Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Trail Training Newsletter - #89 - part 2

Speeding Up Molasses Mingo

My little Mingo is a wonderful horse in so many ways, and I love him very much, but there is one thing that has always bothered me about him. He is naturally slow. I really like a faster horse. It’s not his slow trot or slow canter that I don’t like. It is his slow walk.

Most of the time, I can tolerate it. If I’m riding with other horses, I can always trot to catch up. If I’m alone, I often just trot. His slow trot is as smooth as glass, and even if it takes me all day to get somewhere, it is an enjoyable trip.

The most annoying part of his slowness had been going down hills, since I avoid trotting down anything except a very slight slope. I didn’t remember him being all that slow on hills in his younger years. It seemed to get bad during the four years that he had the chronic hoof abscess from a deteriorating coffin bone. After two operations and three trips to Ohio State Veterinary College plus nearly another year, it finally healed up. I rode him whenever he was sound, but I suspect by the way he walked down the hills that the bone caused him some discomfort.

Miraculously, the foot closed up and fully healed about two years ago—long after everyone, including me, gave up on it. Yet, he still walked down hills very slowly. Since the beginning of our ride is a long hill, it drove me nuts. It took him 15 minutes to get to the river, and it only took Cruiser half the time.

Early last year, I noticed that he was able to travel down the short steep hills we encountered on the trail at a decent—even fast speed. By fall, he dramatically improved his speed on a particularly long and steep hill that we go down at least once a week. Over the winter, he lost none of his momentum. In the spring, he was still going down these hills with a fair amount of speed. Yet, he still crept down that first hill like a snail. It didn’t matter if he was following another horse, either.

I believe we can teach old horses new tricks. I just needed to find the way to explain it to him. Mingo, 13, is not done learning any more than I am done learning. There was the chance that he was walking down the first hill slowly because he wasn’t warmed up enough. Still, I thought I’d give it a try.

A couple years ago, due to his sore, abscessed hoof, he used to walk down the gravel driveway like it was killing him. He kept slowing down and stopping. I decided to make it worth his while to get to the end of the driveway by giving him a peppermint. It worked. He didn’t go fast, but he walked steadily. Only problem? He then went very slow as I led him on the street—begging for another mint. I started to wait until we got to the trail, gave him the treat and then mounted right away. It worked. He still went down the driveway decently and walked well on the street.

Last summer, I started to lead him a little bit down the trail to get him down the first steep section of the hill, give him his treat and then mount. It worked—he went faster. This spring, I decided to lead him all the way to the bottom before giving him his treat and mounting. It was a miracle—he walked down the hill like a real horse.

On the days I would give him the treat at the top of the hill and mount. He still would walk rhythmically down the hill. When the river was too high to cross, I would do multiple trips on the hill—only giving him one treat at the bottom before I mounted. He walked down well on each trip regardless of treats. Now he still isn’t speedy like Cruiser, but he can keep up with Ranger.

The only explanation I have for this is something called “remembered pain.” You may have experienced it first hand, yourself if you have ever had a horse bump your leg hard into a tree. Whenever I get near a tree, my leg will cringe with anticipation of the pain. In fact, I swear it makes my leg hurt. Mingo may have expected his foot to ouch him with each step. I had to teach Mingo that it didn’t hurt to walk down hills anymore, and the best way to do that with Mingo is with peppermints.

Mingo would stand on his head for peppermints.