Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cruiser’s New Speed

Cruiser’s New Speed

Cruiser has always been a speedy horse, and I love him that way. Unfortunately, with a healed bowed tendon, I didn’t think it would be wise to blast down the trails like he loves to do in the spring when he first gets out. Extended trotting can be hard on a bad tendon, so I needed him to slow down for his springtime conditioning.

We started out just trotting short sections of trail. When he got too fast, I brought him to a walk for a minute and then tried again. This worked well when we were riding away from home, but when we tried it going towards home, he was fast on the first stride, and he just wouldn’t settle down. I decided we would spend going towards home at a walk for a while. It worked, sort of.

Since Cruiser wanted to go faster and I wouldn’t let him, he decided to gait. He has been occasionally gaiting ever since I got him nearly 20 years ago. He would only do it when he traveled downhill or was really excited. I think it is a stepping pace that he does. It’s faster than a walk, but not as fast as his trot, and I have always enjoyed it. He just cruises along on a loose rein. There are gaited Morgans, and gaitedness shows up in Arabians now and then. He could have gotten his skill from either side of his family tree.

Well, this spring, he was gaiting a lot—which I think is a good sign since he hadn’t offered it very much in the last few years. I think he has been telling me that he feels good (and wants to trot towards home.) A few weeks ago, for the first time when he did it, I told him “Good boy.” He heard those words and accelerated! I was shocked. I never thought he knew that “good boy” really meant “good boy.” I figured it was just mindless chatter to him. I tried a few more times, and he ended up going faster than he ever did for me at his gait. We were flying down the trail. I was thrilled. I decided I wanted to do this more often—but how could I cue him to do it?

The next ride, I experimented. I learned from Ariel that collection can help, but it made no difference with Cruiser. He just collected his walk or went into a collected trot. If I just urged him forward, he wanted to trot. I was just not getting through to him. It wasn’t a surprise. A nearly 22-year-old horse that has never been asked to gait can’t be expected to know just what I want him to do.

Since Ellen and I only have three horses between us, on the weekends she often walks with me on the trail when I ride my second horse. The following weekend, she joined us. Of course, she can’t keep up with us when we trot, so I end up way ahead of her. I then turn around and head towards home. Years ago, we taught Cruiser to play the “Find Ranger” game. If Ranger’s shoes were too worn and Ellen didn’t want to take him on a long, fast ride, she would leave the barn later than us and meet us on the way home. I would tell Cruiser to “find Ranger” and after doing it enough, he knew the game. I would say the words, he would raise his head, look around and go faster.

This game transformed into “Find Ellen.” When we were looking for Ellen, his head would go up, he would look around and trot faster. I thought I would try it to encourage him to gait. It worked like a charm! I was so amazed. He instantly went from a walk into his gait. I said it a few more times, and he went faster!

I can only use this command when Cruiser will actually find Ellen. I don’t want to ruin the magic. What I have been doing is adding some gentle leg pressure—just enough to speed him up, but not enough for him to think I am asking for a trot. I think he is making a connection because he is starting to gait from the leg pressure. I have been tossing in “good boys” and that is helping. He still does the best when we can “find Ellen.”

He won’t do it with other horses—he doesn’t want to leave them, and he walks with Ellen for the same reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it less in the summer because of the heat and the mere fact that I will be trotting him more. Just the same, I am having a lot of fun with this.

The most surprising part is how he picked up on the word cues. I never would have predicted the success. It goes to show you that we are teaching them all the time whether we know it or not. Also, it shows that we can teach an old horse a new trick.

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