Tonka and I have been going for walks.
The walking is in addition to riding. Although Tonka is turned out during the day, he doesn’t move much. Not in the snow. Not when hay is right at his feet.
A horse is designed to eat and move. Bite. Step. Repeat. In the course of a day, a horse in a natural wide-open plains environment might walk a dozen or more miles. In comparison, our stabled horses are couch potatoes.
Riding in an arena isn’t a replacement for walking. An hour in the saddle might cover 3 miles (I keep track of this with an app.) Right now, I am gradually easing Tonka back into under-saddle work, so at best we’re traveling only 2 miles daily.
I could lunge him, but I don’t want Tonka to repeatedly circle. That could strain his recovering sacroiliac joint.
So we walk. The field is deep in snow, the roads have been too icy, and the strong winds too brutally cold, to walk outside, but this week we’re experiencing the January thaw, so out we went! It’s especially good physical therapy for Tonka to walk up and down hills.
Look at his face. One ear is on me, and there’s an expression that says, This is work!
I take pride and pleasure in the fact that I have a bold horse, that I can ride alone on trails. But that’s not all temperament. It’s also training, and that training can deteriorate. The less we do, the more constrained our space, the less brave he gets. So, it was very good to walk down the road, past another farm with horses, and flags blowing in the wind, and trucks rattling by.
Although I sometimes do clicker training, and sometimes I train with food, this walk was not one of those times. Other people handle Tonka. He needs to be able to be led without the expectation of a food reward. That’s okay. There are other things about walking down the road that I can use to reinforce his good behavior. Getting out and about is intrinsically enjoyable for him. Horses are curious animals that are primed to explore their world. Also, hanging out with me is rewarding (horses do value being with friends.) If something worries Tonka (he’s not fond of mailboxes) I let him look, then, when there is that first moment of relaxation, I pet him and tell him how brilliant a horse he is. A pat on the neck means nothing to the horse unless it is paired with other, good things. In fact, a pat could just as easily be seen as an unwelcome slap. I’ve conditioned Tonka to associate a pat with a myriad of things that he likes – carrots, scratches in just the right place, permission to graze, or a rest from work. (Side note: petting your horse when riding him is not rewarding because of the pat per se. That slap, slap, slap and saying good boy is not actually pleasurable for a horse. But, the horse comes to associate a pat with a release of rein tension and rider pressure, thus it becomes a conditioned reinforcer. Rewards when riding will have to be another post!)
If there is something truly scary, I can use a behavior that I trained – the touch – which almost always replaces fear with confidence. For that, I do have cookies in my pocket. But since feeding him is rewarding to me, (that happy munching of a horse!) I restrain myself from using it unless absolutely necessary, or I would do it all the time! A walk down the road is not a training session. It’s just a walk down the road. If Tonka thinks we’re in a training session, he’s “on” and it will not be a relaxed amble. Going on an undemanding meander is good both physically and mentally for your horse. Of course, even when the walking seems boring, I’m interacting with Tonka, and everything we do has consequences, and affects what happens next, so in that sense training is always happening. But that’s not the same thing as a training session, with my expectation of attentive engagement, and my horse’s expectation of food rewards for his behavior.
I have noticed that all of this undemanding walking is good for Tonka’s mind. He settles right right into a content, relaxed place. All of this walking is having a positive effect on his physical rehab, too.
This is how Tonka stood, back in October, before the sacroiliac joint treatment. Notice the braced, wide stance behind.
Here he is, this week.
I like to think that with all of this walking, that I’m getting fitter, too. Maybe, maybe not. But I am enjoying this companionable time with my horse.