Since Magic just got his second horse sickness shot on Saturday, and the dentist is only coming next week so I can’t put a bit in his mouth, and our brief attempt at bitless went very well right up until the part where we cantered with him pretending to be a terrified giraffe and me clinging on grimly until it was over… I put him in a pressure halter and decided that it was time for Mr. Quirkypants to face his biggest demon.
Honestly, there’s a reason why I have had him for two years and never tried to fix this before. Frankly, it’s terrifying to see your horse zoom backwards at a million miles an hour and hit the end of the lead with enough force, you feel, to break his neck. To make it worse, this is Magic we’re talking about. Most other horses would fight the pressure for a few minutes and then give up and try something else. Magic would fight until something broke; either the halter or his neck. Evidently, just attaching him to a sturdy pole and waiting for him to realise that nothing was going to eat him was not going to be an awesome idea.
First we went off into the arena and talked about pressure, which is what tying up is all about. Horse that always yields to pressure = horse that ties up. That is the beauty of tying up; it’s instant pressure and release. Magic understand pressure a lot better than he did; when I started with him, “pressure” meant “MAJOR FREAK OUT OH MAH WORD IT’S THE APOCALYPSE RUN FOR YOUR LIVES”. Now, he’s usually accepted that “pressure” means “yield”. Except when I tie him up. Then he’s fine until he turns his head to shoo a fly, realises he’s tied up, and has one of his brain evaporations.
I put a helmet on and did some of the exercises that an American dressage trainer (the same one, incidentally, who taught me to one-rein stop for those moments when “the cliff is here and the canyon is here and no seat aids are gonna stahp* ‘um”) had taught me back in August in between Arwen shying at baboons. First I had him lower his head, then rubbed his poll a bit until he was relaxed, then did some yielding of the hindquarters/disengaging the haunches/turn on the forehand/as you like it, a bit of yielding the shoulders, and backing up in a straight line. Then, my personal favourite. Backing him up one step, taking him forward one step. Eventually he gets so used to backing up with one diagonal that he steps forward with the diagonal legs simultaneously
instead of the normal walk rhythm and you can rock him back and forth with two of his legs never moving at all. With a nerd like Magic, I soon had him rocking his body back and forth at a touch on the lead without moving any legs. I get such a kick out of that one.
We rounded off by making his brain work a bit with backing up in a circle (“Dude,” said Magic, “you keep saying ‘FORWARD’ when we’re working, what’s the big idea with this backing up thing?!”) and then I girded up my loins and took him to the round pen. I had, typically, forgotten to bring a lunging line, so I improvised with a couple of long leads tied together. I had him stand a couple of steps away from the fence, ran the makeshift long line around the horizontal pole just once, held the end, stood at some distance and put pressure on him.
Instantly, his head shot up, eyes snapped wide and ears laid back. I soothed him with my voice a bit, trying to prevent a brain evaporation, and kept the pressure steady and constant. Step by step, with a little encouragement from me (i. e., waving my arms and smooching at him until he stepped forward and was rewarded by a second’s release), he walked/staggered over to the pole and I let the pressure off him and gave him a rub. We repeated this until at the first touch of pressure, he went straight up to the fence and got a pat. I tweaked my position, standing beside the fence instead of off to one side; I would of course like him to tie up alone but if he needs his little human comfort zone nearby at first I won’t begrudge him that.
Then I made him back up and let him hit the end of the rope suddenly enough to spook him, but not to hurt. Cue instant brain evaporation. He shot back, I let the rope run out (keeping the pressure constant), and after a few flying steps backwards a little light bulb went on over his head and he walked straight up to the pole, getting lavish praise for this. He really is a smart guy when his brain is present.
We repeated this a couple of times and then I called it a day. All in all, it could have been a lot scarier, and I think we made good progress. Maybe this year we will meet some goals, after all.
*She was from Montana. I was from Gauteng. I bet I sounded just as odd to her as she did to me.