Murray and I have been doing some ground work in the rope halter before each dressage ride since we got our rope halter, so for about a month now. It’s all been very easy stuff, an attempt to remind him of the rules of polite society. You know, walk next to me here, stop when I stop, go when I go, back up a little. Stand — and do just that, just stand — is a hard one for Murray. He doesn’t relax easily and wants to anticipate whatever is coming next, especially if he thinks what is coming next is an attempt to tighten the girth a little. He thinks that dancing away or small circles around me are exactly what he should be doing.
The ground work, other than helping with our warm up, has been very educational for both of us. I tried to play with shoulder in when we first started, and Murray would get tense and scoot past me. At first I got frustrated that he essentially ran me down, but it was easy to see that Murray wasn’t comfortable with what I was asking and couldn’t figure out how to slow himself down. Figuring out exactly how to get Murray to slow down took a bit of trial and error. The best solution for us was to drastically slow down my own pace, taking slow and precise steps, and letting Murray go back to a more comfortable speed after a few of these slow shoulder-fore steps. It is hard for him — the hardest thing ever. So no more shoulder in for now.
On the ground, and under saddle, Murray’s backing up has been getting so much better. He was pretty reluctant to back up unless you really got angry with him, and then he’d march back practically sitting down. But if you asked him to just back up a little, even if you pushed him, he’d kindof shuffle backwards with one foot at a time, making a four beat gait out of something supposed to be two beats. And it would include lots of sideways motion as he tried to pivot around me instead of actually stepping backwards. Now it’s very reliably a two beat gait, even if it does sometimes rather resemble an egg-shaped circle. He doesn’t quite get it if I’m facing him, but if I step backwards myself he gamely travels back with me.
So one day, a few weeks ago, when there were some poles laid out on the ground I led Murray forward over them, and then asked him to back up over them as well, after reading that it’s a useful exercise for stifles. Murray gamely took one step backwards, then one more tentative step wherein his hoof landed on the pole. That was obviously not okay, and he skittered forward and around me with a very, very suspicious eye. I patted him and settled him down, then gave it another go. Murray was very much not okay with this idea and danced his way forward, shook his head and nipped at me, and struck at the air. The reaction wasn’t quite what I expected, and really not very polite, but it did give me a lot of information.
I tried one more time, and Murray wouldn’t even stop after walking through the poles this time. He flung himself forward and away from the poles, trotted around me a little, then stopped and looked at me like “what are you going to do about it?”
If Murray were a monkey, I’d call his behavior redirecting. The idea of going backward over the poles made him uncomfortable, so he tried to change the context of what we were doing. This is easy to identify with aggression: one monkey gets threatened by another, and turns around and threatens someone nearby (often an innocent human observer).
maybe this new knowledge will help me decipher… this?
I wish I’d written about this sooner, because there was something in particular about the whole incident that showed me this was more than just naughtiness. But it was quite clear that he was actually very uncomfortable with what I was asking, so responded with silliness. Importantly, it’s changed how I react to Murray being silly with me, on the ground and under saddle. Sometimes he is silly because he literally can’t control his body, and evidently he is sometimes silly because he’s actually very uncomfortable with what I’m asking him to do.
If he’s actually confused, and not just objecting for the sake of getting out of work, then I should probably reel in my annoyance and reconsider what I’m asking and how I’m asking. I have been consciously trying to be less of an asshole to Murray, but sometimes it’s hard when seemingly very basic things are curiously impossible to him. But all new information is good information, so we’ll keep chugging forward, and I’ll try to keep this in mind the next time Murray responds with “silly” instead of “trying”.