Updated: May 23, 2022
I see lots of questions about ponies and minis that are anxious when driving. This often looks like rushing around, trotting everywhere, not really listening to the bit and lines.
In 2019 I wrote a blog called "Does Fast = Confident?" In that blog I discussed what this rushing around behavior can be about.
When I point out that this is often a confidence issue then people tend to ask me what to do about it. There are lots of natural horsemanship videos about thresholds. I'll share a few below. For the purpose of this blog I would like to discuss what a threshold is.
the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.
In other words, a threshold is a moment when our pony tells us they are worried or anxious. Often we are so inside our heads we don't even register their first signal, which can be as small as holding their breath, breathing faster, ears hard forward (or pointing at the offending thing), ears out to the side, slightly freezing in their body - on to stopping all together and refusing to move, rushing around, bolting, shying, rearing, bucking, etc. All the behaviors we consider naughty, spoiled and them being a "jerk".
If we tune into the moment, pay attention to our pony in the moment, we can determine the moment they are at threshold, or even better, the moment BEFORE they are at threshold and we can STOP! We can stand there or even turn them and walk back the way we came. We can remove the offending, scary item, we can retreat. If we begin to honor their thresholds and listen to them it's amazing what we can accomplish!
When I tell about taking the time it took to get Sky away from home with confidence, so she wasn't racing around, spooking and trying to bolt, people roll their eyes and laugh at me. That's alright. Honoring her thresholds and retreating BEFORE we got to them was what helped her gain confidence in driving out alone with just me. She hadn't ever been driven alone as a young mare because my mom and I trained ponies together. Though my training ponies went out alone my mom didn't have a need to drive around our neighborhood without me so never did! Sky simply felt more confident with other ponies around. But I wanted to her be confident alone as well.
To start I would drive her down the driveway towards the road or towards the front yard at a walk. If she raised her head, tightened her shoulders, or acted like she was going to pick up a trot, I would simply turn her back to the other ponies. She would walk calmly back towards them. When I got a release such as a lick and chew, a blow out or she lowered her head, then I would turn her back towards the road. Rinse and repeat! I did this for a few weeks. Until we could drive in the front yard without her trying to ram into the trees or the fence posts, until she could walk, trot and canter while maintaining her calmness. Once we had that, then I asked her if we could go down the road in the same mind set. And guess what? She could!
Was taking that few weeks a waste of good driving time? Not to me. If it meant that she could gain the confidence she needed so we could then set out on our own and lay down the miles then it was totally worth it.
This reminds me of the person that can't get on their horse from a mounting block because the horse won't stand still long enough for them to get a foot in the stirrup. You'll see these people hopping down the road on one foot hanging from the saddle horn for dear life as they try to drag themselves up on the horse. Sometimes touching down in the saddle as the horse breaks into a canter. When I have asked these people why they don't just teach the horse to stand nicely to be mounted they always claim they don't have time for that nonsense. That, to me, doesn't make sense and makes me roll my eyes.
The answer you'll often see from others when people are asking for help with these unconfident rushing ponies is to lunge them or round pen them before driving them. If you are dealing with pent up energy because they are kept locked in a small enclosure without friends to play with and blow off steam with, then by all means allow them to blow off some steam on the lunge line or in the round pen first! But if you are dealing with an unconfident pony all the lunge line or round pen will do is further wind them up, cause more anxiety AND make them more fit. So the crazy rushing, trotting, cantering, spooking can last longer and longer at the beginning of your drive. Because you won't be addressing the root of the behavior. The anxiety.
Now onto a few videos that I really like from Warwick Schiller about helping horses with anxiety and thresholds:
These are just a few of the videos Warwick has about staying under threshold. If you wan to see more go to YouTube and type "Warwick Schiller Threshold" into the search bar. LOTS of things will come up! I'm sure there are lots of other people out there making videos about staying above threshold with horses. If you have a favorite please share in the comments below!