when to push and when to baby

As I mentioned yesterday, and Monday, and all over this blog, Murray is quite free with his feelings.  He has them, and he wants them known.  Sometimes Murray’s feelings are legitimate… well, I guess they are always legitimate feelings, but sometimes they are more reasonable than other times.  For example, sometimes he really was just body clipped and it’s his first ride in the indoor for the winter and his hammies are tight.  Or sometimes we’re out on cross country and just having such a good time and feelings we have them!!!!!!!  And sometimes those feelings are bullshit and he’s being a pansy and it’s really just time to get to work.  But when to tell the difference between these times?

stitchNot sure what this emotion is. Possibly “schadenfreude” at my misfortune for owning him….

Anyone who has worked with a baby horse (or even not-baby horses, I’m guessing, but I’m not as experienced with those) has had to make this choice.  Possibly a lot.  Because baby horses have a lot of ups and downs and good days and bad days and if you want to make progress, you need to be able to know when to push for the good behavior and when to let things lie and call it a draw.  Or a day.

Murray was tricky for me to figure out.  When he was much younger, four (yes, much younger), he was weak and expressive.  And when he was feeling weak in the canter, he would buck.  I know that just working on that hard thing isn’t necessarily the way to combat weakness, so I tried to strengthen him a lot through the trot and trot-canter transitions and yet the bucking just never went away.  Some days, Murray wouldn’t buck, and all would be well!  In the days when he would buck more than a time or five (or ten, I did eventually get better at sitting that shit), I figured that something must be wrong/hurting and I would back off and go back to the trot work.  And then Murray used his evil little velociraptor brain to crack the code: just buck enough, and Nicole will stop pushing!  Funnily enough, he never bucked profusely during jump lessons (okay, just rarely and always more “cheerfully”), just when I was trying to ask him to actually give and use his body at the canter during dressage.

Trainer figured it out first: Murray was proooobably bucking just to get out of really using himself in dressage.

dBNjr3Z - Imgur

So we stuck on The Problem Solver kid who sat through it all (laughing… ha ha yes your seat is so good twelve year old I’m not jealous at all) and the next time I rode Murray bucked once, and after I sat through that he was like “well, shit.”

A perfect example of too much babying resulting in a need to really, really push things.  Like, a lot.  So you can imagine it’s pretty important to me that I don’t let Murray trick me into letting him get away with being naughty.

Murray has been really, really good for me in that regard.  I am getting quite good at figuring out when I can push him a little more and when it’s time to baby him a bit.  It probably helps that I can do more than just w/t/c in circles and full arena now, so I have a broader toolkit of things to “diagnose” his bad attitude with.  But Murray has taught me skills beyond just determining if he is being a punk, and that is very valuable.

A few weeks ago while I was riding, Murray saw horses getting turned out.  This isn’t out of the ordinary, of course, but he’d not been turned out in four nights as the whole barn was locked in because of super muddy pastures (yeah… this is California).  Murray’s response to this was to yell “get off me right now and put me outside where I belong” with his whole body, accentuated ever more by the horses gleefully galloping around their pastures for the first time in five nights.  Instead of trying to get any more work done I was like “yeah, let’s just put you outside.”

I wasn’t worried that this would teach Murray to throw more tantrums to get what he wanted.  I can’t verbalise it succinctly, but he wasn’t bucking to be noxious or unpleasant.  He just couldn’t stand that it was time to go out and he wasn’t getting to go out.  Sure, it was rude.  And some day I will expect my horse to be able to work through seeing other horses with something he so desperately wants.  But right now… it’s probably okay.

But on Monday when Murray was like “no, I really can’t put my right hind under at all and now that you’re insisting I’m going to insist right back” I was like “yeah, this is garbage.”  And I just quietly, and then a little more loudly, repeated the instruction that yes, he really did have to move his right haunch over and put some weight on that right hind leg.  The good thing is that now I know when I can do this, and how to do it so it’s not just a fight.  First I start with something relatively easy (leg yield), then move up to something a little harder (shoulder in), and then I can push for what I really want, which in this case was for Murray to do shoulder-in on a circle.

5-21 dressage 8I love it when he gives up because he gets super round

So, when to push and when to baby?  I err on the side of babying about things, unless I’m completely sure that what I’m getting is pure attitude.  I’m not about to let anyone get away with being a total ass (even in the above scenario when I called it quits after Murray bucked, I made him do a couple of nice transitions first), so unless my horse is literally throwing himself on the ground, I’m going back to something I know they can do, but that asks them at least to behave.  With Murray usually that’s some kind of lateral movement — leg yield or shoulder in — but I often have to go back to something even more basic — just giving to pressure.  Same thing when Peanut or any of the baby ottbs are being rude, just give to pressure.  And then you evaluate from there.  Sometimes they let you know that it’s absolutely everything they can do to just keep it together and do what you’re asking, and that’s okay.  Everyone has off days, right?  I just call it and give them pets for agreeing to let me on their back.  More often than not these days, I get a big groan, a deep breath, and that soft, acquiescence that suggests Murray is finally accepting me as his leader.

IMG_0873Murray does not accept the sparkly pink unicorn’s beauty

Hahaha yeah right.  It just means he’s willing to play along.  Which I’m okay with also.

10 thoughts on “when to push and when to baby”

  1. Oh I walk this line CONSTANTLY. It’s so hard! Especially because I was dealing with so many physical/medical issues for the first year or so with Dino, it was so hard to tell whether he was being a punk or in pain, or anticipating pain. Now, when he’s bad, he’s usually just being a punk. But I’m still hesitant to really kick his ass because WHAT IF HE HURTS SOMEWHERE?! Horses are complex.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha I feel this struggle. Courage flails to get out of work because he hurts, but he also flails to get out of work because he’s mad and I’m pushing him too hard and he doesn’t understand. Either way for us, the answer isn’t really to address the flailing (aside from using tools that keep us safe), but to address the issue prompting it in the first place.

    And yeah, some days are just not going to happen and it’s better to not try and force it.


  3. lol yup this is a puzzle i’m working on with the ottb gelding i’ve been playing with. i want very badly for him to learn a sense of humor (since he’s already pretty sour for a 5yr old) and figure out that his job is not that bad (or hard – he’s only a lesson pony). but sometimes he needs his butt handed to him too… balance balance.


  4. This is so tricky, I definitely struggle with this too. Because on one hand the second they know they can do something naughty to get out of work, they start testing that out. But at the same time, if they’re being naughty because something hurts or because their brain has melted and dripped out of their ears, pushing them through it isn’t going to help anyone.


    1. Thinking about this and reading through the comments, I think that coming to this level of understanding with Murray has really helped our relationship. Because I know when Murray thinks something is a really big effing deal, and Murray knows that if he really, really, really just can’t, I will take him seriously. Conversely, Murray knows that if he’s just being a punk then he really will have to work. And on the rare occasion I let him get away with being naughtier than I should, well, he probably appreciates that little freedom too.


  5. With Bobby, who as you know is Murray’s kindred spirit, I’m usually hovering in between the two when a tantrum/the feelings come out. I sit chilly and only insist on going forward. If that unsticks his brain then I know he’s just been a tool. If he goes forward but continues to have a meltdown, it’s time for a little babying.

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  6. This is one of the hardest things with Wiz! He was such an easy baby, but then somewhere I think he bucked (because he was hurting) but got me off and/or got out of work. He learned he could spook/buck and I’d stop pushing. So on the days where he doesn’t want to play the game, he’ll do that. I try to always make sure it’s not a pain issue first, but if by all means he’s sound that day and is just being a jerk, I have to push. I’ve gotten much better at figuring that balance out as well 🙂


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