Thanks to Jane Hester, our resident obstacle course builder and groundplay maestro, we now have a bridge teeter-totter at Flintrock Farm. She ordered the plans from Horses Just Wanna Have Fun, then bought the materials at Lowe’s. Eleazar, who works at Flintrock, built the teeter-totter.
We humans love the contraption; our horses have differing opinions of it. Some walk across it without a flinch, weathering the downward trajectory without a hint of alarm. Others won’t go near it, eyeing the teeter-totter as if it were a fire-breathing dragon. Most are willing to put a hoof or two on it, then scuttle away when things get tippy.
I assumed Mystic would be fine with the teeter-totter since he’s relatively phlegmatic about obstacles and crosses bridges easily. “Should I just ride Mystic across it?” I asked Kate. She looked at me with a startled expression; the subtext was Are you crazy? Diplomatically, she said, “I think it would be best to practice on the ground.”
Indeed. Turns out Mystic is not entirely stoic about teeter-totters. After a great deal of flicking the stick and string at his hindquarters, I got him to walk across it. When the bridge teetered, he sped up and flew off. After that experience, he was unwilling to cross it again. I had no patience for his sissy reaction: He did it once, he could do it again. I hounded him nonstop; again and again, he balked. I flicked the string with increasing force and speed. He balked all the more.
Annoyed and frustrated, I asked James for help.
“The important thing is to give him time,” James said. “You need to slow everything down. And make sure he gets a release whenever he makes progress.”
He gently urged Mystic to put one foot on the bridge. “There,” James said as soon as the hoof touched the wood. “Now I give him comfort.” He gave a quick, soft stroke to Mystic’s neck.
“And now it’s time for some pressure.” James flicked the stick and string at Mystic’s hindquarters, asking him to step his other front foot onto the bridge.
And so the process went, slowly, painstakingly, with gentle, steady pressure punctuated by moments of rest and reward. Mystic teetered and tottered and stepped off the other side with grace and dignity. This time he wasn’t flustered or hurried; that’s the difference when due process is given.
I felt ashamed at how I’d tried to hustle Mystic across, obsessing about my goal and forgetting the core natural horsemanship principle of pressure and release. I had applied pressure without release. No wonder Mystic had balked. I had done to him what I too often do to myself.
I took away a few big lessons that day, ones that I have to remind myself of again and again. Focus on the process, not the goal. Reward the slightest try. And, most of all, be kind to yourself and your horse because you are both learning. Together.