Round Two: All Part of the Learning Process

21 07 2015

Well, round two took place on Saturday. I saw one of the other horse-owners on her way out, who wasn’t sticking around, but who wished me better luck this time and mentioned that her instructor had noticed that one of her mares was at the peak of her season and that that might have affected Puzzle’s behaviour. I felt I had a calm and confident attitude, and had been thinking about things I could do differently this time to try and prevent another… confrontation. She advised me just to be really firm and positive with Puzzle and to stand my ground, and then after loading her own pony, happily and without issue, off she went.

Rather than be all trusting as I had been previously, this time I elected to do everything the ‘proper’ way. So, before doing anything else, I put my boots, hat and gloves on, prepared his feed, and set it on the path outside, where the wall with the tie rings is. Then I went, treat in pocket, to bring him in. As on every other occasion I have seen him, he came to the gate without any issue, graciously accepted his treat for letting me put his headcollar on, and walked on calmly and without incident as I led him back to the wall, where I let him get his nose into the feed bucket and then tied him loosely enough that he could feed.
He was perfectly well-behaved the whole time I was grooming him and tacking him up. There are various opinions about hand-feeding treats, but since Puzzle has learned that he gets a treat for doing certain things nicely, I think it would be unfair of me not to uphold this, so I gave him another treat for accepting his bit. The one thing I did differently in tacking up was that rather than remove the headcollar altogether and lead him by the reins, this time I put his headcollar on over his bridle and led him by the lead rope, for two reasons, really; one, I’d observed that when being led by the reins he chews a lot and tries to work the bit around in his mouth, and second because if he acted up I could then put distance between myself and him without letting go of the rope – especially since he wears a martingale.

My plan, for something to do that might be a break from his usual routines and help relax him, had been to lead him in-hand up the lane as far as to the end of the farm (so not very far; it wouldn’t take more than 20 minutes there and back), bring him back, mount him at the block outside the school and then ride him into the school to do some gentle transition work, all in walk (unless it went really well, in which case I planned on introducing some trot). With hindsight, because he’s always tended to behave better for me under saddle, I probably would have been better off if I’d just taken him straight to the mounting block, but I was trying out something new.

Sadly, his behaviour was no better than it had been the previous time. We got as far as past the school gate before he started acting up again, in much the same manner as previously. I was a lot louder and more firm in reprimanding him and telling him to stop this time, and an advantage to having him on the headcollar and lead rope turned out to be that I had another thing to grab onto to keep his teeth away from me, and to stop him charging off. The first small incident stopped in its tracks, so I continued to walk him on up the path.

He tried it on again as we went past the paddock where his friends were, with the paddock where the yard owners’ horses live opposite it on the other side. He put on a far more dramatic show here, and rather than taking the hint that I was going to stand firm, shout, and push his mouth away from me if he tried biting me, he started shoulder-barging me when I stepped back or to the side to get myself behind his… er… line of bite. I stood my ground and pushed back as much as I could, but I was in danger of being pushed into an electric fence here. Exasperated, I gave up. Possibly too early, but I felt frustrated that my plan had fallen at the first (if you’ll pardon the racing terminology), helpless that my efforts to be firm – as far as I was prepared to go with pony I couldn’t gauge the reactions of too well at this point – had proven inadequate, and overly conscious that there was nobody to assist me if it escalated any further.

Unsurprisingly, he walked back to the wall without incident or issue. When we got there, one of the yard owners was doing something in the hay field, and waved to me as I came in. Rather than standing politely to be tied as he had done every time before, he attempted to barge through me and down the lane to the road. In shouting at him – and all I said, I remember this clearly, was ‘Puzzle, STAND UP. GET BACK.’ – I made her jump and look up with an expression of shock on her face – to give an indication of my tone and volume. He obeyed, but only with the addition of a demonstrative shove to his sternum with my free hand.

He behaved as I untacked him, unsurprisingly. There was a sort of jaunty tension in the lead rope as I silently led him back to the paddock. I took him back in, turned him around, gave the rope a stern tug to prevent him from lunging at one of the mares, took his headcollar off and patted him to go away. He stood looking at me, haughtily raising his nose as though to suggest I’d forgotten something. ‘Only good horses get treats, Puzzle,’ I told him as I opened the gate to make good my escape, ‘and you haven’t been good.’

Feeling deflated, I took the bus home, made myself a cup of tea as first order of business on my return, and sat down to carefully construct an email to his human explaining what had happened. I was careful to include that I understood that it was far from ideal if I couldn’t be left alone on the yard (as this kind of defeats the object of a part-loan arrangement), but that I didn’t want to give up now, for having seen what a sweet, fun boy he can be when he isn’t ‘being an arse.’

I was at a friends’ wedding hours later when I received the response from her. It seems that while he has done all of this before, it hasn’t been for a long time, so I imagine nobody expected him to start it up again. I suppose, since that’s the case, that while lack of exercise and mares in season may have been contributing factors, my lack of experience in dealing with this sort of behaviour has probably played a big part in this, too. She has very kindly agreed to come to the yard the next couple of times I see him, and show me some ground work exercises that have worked for her on him, and to show me what she does to manage his ‘being an arse’ behaviour as well. Her suggestion was for her to come to the yard and show me, and then duck out of sight so that Puzzle doesn’t know she’s there, but I’ve got someone close by to call on for help if I need to.

This strikes me as ideal, and I am grateful to her, both for being willing to help me out, and for not immediately striking me off and looking for another sharer for him.




One response

21 07 2015

Thank goodness you were not hurt. I don’t like the sound of the electric fence at all. It is good that Puzzle’s owner is going to help you with this so you can explore all possible approaches and gain more experience too. Perhaps even a more experienced rider would also need quite a long time to assert their authority without knowing the tried and tested methods the owner has used before. It would certainly be a shame to miss out having tried so hard already. Puzzle sounds like a pony who is worth the wait.

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