So I've been thinking a lot lately about Gem and myself. Being stuck on the ground in the slop tends to do that.
I've been wondering why we have been having the issues we have lately. I don't ever imagine her to be a beginner friendly, easy ride, but a lot of the recently brought back spooky behavior is just plain annoying and unnecessary. It isn't like I am asking her to do anything new here.
Or am I?
When I first got her it was a massive win to just not die. My one and only goal for pretty much the entire first 6 months of owning her was to get her to just freaking walk. While I enjoy speed, I don't particularly enjoy going at Mach 10 around an indoor arena barely making the corners without sliding on our sides. Walking was a big deal. It meant being calm. It meant listening.
Slowly as time went on, I would feel more comfortable to add a new skill into it: trotting, cantering, transitions, ground rails, small jumps etc...
Each time I added something it just felt like the right thing to do at the right time. I never planned on it, but at some point in a ride I felt like we could move on without having a complete mental break down. Usually it didn't go so hot the first time, but once I introduced it I would then add it in at small intervals to all our rides until it became a non issue. Gem isn't a stupid horse, but she isn't very willing to learn new things either and her gut reaction is to just shut down and bolt.
I remember the first time I looked outside the large jumping arena at the barn in WI and thought "Why not cool her out on the lane between the fields?" It was the first time I ever was brave enough to ride her alone out of a fenced arena. It took us 45 minutes to go the maybe 0.25 miles down to the dressage arena. And about 3 seconds to get back to the barn. From then on each ride ended with a cool out along the lane until she was acting like a perfect lady at the walk. At which point I began to ask her to trot down it. Then we moved so I never got to the point of cantering it.
My point? Well, if I have one it is that maybe I am trying to move faster than what has proven good with Gem in the past.
Last January 1st was my first real solo outing on Gem and it went ok. We did a ton of walking and I only went out 30 minutes then turned around and came back. I didn't care about the pace, I just wanted her to get used to going out alone.
Ever since the Barefoot 50, my perspective has changed significantly with regards to Gem's abilities. While I was always concerned that she wasn't fast enough or in good enough shape to do a 50 at all, nevertheless in under 12 hours, when we pulled in at 8 hours I realized I was not giving her enough credit. Now I know that she is capable of laying down that type of pace for that many miles and looking good at the end of it.
Each time we have hit the trails since then I've been pushing hard to get her to replicate that. I know she can and so I haven't been as forgiving as in the past putting it down to laziness. However, I am wondering if maybe she just isn't really ready (will she ever be??) for that sort of thing right now. Instead of waiting for my signal from her to let me know that it is time to add in something new (like more speed on a solo trail ride) I am just pushing her for it and I think it may be the cause to all our recent issues.
Of course, there is a fine line between letting her get away with stupid behavior and giving her the time she needs to adjust to the new skill, but we didn't ride all 50 miles alone. We only did the last 10 alone and by that point she was too tired to give a darn about any limbs or stumps along the way and yet she still put in some pretty good spooks.
I think I may need to take a small step back and rethink our solo conditioning. There are so many different ways to tackle a ride, be it conditioning or competing, but I tend to prefer a consistent pace saving the slow times for eating and drinking breaks or to tackle a particularly difficult hill. Meaning, I like to trot the entire time and only walk when the trail dictates and have more time to let her eat or drink along the way. However, when going solo this only seems to equate to me constantly nagging her and her blowing a fuse creating a not so great ride.
Sooooo....with all that blabbering on I think I may tackle next weekend's 20 mile conditioning ride a bit differently. I think I am going to focus on short bursts of speed and longer walk breaks for her mental stability while still trying to maintain a generally decent overall pace in the end. For example, instead of picking up a solid trot from the get go and forcing her to maintain at all costs, I will let her walk and then ask for a faster trot and/or canter for a bit then allow her to settle back down into a walk then pick it up a bit. Hopefully that speed work will help with her cardiovascular system while pushing the mental envelope just enough to get something done while the walk breaks allow her to slow down and put her mind at ease.
We will see if this approach changes things at all or not.