Making progress with limited time

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Abby P

MHT Supporter
MHT Supporter
Nov 29, 2020
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New England
Hi everyone, I just found out that I most likely am going to be moving into a new job soon. Right now, I work about 15 minutes from the barn, in a job that's fairly easy for me and I'm not very busy, so I can often go to the barn on my lunch break during the week. However, I'm in the process of being offered a job that is about 45 minutes away (in the opposite direction from the barn), and most of the time will be much more intense and busy. But also a LOT more money and satisfaction and potential for advancement. So it's overall good, but the upshot is that I will probably only make it to the barn reliably once a week with time to do any actual work. I *might* be able to sneak in a short session in the late evening during the week here and there, after my daughter is in bed, or at the crack of dawn on my "way" to work. But I can't rely on that happening every week.

My horse is well-trained in certain things but has some foundational holes in his training and some anticipation that if he's being asked for something he doesn't know how to do, he is going to get beaten up if he doesn't immediately figure it out. We've made some good progress on that through lots of short groundwork sessions. But now, there may be stretches of time where I'll only be able to work with him one day a week. I also have a first-grader at home so obviously her needs come before anything else.

I'm going to try not to put any pressure on myself to get to a particular goal with him, I mean realistically it's not the end of the world if all we do for the next 6 months is go for a trail hike every Sunday (and it's fully possible that will be all I'm mentally capable of!). But I would LIKE to make headway on getting him comfortable going out there in the cart too. He's happy on the trails and not afraid to go out but is still a little tense in general when hitched. I was planning to do lots of short, frequent sessions with the cart in the arena to get him 100% relaxed with everything before trying to drive him on the trails too much, and I guess I could just do that every Sunday for 10-15 minutes and then go for a walk? Any suggestions for maximizing that time with my horse, and still maintaining the good relationship I have built with him over the last 6 months? I feel like he just finally really trusts me and don't want to lose any ground on that. I really don't want to overload him or push him so I don't feel like it's fair to ask him for more than one hard thing in any given session. He needs a lot of time to think things over and giving him that time is how I've built his trust thus far.

The good thing is he has a large paddock and he does a lot of running and playing with his neighbors, so he gets a lot of movement on his own and is out 24/7 so I don't think he's going to get out of shape and sad if I'm not there every day. I might get out of shape and sad but that's another issue. 😁
I like your idea of having a short lesson and then going for a walk. Most people don't realize how important it is to have a solid trusting relationship. When your horse trusts you and is confident in your leadership, then he can build his self confidence. And it sounds like this is what you've been doing with him. Just don't get impatient because of your limited time (my problem sometimes) because tiny progress, or even staying the same, is better than going backwards.
Thanks. Yeah, I get impatient too, more with myself than anything else but it's definitely not helpful with horses! I think I'll try to just plan for maintaining the gains I've made and consider any forward progress to be a bonus. I like to have a plan even if it's a plan to do mostly nothing. 🙂
I've seen lots of people working with their horse 5-7 days a week badly and getting nowhere and a few working 1-2 days a week well (due to time restrictions) and moving forwards. I think of it as being about enjoying the journey and not how fast you can get there. You said he's good going for trail walks with you but not out there hitched. Just an idea, have you ever tried hitching him then taking him for a walk with you leading him? If he's comfortable you could try moving back slowly (leading/driving from beside) until he's put it together with you in the cart. I don't drive so I'm not sure if that would work but I do it with riding horses who are unsure about being ridden and 'going first'.
I haven't actually driven him that many times in the cart. I've ground driven him a LOT on the trails and he's cool with going first, to the degree of leading me off into the woods following a flock of turkeys to see what they were up to. I think his tightness when in the cart is more about his past training than any actual immediate fear or anxiety in the current situation, if that makes sense. I think I probably ask for things in a different/lighter way than he is used to and that creates some uncertainty in him because he was always manhandled into doing stuff and punished for screwups. So if he's not sure what I'm asking then he gets anxious. The good thing is the first manifestation of it is that he just stops. So now I know that if he doesn't want to go forward it is uncertainty and I need to be very sure about what I want to do, or back up a step and make sure his confidence is good and we're on the same page in terms of the way I'm asking for things. The last couple of sessions with the cart that I was able to do before the footing became unsuitable (understatement) went very well, I think there was an issue with his bridle that I fixed (gapping with the blinkers, and even though he will drive without blinkers, he seems to prefer them - seeing the cart seems to piss him off 😂 ), and the last session I drove him with the cart, walking behind the cart, walk and trot all around the ring and he was pretty relaxed, first time he ever snorted and blew while hitched. So I would have gotten into the cart the next time and repeated it but we got a foot of snow, and here we are now.

We're lucky at my barn to have both a grass track around the whole property as well as some hay fields off into the woods at increasing distances, and a couple of very short loops of trail where you're barely out of sight of the home property. So my plan was that once he's completely comfortable in the ring, I'll just do what I did with my riding horses when learning to go on the trails - around the property first, then shortest loop possible and do that a hundred times until he's bored, then the next shortest loop, etc. He's not barn sour at all but I do think he's probably never been driven anywhere but a ring or roads. I had him on a short loop on the trail one time and no one died but it wasn't too pretty. ;) But to be fair I don't think this is about being on the trails - the first couple of drives in the ring looked about the same, minus the bumpy ground. That's when I backed way up and went back to groundwork.

I totally agree with you, I'm in this for the journey for sure - he's such a cool little guy and I just want to have fun and go on the trails. It isn't that important right now whether I'm on my feet or in the cart. I'm glad to hear you say you've seen people make progress with only working 1-2 times a week. I've only had that experience with older horses that were fully trained and so of course they were fine with that. But he's young and still green in some ways.
I have a boarder who lives 1 1/2 hours away. She was with me when I was closer and chose to keep her boy with me instead of finding someone new to look after him. He was still green when they moved here and she only gets out 1 day a week. He isn't green anymore and they can do anything together, you'll be fine working him less for a while. Honestly I think the learn faster and remember more than we do. 😂

It sounds like you've got it figured out what to do with him. You probably know this but when he shuts down (stops) have you stood there and waited for him to come out of it and let down? People who punish them for not understanding before they have a chance to learn should be smacked, for lack of being able to say that differently here. It sounds like he just needs the chance to figure out how you do things and fully trust you and the two of you will be off having great fun. He's a lucky boy to be with you.
Thanks. 🙂 Yes, I have learned to just wait for him. The first time I did that it seemed to kind of blow his mind, he'd obviously just been asked and then smacked if he didn't do whatever it was in about a half a second. I totally agree with you that they learn faster than we do! And retain it more easily too if given the time to process. If I can make the sessions really constructive then hopefully the gap between will give him lots and lots of processing time as opposed to lots of forgetting time! I try to watch his breathing, if he breathes noticeably then that means we're doing OK. And I try to watch my breathing too. 😂

That's great about your boarder. I would probably have made the same decision in her place - so important to have your horse at a trusted place. Glad to know it's worked out well for her.
Don't worry about the gaps between, he will have time to process what you did and be bored enough to want to do more. I've always found 'time off' is a good thing. You've got this!
If you feed grain, pre make your feeds up in ziplock freezer/ lunch bags. This has saved me a heap of time in winter. Whilst we dont get snow here, It gets dark so early but gives me a little extra time each night.
Thanks! Yeah, already do that, because the barn owner feeds grain/supplements as long as it's pre-doled-out. So we're good there. 🙂

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