Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who Are You, and What Have You Done With Galahad?

Galahad didn’t come to me right away yesterday morning when I went to his stall—I had to call him in from his run, and there was no whicker of greeting. That didn’t bode well. When I haltered him I could tell something was different—he was unusually alert and watchful as we walked to the arena barn. On the way there I decided I needed the stick, not just his halter, to work in the round pen. Good decision!

Round pen work, for any of you not familiar with it, is a basic and effective way of gaining the horse’s trust and respect. The theory is that if you can control his feet—that is, make him move at a speed that you set and in a direction that you specify—you can be trusted to protect him. You become the lead horse and he’ll follow you.

The round pen is a walled or fenced arena maybe 50 feet across (don’t quote me on this). You stand in the middle and the horse works around the outside edge. You can use just the horse’s halter to drive him, or a whip or stick. That’s not to strike the horse with, but just to make noise and commotion to be sure you have control of his direction. (You can google “natural horsemanship” and get lots more information.)

Early in the process, you have to get pretty assertive to convince a running horse that it’s necessary for him to reverse his direction, but once he gets the idea, just raising your arm or the stick does the job. As your work progresses, you get to the point where you can signal the horse with energy, body language, and/or sound to pick up whatever gait you specify. Later, this all translates into communication when you’re riding.

I’m no authority on round pen work, but I’ve had some experience, and it has always worked well with Midnight, cranky as he is. As you can see from the photos, I can drive him like crazy and make him work until he’s lathered up, and when I let up the pressure, he comes right over to stand by me, and then follows me around with no halter or anything.

But in the round pen yesterday, Galahad was a different horse than the one I know. This wild pony had no interest in being told what to do. I did have directional control—though he tested that a few times—and upward speed control. His downward transitions were iffy—he pretty much slowed down if and when he wanted to. Much stranger, to my mind, was the fact that he not only wouldn’t turn in toward me when he changed directions, but that he wouldn’t come to me when I let him stop and I backed away. He wouldn’t even let me approach him! As soon as I took a step in his direction, he’d walk or trot away from me. This is very unusual behavior for him.

Hmmm. So every time he moved away from me, I made him run a lap or two, then trot a lap or two. I made him change directions whether or not he wanted to, at various speeds. Ideally, after a few rounds of this, the horse begins to turn toward you when he changes directions, and then you reward him by letting him rest. Not Galahad; not yesterday. The three or four times he turned in toward me, he just kept walking.

OK, buddy, if that’s what you want, go for it. I’d raise the whip slightly and off he’d go for a few more laps. Again and again I made him change directions, and again and again he turned away from me and kept going. Dropping my energy and backing away had no effect. Sometimes he’d stop, sometimes not; but he never came toward me. And on and on we went. He was drenched with sweat—he’s not used to that much exercise—but he refused to give in.

After an hour, I realized I was going to miss my riding lesson. But I couldn’t just give in, either, and let him win this one. If you do that with a horse, you lose his respect, and it takes a very long time to regain that. I can’t afford to let that happen. So we continued, both of us exhausted, for another 45 minutes. He apparently was going to die trying to resist me. By this time I was mostly letting him walk, focusing on directional changes, making him canter and trot for briefer periods of time when he’d try to do his own thing. I had flashes of guilt—“Oh, my poor little horse!”—but then he’d toss his head and take off at a gallop all on his own.

Finally, I was clear that I was going to have to settle for something less than ideal cooperation, because I had an appointment at 5:00 and it was already after 2. He was at least stopping more readily by this time, turning his head (but not his body) toward me. In the end, after more than two hours, he let me approach him without moving away. I’ll take it, I thought, and put the halter on him.

Once I got his halter on, he backed out of the arena as though nothing had happened. We walked for a bit to finish cooling him down, I hosed off his legs, and then we walked back to his stall for his afternoon feeding. What an ordeal!

I really admire his spirit. Once he and I come to an understanding, Galahad is going to be a tremendous horse and a great companion. But there’s a lot of round pen work between now and then. He’s out in the pasture today, running with his buddies, but tomorrow it’s back to work.

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