Thursday, June 11, 2020

Do Not Pass Go

Horses can be such funny, fickle creatures.

They have certain behaviours or traits we as riders must learn to mesh with - these "traits" being things we don't necessarily address for the purpose of eradicating them. Horses are horses, and even moreso, some are very individualistic beings. "Quirky" horses are often underappreciated amongst the masses, but with the right rider/owner combination, they shine and boy, when it goes good, do they ever sparkle.

With all that being said, have I ever taken a second to explain what a sensitive and hormonal mess Spud is?

I mean, to most, he is the most affectionate, sweetest, and goodest boy in the world.

And truthfully, they wouldn't be wrong.

He is affectionate. He is sweet. And he is a good boy.

The Best Potato™
But, it took a lot of practice and patience to get us to the level of success we achieved.

Over the years and as our relationship has blossomed, we've become pretty amicable partners. He is still a very fussy and sensitive flower, and I've learned that I can't change him and do what I can as a driver to emulate positivity and good experiences.

It doesn't mean we avoid the hard stuff, because proper training is important.

But, I don't get mixed up in the details.

And I don't let him drag me into an emotional fight - neither of us win and it only creates a more tense, nervous, and sour horse. Not exactly the vibe I strive for.

He may be sensitive, but he's as solid as they come.
Since starting him back to cart in 2020, I've had a relatively easy time re-acclimating him to the cart. It's much heavier than his old dinky easy-entry, but he's done really well with it this year and I was pleasantly surprised.

What I was even more surprised to find out is how resistant and tight he is in harness this year. It isn't during conditioning drives - he loves those and is happy to trot all day long if the circumstances dictate. However, the more technical and dressage-esque schoolings we've managed to put in have sent him right into pissy pony land.

We had a particularly disastrous drive a few weeks ago, wherein he completely blew off my verbal cues the entire time despite receiving reprimands and reminders (a tap on his butt with the reins was met with absolute and utter meltdowns, so that was fun).

We took some time off to take things back to the drawing board and I lunged him several times to really drive home the verbal cues. He continued to have a pretty sour attitude about work in general, but without the cart in the way, we were able to suss out a few non-negotiables.

Spud: "This is bullshit"
Annie: "I'll just watch."
Largely, one of the problems is that we haven't had direct access to the riding grounds in all the years I've owned him. Hacking 40+ minutes (bc his legs are short and he's much slower than Annie) to and from the grounds is NOT appealing in the slightest, so I've done the best I can do - which includes endurance-style drives with dressage incorporated as well as hauling to the grounds where possible. Since being at the new place, driving to the ring is around 15 minutes (both to and from), which is much more doable. And as such, we've been putting in those dressage-only drives and the idea of being pushed has never been Spud's strong suit.

Additionally, since being broke and reliable, Spud hasn't been a main priority for me to school or drill particulars into. I mean, we've still gone to shows and we've still pushed for more, but at the end of the day, these last few years were about Bringing Up Bannie. Time is scarce as an adult amateur, and lack of consistency is also (likely) a large factor in this.

There is also no horse I trust greater
with precious cargo than this guy.
After that Terrible No Good Very Bad drive, I threw in the towel for a bit and went back to the drawing board. We took away the cart and took away the harness and went back down to lunging - the most basic of basic.

The Terrible, No Good Drive, while particularly awful, gave me a lot of information about my mini and what I needed to address on the lunge. Particularly, he expects me to nag him along the entire time. Which, may be motivating for him, but it is absolutely frustrating for me to ask him for the same thing 10x. We practiced a lot of "trot" means "trot" and not "trot then stop and wait for me to ask again" - he was verrrry offended by this but I remained insistent and unchanged by his obvious frustrations and annoyances. Once this happens, he becomes impossible to rate and legs fly every which way.

Spud is a sensitive boy - he takes criticism from his driver to heart, and he frets over it instead of absorbing it and moving on. This prevents him from concentrating on the next series of movements or questions, and he gets all jumbled up and overwhelmed so his solution is to go fast and blow through the aids - because nothing says "I'm listening" like trotting mach 10 towing a cart with a human inside.

When he is all in and is strong in the bridle, it feels like
the most magical thing in the world.
Of course, this is a safety hazard in itself. While he has never ever attempted a runaway, it is something I've always been cautious and observant of. Any horse can perform a runaway at any time, especially when spooked, but there is also a level of protocol that needs to be put in place, especially with a horse who prefers to get strong in the bridle when he gets overwhelmed.

All of this to simply say - driving horses don't get chances when it comes to safety.

Since going back to the basics and re-addressing things, he is becoming more amicable and pliable in harness. We've driven a time or two since, and both have been very pleasant. I am dolling out some high value treats (ie. all the carrots) which is not something I have ever done before with him, but I found good success with Annie with this method so I figured it was worth a shot. An obscene amount of praise and cookies being tossed his way has seemed to have boosted his morale and work ethic, which is nice to see.


We still are not passing go.

He is still a very good boy <3
There are, very obviously, some things we need to address and work on. The gears are a bit rusty and as he's aged and matured, we need to make some (minor) changes. I reached out to a good friend who has helped with me with Spud back in the green-pony days. We're going to be making some changes to his current bit, as we both feel similarly that something with a bit of leverage will help me get the point across without having to feel like I'm reeling in a whale from the bottom of the ocean.

But tack changes aren't the holy grail, and while waiting for that to arrive, we're still working towards a happy and positive horse. Making small changes and outlining the expectations in a fair and consistent way gives him the opportunity to seek the "easiest" route. Refusing to engage in his hysterics (ie. Zen Ninja Level 100) negates any escalation and for someone who has dealt with a Meltdown Queen (looking at you Annie) the past few years, I am well-versed in the practice.

Our happy place!
However, there are some subtle differences - with Annie, I would often continue whatever I was asking/doing and wait quietly and patiently for her to join me (ie. crossfiring). Spud only continues to fret - it's almost as if he panics and is screaming, "You're not saying anything - IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?! AM I doing THIS RIGHT?" So with him, I find that instead of trotting circles asking for bend, bend, bend while he carries on, it is best to just halt, wait for him to take a breath and try again. Of course, this does not work with every situation, but when he gets completely and utterly frazzled, it is our way of decompressing him and letting him just find himself again.

With any horse, finding the right balance is important, and sometimes, you have to recognize that you don't get to collect $200 and you don't get to pass go.

Sometimes, you have to hang out on the boardwalk a little longer.


  1. Horses are tricky. I guess that small ponies are no exception. :)

    Carmen is the same as Spud- you have to stop and let her breathe or else she loses it.

    1. Is it wrong that during the debacle, part of me was glad to not have to physically ride him? Mostly in the sense that, I would probably feel intimidated to ride him if he were any bigger than he is?

  2. Aw little buddy sounds an awful lot like Piggy. Halting and walking on a loose rein till he decompressed was always the best way to deal with him. As he got older and I developed more control over his frame, I found guiding him to a deeper and lower frame helped him "take a breath" and come back to a more even state of mind. Those type are tough cookies, but such good boys. ❤️

    1. Spud's got a little bit of chestnut flair in him, haha.

      Yes, stopping to take in breath really helps

  3. Ramone used to get flustered a lot like Spud and it would just pile up, so I would need to do a reset walk break for a bit and try again, like you also are doing. I've never driven a horse, so your journey with spud has been fascinating for me to follow along with.

    1. So interesting to me that a lot of people do "resets" with their horses!

  4. It's so interesting how they all handle things differently. Much like people. Sounds like you're doing all the right things to get Spud back on track though!

  5. god he cant be any cuter even if he is having a meltdown. Love him. Love that you know him so well. You will figure him out :) Still the cutest mini in the world! :)