I made a miscalculation this (Monday) morning that led to a major meltdown and malfunction from Murray the likes of which I haven’t seen in at least a year. It was… something else.
I was tacking up and, per my new goal, trying very hard not to let Murray get away with wandering, wiggling, or generally being poorly behaved during the exercise. I thought we actually had a pretty good thing going: I had put the square pad on very crookedly at first and didn’t catch it until after I got the saddle on. So we were on our second try and Murray was being pretty responsive to my requests to stand and was not constantly turning back and demanding treats from me.
I often hold the dressage girth against his belly for a moment before I try doing up any buckles so Murray isn’t confronted with the cold girth + tightening buckles sensations all at the same time. He had a funny response when I did this, standing still for a few seconds and then suddenly scrunching up his abdomen and then trying to scoot away from me. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but since that’s how Murray typically responds to girthing pressure in general, I thought he needed a little longer to get used to the sensation of the cold leather. He was still for just long enough before tensing and scooting that I thought he might have exceeded his limit for patience and was trying another strategy to get treats (wiggles = distraction treats = reinforcement for wiggles).
The first time I held the girth against his belly he actually managed to writhe away from me, which I wasn’t going to accept, so I tried again. I held the girth against his side even as he tensed and then bulged his side in to me, and after he settled I gave him a piece of carrot. I then quickly moved to buckle the girth up on the 4th hole which, when Murray’s abdomen is at its fattest, tensest, and most absurd just touches the skin, and once he lets the air out there’s a good half inch of space between the girth and his skin. I managed to get both billets buckled and was just patting Murray when he sidestepped forward-ish. I told him no — I’m trying not to be baited into rewarding him for bad behavior — and he stepped sideways, more directly towards me. I warned him with a “hey!”, but he blew sideways into me with his hindquarters, actually knocking me to the side. (The first time I’ve actually been knocked aside by him, as I usually get out of the way quickly but I’m also trying not to teach him that he can move me around with bad behavior.) I marched toward the tie ring to unhook him and really give him a piece of my mind; alas, the meltdown was already engaged.
Murray skittered sideways and back at the end of his lead rope, never giving me enough slack to unhook him from the blocker tie. (I always put him on a blocker tie ring but I’ve recently taking to knotting the lead rope about 30″ down so he can’t pull himself loose and end up with ten feet of rope to wander around with while I’m grooming or not paying attention.) He pulled back and got his front feet off the ground a few times, though he never really reached the point of sitting, and his halter held. At one point I could see the bottom of the halter sliding over his lower lip and up in to his nostrils and I wondered whether he’d be able to get out of it entirely. It was all legs and slipping feet and burning hoof smell and sparks in a ten foot radius around the post we were tied to, and the whole time I was trying to get just a few inches of slack so I could unhook him and get him under control myself.
He reared and couldn’t get all the way up and just… came down. At one point his knees started to buckle and his pasterns folded and he started to lay down and half of my brain actually thought “why am I not filming this?” and I put my hand in my pocket to get my phone out, then decided I’d better have two hands on me. The other half of my brain was thinking “please, YES, please just lay down,” because if he gave up and lay down it would indicate that he chose to yield to the pressure, and would have been a major step forward in his problem solving process. I’ve seen Murray get to a really similar point where he’s about to crumple to the ground before, with my barn manager when she was very understandably disciplining him for something, and that was the moment in the discussion where he turned reasonable.
Instead, Murray leapt out of the half-crouch-thing and hit the end of the rope again and the meltdown continued. (I mean, you should see all the skid marks on the barn floor after this morning…) Since the “hoooo, hoooo, easy, settle”, deep, soothing voice wasn’t working I tried yelling and growling at him in turns to absolutely no effect. He wasn’t even registering me. We finally got to the point where he was part-ways in a downward dog stretch — front legs splayed out toward me, leaning back on the rope as far as he could, just staring at me. I kept talking to him while I tried to pull myself out a few inches of slack so I could unhook the lead rope, and then had the bright idea to offer him some of the remaining carrot bits I had in my pocket. I was well beyond trying to avoid rewarding bad behavior at that point. But instead of responding to “cookie” he jerked his head to the side, snapped the lead rope, and skittered off down the barn aisle.
I managed to get my hands on him before he left the barn and he was truly beside himself. I walked him back up to the tie ring and he wanted nothing to do with it. Obviously with only two and a half feet of lead rope left attached to him I wasn’t about to tie him, but I made the decision then to just continue to insist on good behavior. Ignore the meltdown (so to speak) and insist that he continue to behave like a rational horse beast. Since Murray was still in panic mode and unable to even think about what I was asking him to do I had a bit of time to catch my breath and think.
I slowed myself down and managed to avoid crying, though if anyone had tried to talk to me just then I probably would have. Murray would stand for a minute or so and then start to skitter sideways/into me and I reminded him that the exercise we were working on was just standing still where I told him to stand the fuck still. Nothing too aggressive, but not rewarding the bad behavior by walking off with him, and not acknowledging his distaste for the area by letting him stand somewhere else. I thought about how much I hate this horse sometimes and why I ever think that I can improve or change these absurd, deep-seeded, irrational instincts.
Murray kept trying to yank me to the side or pull his head around to get a look at what was going on elsewhere in the barn or… wherever. I was more than a little sick of him at this point and yanked him back to look at me and just stand. I thought about what, exactly, I had done wrong to induce this particular meltdown, and how I could have avoided it, or snapped Murray out of it while it was happening.
While we were standing there thinking, Murray threw his head in to mine and instead of ducking (which I usually do), I threw my hand into his head and yelled “REALLY?” He chose to fly away from me backwards at that, so I took him up on the offer and marched him backward, at which he promptly slammed into and tried to sit on a trash can, scared the shit out of himself, flew backward out the barn door, and then tried to sit on my trainer’s truck’s front bumper.
Since we were already outside I decided that we would try to walk it off (the stupidity of this is just now dawning on me since I only had about 3 feet of lead rope to hold on to), and after he settled a little we stepped into the barn. A friend held him while I found a replacement rope, and then we walked back to the tie ring to start over. My barn manager came out and commiserated with me a little and Murray proved that he couldn’t even he just couldn’t even while she was standing there, trying to run in to me (because he knew he isn’t allowed to run in to her).
I ultimately tacked him up two more times (not tied, but still insisting that he stand relatively still), he was relatively good, I lunged him and he was great, and we called it a day. Because when it takes 75 minutes to get your horse groomed and tacked up you quickly run out of time to ride.
In some ways this meltdown indicated major progress for Murray. In the past he would have hit the end of his lead rope one time, felt the pressure, ripped right through it, and disappeared. So the fact that he was feeling the resistance and not automatically increasing the pressure by an order of magnitude (just continuing at the current level of freak out) just to get free is progress. And he did come back to me and, though it was a struggle, did eventually figure out that he was expected to just stand still in front of me (and only somewhat invaded my personal space). He was so reasonable during his freak out that I think he might be ready for a rope halter — IMAGINE THAT! Graduating TO a rope halter. Hah.
But the meltdown itself was over nothing. I mean, yes, it was about being scared and tied, but the trigger to being scared was… what, being asked to stand for one second longer than he thought he could tolerate? Not getting a treat or being ale to walk off the instant he wanted to? Sure, I could have avoided the whole thing if I’d just not asked him to stand for that one second, but was the ask really that unreasonable?
I managed to keep myself calm too, and handle it, and not beat the living snot out of him after the fact. So that’s progress for me.
We will see how Tuesday goes I guess.
I do so desperately wish I’d gotten video. Dangerous, unpleasant, and indicative of poor training and upbringing as the meltdowns are, they are also ridiculous and absurd and, in their own way, funny.