedience or relaxation today. How can a student be taught that if you haven’t felt it and don’t know it?

You have to want to instruct because you love the horse first, and then, immediately after that, the student, and then, finally, much farther away, the goal, which may or may not ever be to show.

That complexity is why we have so few good instructors. Many of them want to simply be smarter or better than the student. They don’t listen to the student any more than they listen to the horse. They tell the student that the horse is being rebellious rather than walking through what makes a horse worry. They use aggression when they need understanding or repetition when the horse or the rider needs to move on. They distract the rider by talking to the rider when the rider is working, rather than pacing the instruction to the quiet times between and letting the rider develop feel.

I have so many things to learn, but at least I know these things. I wish more instructors and trainers knew them.