Wednesday, February 26, 2014


This is us a couple of years ago...

Trust is something that Starbuck and I still have to work on a lot.  To really get rid of her spookiness, I eventually need to prove to her that no matter what crazyness might be going on around us, I won't ever make her go anywhere truly perilous.  And I also need to be able to show her through my body language that what she sees as spooky (dogs barking, a flapping awning, garbage trucks) are not in fact anything to be worried about.  When we were out on our trail ride the other day Marina explained that Starbuck sees or hears something that scares her and however hard I fight it my immediate instinctual reaction is to tense up, which makes her think that I'm confirming the scariness of the object when in fact what I'm worried about is her reaction.  Marina broke it down as "you have to make her think that these scary things are like her own hallucinations - if she thinks that you don't see them at all she'll eventually start to ignore them."

But not being worried about her reaction is a lot easier said than done, especially for a nervous nellie like myself, so it also goes the other way - I need to be able to trust her as well.  And although technically last night's lesson was pretty disasterous I think we took a big step forward towards that goal.  Starbuck was a little spooky - at one point she actually bolted and we had to return to our "circle-circle-circle" routine for the first time since I changed to a bit - and I was a little tense both because of this and also for unrelated reasons.  So when Marina set up an excercise for jumps at a trot, the first few runs were pretty bad - Starbuck spooking in front of the bar and zigzagging in front of the jump, me leaning forward too soon and putting her weight on her forehand so that she runs through the jump instead of going over it, "goat jumps" as we call them here in Spain which is basically jumping from a standstill, me losing my balance and bumping her in the mouth with the bit - you get the picture.  After some coaching from Marina I was finally able to relax my body enough to go through the exercise without actually getting in Starbuck's way, but I was still far from happy with our performance.
The Exercise

The exercise was to ride an S-shape in trot through three low jumps - the first was a cross-rails obstacle to the left, then to loop back to a vertical bounce and then turn right to another cross-rails obstacle - see my lovely diagram above (I really should have been a graphic artist, dontcha think?)  Those little dots represent cones on either side to make sure we were straight through the bounce, and Marina asked some of the students with more reliable horses to close their eyes from cones to cones.  She explained that if you can see the jump, your body will automatically anticipate the jump and you'll lean forward too soon instead of letting the horse's movement "push" you into suspension.  If you can't see the jump, you have no option but to rely on "feel".  I liked this idea and so on our last run, I asked her if she thought it would be downright dangerous to take Starbuck through just the bounce with my eyes closed from cones to cones and when she said "no problem, go ahead" I took a deep breath and nudged her into trot.  We turned early and made it to the cones nice and straight, so I looked up ahead of the jump, closed my eyes and felt.  And we did the bounce pretty much perfectly!  Starbuck judged the distance perfectly, I moved when I was supposed to move, I didn't land hard on her back or bump her in the mouth afterwards and best of all I was rewarded by this amazing feeling of trust and accomplishment.  And after the lesson, Starbuck was rewarded with an extra large ration of the dried grass mix I give her as a treat.

In conclusion, I know it seems like a small achievement to some, but I think being able to ride my crazy little filly through a jump with my eyes closed is a major step forward for us on a path which will hopefully one day lead us to my ultimate goal - for us to trust each other enough to be able to do anything we set our minds to.

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