Kleintjie’s story, part 4: A whole horse in the making
After teaching Kleintjie to lead and not follow and in doing so instilling in him a confidence he had never had before, Tamsin was happy to find him a place in the herd when his owner requested that he move here, which we explored in part 3 of his story.
Once he arrived here, I continued groundwork with him, and progress was quick. We soon moved onto lessons where Julia was riding him, feeling she could do so safely at last.
My focus is on emotionally preparing the horse to be comfortable with being ridden and, equally importantly, to teach the rider how to correctly communicate with the horse so that it does not become anxious and confused.
I cover basic riding, dressage and jumping, at which point I will hand them over to a coach who specialises in those areas. I teach the horse how to handle those disciplines from a behavioural and not a technical perspective. The coach and rider will refine technique once the foundations have been established.
Kleintjie is now at a point where he is ready to move on to jumping coaching, always bearing in mind his emotional state. We have laid the foundations and he’s at a point where we don’t have to watch his behaviour all the time.
Balancing the ‘worry cup’
I still closely monitor his emotions during the lessons and as soon as we spot something, we address it. We make sure that his ‘worry cup’ never fills up or overflows (the ‘worry cup’ is a metaphor for the stress that builds up in a horse to the point where he explodes or acts out). Our aim is to keep his ‘worry cup’ constant and balanced.
Julia had observed that it took Kleintjie about 20 minutes before he ‘warmed up, got active and got going’, but in observing him, I realised that this was actually his threshold for anxiety – this was the point at which his ‘worry cup’ was full, especially where we started faster work. Now when we’re training, once we get to that point, we have developed strategies to bring him back down and drain his cup.
Our riding lessons currently consist of finding Kleintjie’s threshold and staying there. We challenge him to leave his comfort zones while teaching him to control his emotions, never pushing him into the dangerous territory where his anxiety threatens to spill over.
With the training I do, I keep him on that fine line, which is what I specialise in – finding balance for the whole horse and training his mind and body to work holistically. I intuitively spot that threshold and know how to fine-tune it so that he is kept in that challenging yet safe space, where he is progressing without spilling over and becoming dangerous. We keep him advancing by adding in new challenges every time he is comfortable with the old ones. For example, initially, cantering got him very worked up. Once he had gotten used to that and it didn’t work him up anymore, we added in a jump, which got him very excited again. When he was used to that, we introduced another, and so forth. We were and are slowly teaching him to handle more and more emotionally, while keeping him on the safe threshold. It’s quite challenging work and requires a lot of intuition and knowledge of the body language, stressors and stress signals of the horse.
The journey continues
Kleintjie is progressively being able to handle more every lesson and come down to a relaxed state more and more rapidly. We will soon have him at a point where he will be able to run through the entire course of a show as a relaxed, happy horse. This is a far cry from his two previous show experiences with Kez and Julia, where he acted out explosively both times.
Julia says she can feel that at last, Kleintjie is beginning to really enjoy his lessons instead of facing them with constant anxiety.
Physically, he is improving very well too. He wasn’t in great shape to begin with, and it makes sense: when a horse (or a human) is tense or anxious, they don’t use the muscles of their body correctly. I also think it is possible that all this anxiety was preventing him putting on weight, something that had always been a struggle for him, but no longer. He has put on weight and his musculature and top line are advancing steadily. He is growing into his body, his gracefulness and himself, as his mind becomes less and less anxious and he gains control of his emotions.
Working with him has become fun, rather than stressful and Julia is thrilled that she can now ride him out alone without having to stress about explosive incidents. She’s even teased me that her horse has become ‘boring’, which in this sense is actually a compliment. It means he’s stable and predictable, his focus is now on the rider and not his anxiety and troubled mind. He’s now at peace with where he’s at and is working hard and looking forward to the challenges we give him.
We will end the story here, except to show you (in the video below) the end of a lesson we had together recently. We bonded so well, his focus and concentration and level of human connection was so in tune, that he was happy to just follow me around the arena with his head down totally relaxed. A complete transformation, as Julia said, when I asked her to summarise our work together.