Knowing When to Stop

It was a sunny, breezy day here in Western Iowa. We’ve had a lot of them lately, and the trees are starting to turn. A perfect day for a little sacking out. And so Sky met an old wool blanket. It was heavy enough that the flapping wouldn’t be obnoxious yet pliable enough to really change shape in the wind.

I laid the blanket over the rails of the roundpen and it started to move. It was there when I led her into the pen, and she courageously walked right up to investigate it.

There was a little hesitation as the thing waved in the breeze, but she kept sniffing. I pulled it along the fence, and she followed. I told her again and again how good she was and I too touched and lifted the blanket. Finally I pulled it on the ground. She hardly startled and continued to investigate.

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Eventually she seemed to get tired of the blanket and walked off to watch a horse in the arena. I picked up the blanket and approached her with it. She didn’t seem to mind. I caressed her withers with the blanket and then, gently, tossed it on her back. She walked away as if she didn’t notice.

But then she noticed. A frightened look crossed her face and she started to buck and squirm until the thing fell to the ground. Unfortunately that was a little lesson that bucking can remove unwanted weight from her back.

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Looking back, I regret putting the blanket on her so soon. It was her first introduction and things had been going so well. She trusted me and I let the thing spook her. Like other events in my life I let it go one step beyond what would have been perfect. It’s easy to think that accomplishing more is better, when accomplishing just enough is just right.

Sky is a very forgiving horse, and really wants to please. She reinvestigated the blanket after she’d thrown it, this time with a little more force in her pawing. When she walked away the second time I picked it up and left her alone for a minute. She approached me, I reassured her, and put the blanket over the rail again. That went well. I walked around the perimeter of the pen with the blanket and she followed. The horse in the neighboring arena was a distraction and I think that’s okay. At times she was more interested in him than the blanket. I wasn’t asking anything of her.

Then I put the blanket over my head. She stood there and sniffed, so I lifted the blanket like a hood. She stayed in front of me, and seemed quite interested indeed.

I should have stopped the activity there. She was happy, interested, and it was going well. I pushed a little further and tried rubbing her withers and neck with the blanket again, holding her halter. She pulled back and my response was to remove the blanket from her body but keep it under her head. Shortly after I placed the blanket over the gate to the roundpen, and led her through it and back to her paddock. She had no issue with it.

Did the first sacking out go well? Yes, I think so. Could it have gone better? Yes, it could have. I could have handled her resistance better, as that was the one time during the entire exercise I was holding her. Did I turn her into a bucking monster, unrideable for life? I don’t think so, but I’ll have to back up, slow down, and repeat putting the blanket on her with more wisdom. I didn’t traumatize her and we’ll try again another day. Sacking out is done to prepare the horse to meet the uncontrollable. It’s about her building her trust in me as a leader. My job is to enlarge her comfort zone, especially when I’m inside it. Pushing the boundaries of the zone is what I’m learning: how and when and why. Becoming a leader worthy of trusting is all for our long term relationship.

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