A guest post this week from Ben, about a ‘liberty’ session he did with Xato recently (I put liberty in quotes because it’s not the polished display you might associate with that tag, nor was it intended to be).
When Xato escaped a few a months ago, by squeezing past Marty and I at the gate and running a mile up the road, one of the reasons we struggled to catch up with him was because he thought he was in trouble and found our approach too scary to deal with. Xato is interesting like that; I titled this video “reactive” for the sake of brevity, but he’s not what you’d normally think of when describing a reactive animal. He’s very stoical and soaks up a lot, often not reacting to things you think would scare him. However, raised energy – even the kind of raised energy of someone walking a little faster – can be really worrying to him.
After this incident, we renewed our efforts to help him deal with high energy levels by building on what we’d already achieved in trot and introducing canter in hand. We finally have an arena large enough so we can do this now! The first few times Ben asked for canter, it was too much for Xato and he’d bolt. This response gradually reduced as Ben worked on carefully stretching Xato’s comfort zone, until eventually he could canter down the long side on a loose rein and come back down smoothly to walk afterwards. Ben was even able to get him to go from halt to canter, something which required a lot of energy.
To test how Xato was getting on, Ben decided to work with him at liberty which is the session shown in this video.
As we begin, you will notice that I lean forward before I take a step – I’m always trying to give Champy the opportunity to start and stop with me so I try to telegraph those changes. You will notice me doing that a lot if you’re watching for it.
We have a game under saddle where we line up on a cone, I leave a treat there, and then we ride around and come back to it and Xato eats the treat. As far as he is concerned this means a cone might always mean a treat and you can see his tail swish as I ask him to move away from them, even though he has already checked and there are no treats there.
It has taken a long time for him to be able to handle changes in energy – he would just run away if his handler’s energy picked up. Then we got to where he could make an orderly transition but he would just keep going, so being able to trot and then stop nicely is a big step.
Then I ask him to turn back with me and instead he turns away. That’s fine, I just keep pace with him to let him know I’m with him – at this point in our work together, I need to put some work into maintaining our connection sometimes – and reach out to rub on him. I want to take energy out at this point and often a reassuring rub can help with that, but it’s also a good way of maintaining my position relative to him.
The next bit of trotting is beautiful, he does a really great job, but he carries a little extra energy out of it, which is why he ends up ahead of me. I step back a little to draw him and then give him a treat in the “high carrot stretch” position mostly because that is kind of adorable.
A little bit of canter! There is no way he could have done this even a few weeks ago, he has got so much better and I am super proud of him. You can see that the worry still persists because he keeps trotting well after my energy has come down (I could probably have come down more slowly here to help him maintain our connection) but the way he comes back from canter to trot instantly as my energy drops is magnificent. A well earned treat!
I then do a bit of work on trying to push on his hindquarters with my personal space, asking him to mirror me and step the hind end away. He finds this difficult – not helped by a squeeze between me and the mounting block – and decides to trot a couple of circles instead. This is still way better than he has been and those circles are pretty good. I just keep walking with him but my energy is very low, I’m inviting him to come back to my speed. Once he decides he can do that, we go back to the exercise and now he can step away from me beautifully.
Setting off more calmly, I want to let him work more peacefully – he sets off nicely but I would like it if he could stop with me instead of leaking that extra energy out forwards. When we get going again he has really decided to connect in with me. Now we have up and down transitions really smooth and unhurried, he’s just sticking with me so well. He is also able to yield his hindquarters away on this side, so as soon as he can stop with me rather than getting ahead and turning to face me, we’re done.