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The "Troll Bridge"

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February has seen steady progress for Sherlock, we have started to add some schooling work to our hacking, and we even did a Dressage competition . The real learning for me this month, however,  has been with the “Troll Bridge”.

We have met this bridge before, it is near to our Farrier in <BLOG_BREAK>North Yorkshire. Sometimes when we box over to be shod I will take Sherlock for a ride in the beautiful countryside. The bridge is safe, a proper “horse bridge” with high sides. It does not look very inviting though, narrow so your feet could touch both sides, it takes you over a chasm with rushing water underneath, it makes a hollow “Trip Trap” sound, plus you can see through it to the water below, in fact I will attach a photo!

The first time we met this bridge Sherlock walked boldly up, until his feet touched the wood, it made a scary noise and he could see the water, and BAM, he reversed quickly away. When I asked him to go closer I was met with a very emphatic NO, and at that time there seemed little negotiation! We made it across though, in double quick time, as I decided to dismount and lead him over.

The reason that was in my mind was that Sherlock and I have a better relationship on the ground than ridden. I have just put this down to the practice we have done with our ground games, the stepping on the mat, the lorry loading, the clipping (see Sherlock’s Clipping Diary http://www.upbeatequestrian.co.uk/sherlocksdiaries.html) and just the general games that we play. On the ground it seems that Sherlock trusts me!

On the first day with the Troll Bridge it was instinct that told me to dismount. I guess that staying mounted I was at that time on a hiding to nothing, Sherlock had locked down his thoughts on the small matter of the Troll Bridge, and maybe I still need to develop myself further in ridden tact as I have in the ground work. I believed that he was genuinely worried about the bridge, and I also appreciated that if I were to give Sherlock a lead over the bridge, he would see that it were safe.

So, the bridge, I led him over, asking a step at a time, Sherlock at my elbow as he knows to be, and we went straight over. I re-mounted and away we went for our ride. As it had been such an easy experience I soon forgot the whole Troll Bridge experience. That was last autumn and I recollect a fantastic ride in the sun, out for a couple of hours, and we were even approached by a herd of bullocks, which were a bit pushy for my liking. Just home from America I made use of my cattle herding experience and instead of them pushing on us, I turned the tables, we rounded them up and we pushed THEM away from US! Happy days!!

In January we met the Troll Bridge again after we had been for shoeing. This time Sherlock remembered the bridge before I did, he was hanging on my leg before we even got there. I corrected his tardiness with a schooling whip, if you see January’s blog it was about him offering energy with a light request, so he mainly took the correction, but he was not happy. When we got to the bridge there was stalemate. If I asked him forwards it was like nudging a brick wall. If I insisted it turned into a backwards. I could feel that if I got any stronger it would lead to unwanted behaviour, we got as far as a spin and a lock up.

Hmmm, stuck here. I don’t want to allow Sherlock to “get away” with stuff, believe me he is a bright young man and if I allow him the topside of me in this I know it would spill over into other stuff. Well, it was about three months previously  when he saw the bridge, so, fair game, I could make this easier for him, I dismounted and led him over. That again was no problem, straight over. But it is a problem to me. Sherlock is primarily an eventer (Oh, OK, you have me, he is primarily LOVED, his secondary role is that of an eventer!) and if there is a scary fence (or bridge for that matter)in competition  I cannot get off and drag him over! So, this time I did not feel it OK to just re-mount and ride away. No, this time I wanted Sherlock to respond to my mounted request to cross the bridge.

Still on the reverse side of the bridge I re-mounted and requested he went over, to ride back over the bridge. Hey presto, he did, no problem! WOW, that was easier than I thought. Big pats, and smiles. Then I turned to ride him over the original way, and NO! He was again well and truly stuck.

Now, at one time this would have offended my ego! I would have redoubled my efforts to ORDER Sherlock across the bridge! I did this with Sherlock just the once, it was at his first visit to the Sea Side. We had gone with Andy and Charlie, and the tide was quite high. Sherlock was in a state of high excitement, but he held it together. We had just walked up the beach, trotted a few circles in the sand and were heading back. Half way back, smiling at a successful first visit, my judgement got the better of me and despite Sherlock’s raised stress levels I decided to try to order him into the sea.

I found out that day that I am not capable of ORDERING Sherlock to do anything! I did not even have a whip or spurs on me, but a demon took me over and I tried to kick and insist, and there was over an hour of upset. I did in fact “win”, Sherlock apparently “gave in” but the fallout of loss of trust lasted many months. I would seem that when faced with a new stressful situation Sherlock would now not look to me for help, he would see me as a further hazard and I do wonder if some of the trouble with the Troll Bridge is still a fallout from this.

I do think that insisting and even using a whip has its place, I just think that when the horse is genuinely scared, THAT is NOT the place!

So, I was sat on Sherlock, looking at the bridge, wondering how to overcome this stalemate. I ask him forwards, he says NO. I decide to work from the premise that he is in fact scared rather than stubborn. It is a puzzle why he will lead over and ride back. I think it may be because of that first time, when he was going to try the bridge  the noise really did startle him. He has never been startled riding back or leading out, but riding out over the bridge is the really scary thing! It did not feel like nappyness, there was something clicked in Sherlock’s mind about the bridge boundary.

I decide to lead him over quite a few times. He follows, almost with a sense of boredom! So, I reason, the problem is when ridden, at the front of the bridge, maybe we need to spend some more time there? So, we do. Not just leading back and forward over the bridge, but spending some time at the “Danger Zone” walking on, stopping, then continuing. Returning, walking on, stopping and reversing. By the time we are done Sherlock feels safe enough to try to chew the rail whilst half on and half off the bridge!

So, I re-mount. I ask him forward over the bridge and...........brick wall!

I reason that now we have been over the bridge so many times that Sherlock SHOULD go over. Dangerous word “Should”. I urge him forwards, bump him with my legs. Soon we are running backwards, he even manages to spin round. This is going the wrong way. I stop and take a deep breath. Sherlock is looking very unhappy.


Funnily enough at this time my phone rings and as I am not sure what to do next I take the call. It is about work, and I sit and sort that out. Then I put the phone down and regroup my senses. Actually we are doing well, we have been standing near the bridge for some time.

I decide to try this bit by bit, obviously for Sherlock to just “walk over the bridge” is too much at present. I know better than to to “Should’ve myself”! So, regroup, what do we have. I gently ask Sherlock forwards and we do a step. Aha! Now, rather than ask for MORE I actually reward him for that one very small step. We stand while he snorts at the bridge, what a brave young man, he moved forwards even though worried. I appreciate the move he HAS made rather than being dissatisfied that we are not over.

Hey, was I after the Macro goal again? Rather than appreciating the whole micro goal, that really is the big picture, that Sherlock was trying?????

After a while he relaxes, and even looks around some. Aha, if he is relaxed enough to look around, he is ready for the next step, in fact it is a “wrong decision” for Sherlock to stop concentrating on the problem. So, I ask again. One step, and he gives it. We are talking a step of maybe 1 or two inches here, but it was in the correct direction.

Bit by bit we inch up, until, we hit the imaginary brick wall at the edge of the bridge. Hmmm, brick wall. I can almost feel it. I wait, Sherlock loses focus, so I ask forwards again. NO. Hmmm, well, I can feel the brick wall too, so rather than be frustrated with Sherlock I decide that if forwards is out, let’s explore where the boundaries of the brick wall are. So, I ask SIDEWAYS! Now, Sherlock is again following my direction, we step sideways. We do this a few times. I am pleased ( a breakthrough for me as previously I would have had my ego shout at me that he has not gone FORWARDS yet), so I quietly ride him away with big pats.

We regroup and try again. One step at a time until we are at the wall. Explore the wall. Turn and regroup. Finally we got to the wall, explored the wall, and suddenly I could feel the wall melt. It was almost tangible. The wall melted, I asked Sherlock forwards and we walked over the bridge! No panic, just a stroll in the park!

That ride was funny. The bridge had taken about 1 ½ hours, and Sherlock had some residual tension. We trotted up the hill leaping and squealing!

This weekend we revisited the Farrier for our February shoeing. I took my tack and set out for our ride that would start over the Troll Bridge. I really want to sort this out, to show Sherlock that I can be trusted not to “go off on one” in a stressful situation. Again Sherlock was hanging on my leg. As we walked up the lane I thought about this. The actual bridge, when we did it, was not stressful at all, we strolled over. So why the tension? I guess it may be because both times I HAD at some point tried to FORCE him over. This time I resolved that we would think this through and work it out together.

We walked right up to the edge of the bridge first time, good brave boy, but at that boundary point there was the imaginary brick wall and we ground to a halt. This time it was different though, no upset. Sherlock went to the boundary and tested it with his feet. I was pleased, he trusted that I would not hijack him and force him. But, the wall was there.

As Sherlock had gone straight to the bridge boundary I know he was trying. So, I dismounted and led him across and back. Yes, it is safe. Now to convince him that mum is as good and trustworthy a leader on his back as on the ground.

We did it as before, one step at a time, when we reached the wall, explore it side to side. Then ride away and rest. I don’t see this as rewarding him for disobedience, as I rewarded him after I had asked him sideways and he complied.

Soon we had one foot on the bridge. I asked forwards, and he thought that was too much, and we reversed. I asked him to stop, it took a while, he was tense. Was I going to ORDER him? No, we did the side to side again, right back to the point where I made the mistake, and stayed there while I sent a text! (I KNOW doesn’t SOUND good, but it was off road, and it relaxed me!).

We did this a few times, I was feeling when there was a wall, I was exploring what was a “mistake” and what was a reasonable “ask”. Then I got the timing right. It was not like the feeling last time when the wall melted, this time the wall was still there in Sherlock’s mind, but I asked at the right time, and he went onto the bridge. And strolled over. This time we were calmer on the other side of the bridge. Plus this time it took less than ½ an hour start to finish, including my thinking time!

I have showed the photo of the “Troll Bridge” to some people, as I was a little disappointed that it still took this long and it felt like I needed validation. Most people have said that with such a scary bridge we did well. I think I need to examine why it is important to me what “Most People” think!!!

I am interested as to what Sherlock will be like next time we go here. It will help me understand what the actual fear is, how I can help. One thing that some people asked was if I was scared? Hmmm, no not of the bridge, I know that is safe. If I had tried to FORCE Sherlock over then I WOULD have been scared as we would have been going over all tense, and probably would have slipped on the wooden slats. If I had tried really hard to FORCE Sherlock then that would have been scary too- Sherlock is quite an “athletic” horse (!). But no, it felt more like an exploration than a confrontation. And exploration is interesting and even fun!

And YES, for those of you who know the tale of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” OF COURSE as we were going over I chanted “Who’s that Trip Trapping over MY bridge?”!!!  

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  1. cordy coupland

    What an amazing story. I am excited to reread it. I feel as if I was there with Sherlock and you. I felt his fear, it seems. This is a great gift of growth that you share with us. Thank you.

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