Saturday, June 18, 2022

How Do We Recognize "Try?"

I had another lovely day with SweetTea at the park, and we are definitely on the right path to becoming a SweetTeam on the trails. 

Yesterday was a day of epiphany. As I've written about previously, my trainer tells you what you have to work on when she is done training. If you don't feel like you can do it, you can leave your horse there longer, or you can take them home and get help, but she doesn't sugarcoat it. She is very clear about what she encounters, how she worked through it, and how you will need to do the same. All of SweetTea's issues were related to confidence. He was coming up with a lot of "no." I went on a mission to find his "yes," and now I am at the next stage, finding his "try."

I had to remind myself about my ultimate goal--to safely ride trails. What do you need for that? Well, first and foremost, a true partnership. You are one on the trails. If he bolts, I'm bolting. If he balks, I'm balking. Therefore, my ultimate goal isn't really staying safe on trail rides, it's a true partnership, right? Without true partnership, you are less safe on the trails. Period. End stop.

What things should I do to foster that partnership? Beneath the ultimate goal, there are many lesser goals, all in the service of the ultimate goal. If you're going to become one, you also need to ride as one, which is what I'm working on in the arena. We have a long way to go toward that goal, but at the very least, I am comfortable riding him at all gaits, and I have seen how he evades and / or spooks at scary objects, and know how to ride it out. It helps him to be familiar with me, my communication through the aids, and the feel of my seat. It helps me to know how he communicates back and what it feels like when he is moving under me.

We spent our time yesterday, 1/ going over the obstacles in hand, 2/ bending, then riding, in the arena, 3/ riding through the obstacles as a team, 4/ resting with a SweetTea hay snack afterward. (I do this every time I ride because I do not want him to think we end and then he goes directly home, thus setting up a situation where he wants to bolt to the trailer at the end of every ride. Hanging out also allows him to see people coming and going on horses, bikes, etc. while he is at rest and relaxed. And, I think it helps him end on a positive note so that he will jump into the trailer to go the next time.)

As I was doing all of this yesterday, I had one focus, REWARD the try. I mean, really reward the try. Like make him think he was the greatest warrior horse ever dropped onto this earth. Like, you are the guy, T! You are my guy! My hero!

And yes, I had this breakthrough about it. I saw that I was putting too much on him at once, and getting stuck at the areas where I knew I'd get a no. It was flawed thinking, especially with a young horse who needs confidence. So instead, I only worked on half the obstacles yesterday. I wanted more, YOU ROCK moments, and less, Oh, come on, why are you so scared, moments.

We did approach every obstacle, but the obstacles where I have gotten his real, heartfelt no, in the past, I only looked for try--which, in this case, was his willingness to walk up squarely and face it--without fear.

It got my wheels spinning, really thinking about how do we know, and reward, a try? We're told not to release at the wrong moment or we will reward the no. We're told sometimes no is just an excuse to do what they want. So, what does it mean to find, and reward, a sincere try.

Ahhhh, that is the secret sauce, isn't it? Because it is so unique to horse and rider teams. Those on the outside can start to give advice, based upon their own experiences, but it might not relate at all to your unique situation. No, it comes down to you tuning into each other, and getting to know each other, and even then, you won't always get it right. It's a fine line between yes, no, and try.

Here are my thoughts on how to find our partner horse's try:

1. Learn to listen to our horses, and let our horse know we heard them.

     Yesterday, T alerted to several sound indicators of people in our area. As I've written about previously, we have some unusual people at the park, so I have a vested interested in what is happening around us, too. I listened to T's warnings, I investigated his warnings, and then I came back and assured him of what I saw. And guess what. He relaxed. He was visibly relieved to know I had listened and investigated. That's the #1 goal in becoming a SweetTeam. Listen to one another. Respect one another.

2. What is their heart rate and breathing telling us?

    Part of listening is knowing your horse's signs of stress. Every big no from T is accompanied by an increase in heart rate. That is not always the case though. Sometimes a no is more about, I don't want to do what you're asking, I want to do this other thing--like run back to the barn or trailer. Their bodies tell us a lot about the quality of the no, and where it's coming from.

3. How do they act after the release and reward?

    A lot can be learned about how they respond to the release and praise. T was genuinely relieved and proud when he thought he did something right. You could see it in his chewing, relaxed breathing, lowered head, direction of his ears (on me), and improved gait (more confident gait). It told me I was getting sincere try.

4. Does the release and reward improve our ride and our time together?

     The ultimate test of our ability to know the difference between the two is the results we get. Do they get better, or worse, on the obstacles. Are they tuning into us, or getting hard-eyed and impatient? T was getting softer and more responsive, so I knew we were on the right path.

5. Remind ourselves of the ultimate goal, partnership / togetherness / SweetTeam, then break it down into its smaller parts, opening and closing gates (and all that entails), riding through streams /rivers, riding new trails, staying in place, rather than bolting, when something scary happens on a trail, listening to the rider on trail rides, being comfortable at all gaits, being okay with buddies riding away, or new people / horses/ bikes/ joggers, etc we encounter on trails.

     It's easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees. Sometimes I have to stop myself and ask, what is my big goal here--my ultimate goal. Is it to sit the trot smoothly? To lope a perfect figure 8? To walk Tweed up on a bridge obstacle or a seesaw bridge? No. The ultimate goal is a true partnership, what might be a lifelong partnership. A living and breathing partnership that will change everyday. His training gave him a solid foundation on the basic mechanics of riding and listening to aids. He has a go and a whoa. He can open and close gates. He understands collection. But a true partnership can only be earned by these foundational steps, day by day, just the two of us.

Here are few fast forward videos of some of our warm up arena work. We didn't spend much time in there, just enough to get on the same page, and then he opened and closed the arena gate, and we rode out and spent most of our time on the obstacle course. (I noticed these videos are out of order. 2 is 1, and 1 is 2. haha)


  1. That is some good work in those videos. Or, as they say here, ‘right some good’. 😁 I confess that I used to miss the try a lot. I’m better but not perfect. But I also am quicker to figure it out.

    1. Ha! Thanks. We have a long way to go, but the work is coming along. Maybe someday we will be a team like you and Carmen...on the trails. It's a really tough call about no (or hell no!) versus try, and we don't always have the time to wait it out. I remember when I was doing this same trail work with Leah, and whenever she got to a puddle she was like, no thank you. That could have gone on forever. She had no try in her regarding crossing puddles on the trail, especially if there was an obvious path around them. Sooooo, I spent a good deal of time on those puddles for a few weeks, and I worked her really hard, then let her rest in the puddle. That's the only way we were ever going to cross puddles off the list. I think Mr. T will be the same way. Sometimes they have to know that your no is bigger than theirs. But we're not ready for those sessions yet. That will be a different chapter.

    2. You are so right. Sometimes we need to draw a line. Since I’ve gained confidence in that too things really improved.

  2. I like your thoughts & approach on finding Tweeds try. You are doing all the right things that will lead to the solid partnership you are striving for. I am enjoying your videos. I still find the fast forward amusing, but it's a great way to get through a longer time frame and see the big picture.

    It was/is really hard for me to tell the reason for Koda refusing an ask. Something he did frequently when he was younger. Especially on new trails. Or simply willingly leave the end of the driveway he saw every day. I think in part it has to do with his personality, because it wasn't just with me. I have no doubt those moments will present themselves again. We will work through them and I will keep learning from him.

    Puddles, yah. We don't have a good record with larger water crossings. Maybe it's a good thing we don't have natural water running on our property lol.

    1. That is one good thing about sending them off for training, you see that it's not just you. I walked T through many puddles here at home, and he got used to them. Just to enter his run and stall, he had to go through mud and puddles on a daily basis through winter. So, I am not "to blame" for this refusal. (I say it that way because I would have blamed myself). I think it is a totally reasonable refusal. They can slip in mud, and often do. I have a friend whose beautiful main horse slipped in mud and developed a permanent stifle injury. She was never trail sound again.

      I have been thinking this whole water cross thing through, trying to remember what I did for Leah, and I remembered that one of my trainers back then took Leah to a lake and "swam her." Someone should do a clinic at a big pond and work on getting us to "swim our horses." It seems like once they swim, they are relieved at small puddles. I have never swam a horse, but everyone says it's fun and quite an experience.

      Refusals are very confusing, and how to respond to them, even more confusing. But that's part of the journey. For Tweed and me, right now, we have to forge a partnership of trust, and that has squarely in the rewarding "try" category. When I feel like we're solid, I will probably take it up a notch and say, "Hey, you can trust me. You can do this. It's safe. Let's go."


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.