If you’ve read the blog (the last time I posted which was embarrassingly long ago) then you know that Rocky has been a “project” for a long time. Not all his fault, of course, especially for the last year and a half when my health/surgery/prolonged recovery from surgery kept me from being able to drive at all.
When I did start being well enough to drive a horse again, I drove Rocky once, found it was extra painful with a horse I wasn’t confident in, and decided to drive a more experienced horse for a while first. So I pulled Finnegan out of the pasture (who hadn’t driven in about 7 years) and the two of us had a lot of fun this summer preparing for and showing at our local circuit of AMHA shows.
Many months ago, in the early days of my recovery – when I still believed the doctors and their 6 week estimate – I registered for a clinic with my favourite clinician, Centered Driving instructor Peggy Brown. By the last show of the summer I was well enough to do most everything I wanted to do, and I had 5 weeks before the clinic. I really, really wanted to take Rocky, but as always, it was up to what he was ready for.
The first day I hooked Rocky up I made myself a solid rule that I wasn’t going to ask him to trot, as that has been his major bugaboo. He gets out of balance, scares himself and either prudently returns to walk, or scoots a few strides, then prudently returns to walk. I knew it would be way to easy for me to push for too much too fast, so I made the decision before I even started that I wouldn’t ask him for a trot for at least the first three drives, and it was a good thing I’d made that a hard and fast decision because he was so confident that first drive that I totally would’ve been tempted to push too fast too soon.
The next day, during a particularly confident stretch of forward walk, Rocky was the one that suggested that he could trot, and he was right, he could! We did only a few strides and then I asked him to walk, but from there his confidence grew. Within the week he was trotting both directions and changing direction on the diagonal without a problem.
I’m not sure what to credit for the change – the extensive long lining I did last fall to try and help him find his balance, the agility and obstacle practice to help him find his feet, the positive reinforcement work to further build our connection … or (most likely the biggest piece) he turned six and his physical and mental maturity caught up to what I was asking of him. I always said that “his brains would come in” when he was six, like Hawk’s did, and turns out I was right!
On a side note, think about how many Miniature Horses who drive in the show ring are finished their careers and “retired” by the age of six. Or the horses who are written off as “undriveable” – wonder how many of those needed just a little more patience, time and maturity to be able to do what was asked of them?
I drove Rocky as many times as possible before the clinic, probably about 25 drives, and we gradually built more duration on the trot, worked on bending – Rocky is very one sided, as most horses are to some degree in their early training – and did lots and lots of transitions to build relaxation, start to get some stretch over the topline, and build hind end strength.
While I was confident that he was ready, I was still nervous about his first official driving outing, and I was grateful that it was with an instructor that I trust to do right by him. I’m pretty cautious about who I allow to influence a green horse – I definitely believe that I can learn something from everyone, but I don’t want to needlessly confuse a learning horse with a new system that doesn’t necessarily jive with what I’ve been explaining to them. If I am going to try out a new instructor, it’s going to be with a very experienced, confident horse – or as an auditor, which is sometimes even a more valuable way to learn. This instructor though, not only am I familiar with the way she does things, I’ve really tried to use her system as much as possible in Rocky’s training. The centered riding principles that she teaches really resonate with me, and I’ve found them so valuable in working with my horses.
Rocky has been to lots of shows and events, and he loves to go on another adventure. After all that experience, I didn’t anticipate that his stallion behaviour would be an issue, but I didn’t count on big horses. Rocky is used to lots of mares around at the shows he’s attended since he was a yearling, and he knows better than to act up around them. But BIG mares? They blew his little stallion mind a bit, though luckily he’s still a very good boy … was just quite a bit noisier and distracted than I’m used to on the first day.
But other than whinnying at the barn end of the ring, and not wanting to stand (which is frustrating because he stands perfectly at home), he did great! The last time that Peggy was in Alberta for a driving clinic, I decided two weeks before the clinic that Rocky wasn’t ready and it would be better to take an older horse so I would be able to work more on me instead of worrying about what my horse was going to do. I thought at one point as we were fixing issues with my position, that Rocky was being absolutely perfect for learning for both of us.
While my tippy head is a perennial issue of mine, a new development that Peggy was able to pinpoint was my left arm’s lack of participation, which was interesting because I am sure that historically it was my right hand that coaches were always telling me to pick up. I think the left arm and hand is in the wrong position as a way of protecting my very sore belly over the past 18 months, an hypothesis that seemed to hold up when Rocky was a little goosey the second day when I first hooked him up, and that left arm instinctively cradled my side whenever he reacted.
The left arm was not that impressed about being forced back into proper service, and complained loudly following my lessons, but I am super pleased to have identified the issue, and now that I know about it I can focus on fixing it using all the tools that Peggy taught me.
Rocky trotted more in each of his two lessons than he has maybe all together in harness thus far, and I was so very proud of him. He never hesitated, never gave up and was just super willing and consistent the entire time. We worked on beginning lengthenings (which I am pretty sure is amazing for a horse that has only been trotting in harness for a little more than a month!) and he was always ready to give me another bit of “zoom” to try again, and perhaps more impressive, he was always ready to come back to his steady working trot with nothing but a calming breath from me.
Peggy complimented Rocky and his lesson partner Ricco on their fitness, which was fun considering, as I said, Rocky had never done that much trotting – a testament to the value of lots and lots of active walking in conditioning a horse!
The day after the clinic I drove him again, thinking a light drive would be good for any sore muscles on either one of us, and since I’m pretty sure it helped my recalcitrant left arm work out the kinks, hopefully it did the same for Rocky. We mostly did lots of stretchy walking, but I did ask for a short trot and when I was ready to walk, Rocky made it clear he wasn’t yet. I could just hear him saying, “I can keep going you know. I learned that at the clinic, I can trot and trot and trot!” I just love the willingness he is starting to show as he continues to gain strength and confidence!
Rocky’s going to have a couple well earned days off, and then we’ll get back to work until the snow flies and enforces a winter layoff. In addition to continuing to work on Peggy’s homework, I’d also like to get him back on the longlines (one more time! Ha – he’s spent more time on long lines than any horse maybe ever) and install a canter cue – he canters everywhere on his own, so I think it will fun for him to start cantering in harness as well – plus just a valuable skill for him to have.
I can’t wait til spring when we can start getting ready for Rocky’s first driving trial! Vermilion in mid-June – that’s the first goal!