Last night was another volunteering night at the Pegasus Farm therapeutic riding center, and even though I wasn’t feeling my best I still managed to learn something from the students. I was a little tired, not feeling very patient, and it was rainy and cold. I’ve had a few really good weeks in a row where students were accomplishing a lot and having some of their best rides. Last night wasn’t one of the those outstanding nights, and it felt a little discouraging.
T had one of her best rides ever last week, but last night was just being obstinate. Last week we focused on GO by saying “walk on” and squeezing with her legs and STOP by saying “whoa” and pulling back on the reins. Most times, volunteers will tell the student to do it, and then make the horse respond. To get T to actually do what she was supposed to do, however, I had to make it clear to her that I wasn’t going to help. I told her that Sam wasn’t going to go or stop unless she told him to, and I didn’t ask him for anything until she had given the aid in some way. We walked right over the ground poles where we were supposed to be stopping several times before T was convinced I really wasn’t going to do it for her. After that, she would respond every time, and occasionally she would even give the vocal and physical aids simultaneously. There were two keys I learned last week about working with the mentally handicapped students and T in particular: 1. she had to know that I wasn’t going to do it for her and 2. her attention had to be on me.
So I tried the same tools last night as we working a figure 8 pattern and concentrating on turning. It took more than half the lesson for me to get T to do anything with the reins. She was being a real stinker, and it became obvious very quickly that she’s a whole lot smarter than she wants us to think she is. I can tell she knows exactly what she’s supposed to be doing, she just doesn’t want to. She also learned very quickly that by purposely not looking at me, I didn’t have her attention. A key with T is to get her eyes on you, or she ignores you completely. Randy (the instructor) was working with the students on two point, and T would purposely look away from him so he couldn’t make her do it.
At any rate, I finally got T to actually pull on the reins several times by threatening to run Sam into the wall. I told her that she had to tell him to turn or we would run into the wall. I didn’t have to carry it out because she learned pretty quickly the previous week that I wasn’t joking. T didn’t like this method, and showed her displeasure by throwing the reins away (which is a common reaction for her when she’s ticked or annoyed that she can’t get away with doing nothing or if you tease her). She knew she couldn’t avoid doing what she was supposed to just by avoiding eye contact.
It would be easy to chalk T’s difficulties up to her disability, but in the two weeks I’ve worked with her I’ve come to believe that she knows exactly what she’s doing. She knows what we want from her and for some reason doesn’t want to give it easily.
I was discouraged after last night’s lesson because I felt like T didn’t accomplish as much as she had the week before. Looking back though, I realize that I learned even more about her and how to work with her. My key observation was that she’s a whole lot smarter than she wants us to think. Case in point: despite acting like she didn’t have a clue what I was asking her to do the whole night, she caught and remembered that Randy said I would be in trouble if T threw her reins again … even though he was goofing around with her from the opposite end of the ring. She kept telling me that I was going to be in trouble if she did it again … with quite a mischevious grin on her face.