Young horses can be rebellious, and often frustrate us at the exact moment we need their cooperation the most. This story is about a combination of techniques that seemed to work wonders to end the rebellion and reduce my frustration.
I have a young mare named Charlie. She is a big, beautiful, dark brown Quarter Horse with a personality to die for! She loves people and attention (and coffee from a mug) and will hug you back when you wrap your arms around her neck. This is the Charlie I love.
Meet the Dragon Lady
But there is a hateful Charlie who only comes out at shows. This “Dragon Lady” appears—literally out of nowhere—when we are about 3-5 riders away from our turn in the arena. This sweet, soft, low-head carrying horse suddenly becomes a whirling, rearing, big-eyed giraffe! She is going anywhere BUT that arena and will run into and over anything in her path.
I’m guessing many of you are already thinking up reasons for this behavior. “She’s show-ring soured”, “She’s sore”, “She’s in heat.”
Let me tell you a bit about Charlie. She’s none of the above. Well—she may be in heat, but that’s not relevant. Charlie is one of those mares that doesn’t get “mare-ish.” She travels very well and doesn’t get fidgety at shows or anywhere, for that matter. She warms up calmly and practices very nicely.
The Dragon Lady has, on occasion, appeared at other times, but this show-class-our-turn behavior has consistently occurred, starting with our second show.
At our last show, in the midst of one these tantrums, a trainer friend of mine stepped in.
In a quiet yell, I heard, “STOP! Put your hands down and breathe. Deep Breath! Now pick up your right hand, SOFT! Straight up, not back toward you, make sure your left rein is relaxed—loosen it up – counter arc her to the left.
“Now switch and counter arc to the right. Stay soft! There - STOP and relax. Reward the correct behavior! Hands down. Breathe.”
The Dragon Lady lost some steam, her head came down a bit. “Now ask her to walk forward.” One step, two steps, 3 steps… ROOOAAARRRRR…. (great rollback…) I’m outta here!
“Do it again, BREATHE and relax.”
We repeated the counter arc exercise, paused for a moment, then walked forward again. This time we got 5 steps!
We could have gone for a sixth, but in my head, I heard very clearly the voice of a different trainer friend say, “Close enough! Turn away and go somewhere else. Then come back and do it again.”
Dragon Lady – gone!
Why This Worked
In this situation, I used the combination of four techniques:
Moving her body parts with a counter arc
Approach and retreat
The first exercise was used to change up the situation from one of resistance to one of footwork (“move the body parts of my choosing”). The approach and retreat exercise worked because I was no longer forcing her to tackle that full distance to the gate all in one move. Go a bit, leave. Go a bit, leave. Soon the horse forgets what they were worried about.
My trainer friend at the show reinforced the critical techniques of relaxing and breathing. Why is that important?
When Charlie rebelled about going toward the gate, I instantly reacted by getting angry, pulling on her face, and trying to force her to do what she didn’t want to do. In her mind, I probably just became a “Dragon Lady!” I escalated the situation and became a “predator.”
When I relaxed and breathed, I changed my mindset from being angry with Charlie, which helped de-escalate her anxiety. Then I changed my “forcing” actions to be “guiding” and asked her for movements she knew how to do. I removed the fear and became the teacher and partner that she knew. I went from reacting to responding.
Again, we approach the arena gate. No Dragon Lady! We retreat about 3 steps from the gate.
The announcer calls our number – we’re “in the hole” (2 riders before us). We approach again. We get to the gate, then retreat without the Dragon!
The announcer says we’re up next. We approach the gate and settle into the holding area. Charlie is here! She’s relaxed, I’m… kind of relaxed, trying to breathe…
Now it’s our turn… omg…
And she enters the gate as Charlie! I am thrilled!
Our pattern? Well – suffice it to say, the Dragon Lady reappeared when it was time for our first spin. But that will be another topic for another day. Baby steps – be happy with the fact that we got in the gate and started the pattern with the Charlie I know and love.
Over the last year-plus, I’ve been acquiring techniques for dealing with the Dragon Lady. My toolbox is getting bigger, and I still stink at using those tools. But I know that the road to horsemanship is a long one, and success will come with continued practice.
Special thanks to (and you can find both of these trainers on Facebook):
Marcy Blakely at Marcy Blakely’s Horse Bootcamp (MBHBC) for your very timely help at the show. You’re a godsend!
Barb Graz (BJG Horsemanship) – I miss our time together! You might be 3 states away, but your wise teachings are with me always!
Have you experienced this type of misbehavior? What techniques work for you? Share in the comments so we can all continue to learn!
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