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What is stickiness? Should you fear it?

A new favorite horsemanship word of mine is “stickiness.” And I don’t mean old-chewing-gum-on-the-sole-of-my-shoe stickiness, or the kind you get on your fingers when you hand-feed your horse a juicy pear. This new “stickiness” is a great word to replace “misbehavior” or “recalcitrance” when working a horse.

I’ve heard it here or there, used in this new context, but it never resonated as well as it did when I recently took my young gelding to be “colt started” with Patrick King in Pennsylvania. Now, my daughter and I had seen Patrick King at the Maryland Horse Expo in Baltimore in 2015.

He was one of many brilliant clinicians that put on clinics there, and we were impressed with his skill on a horse and ability to convey complicated information in a friendly, easy to understand manner. “We’re going to take a clinic with him one day,” we told each other, nodding our heads in unison.

Well, that day came almost two years later, but right at the perfect moment. I had been training my first colt, Txoko (pronounced Ch-O-co), for a year and a half, and he was ready for the next step: being ridden under saddle. I had saddled him up and even gotten up and walked around a bit on him, but knew it was time to amp up the speed at which I was riding him. Problem was, just the thought of it amped up my fear and nervousness to inane levels. I needed help. I needed moral support. Where to turn? To Patrick King. From him, I got both.

I trailered up to the Let’s Dance Dressage barn where, for one hour a day over five days, Patrick worked with Choco to finish “starting”him. First he showed me a new pre-riding groundwork exercise that helped not only put my horse in a hind-end-engaged and relaxed physical frame, but also worked to get his mind framed up and ready for the rider, too.

Patrick worked him at a walk, and then at a trot for a few minutes. I was about to ask Patrick when he was going to give Txoko a break and was astonished to see Txoko licking and chewing as he was moving around, not needing a break from the exercise to feel release; his proper body positioning and the engagement of his hind end was giving him the release! His overall demeanor became focused and relaxed, and Patrick hopped on.

The beauty was, since Txoko’s mind was already tuned in and he understood on the ground that Patrick’s tapping him with the whip on the hind end meant engage that hind leg and bend to the inside of it, one little tap while under saddle and Txoko started his walk with a beautiful bend!

Okay, I know, you’re asking, “So where does stickiness come in?” Not yet is my answer. But, I’ll fast forward the story (are you happy now?) to get there.

Txoko was moving forward nicely, and, when asked, turning in to the roundpen’s center to make smaller circles, but, all of a sudden, he just couldn’t seem to do what was being asked of him. I know my horse so well! I saw it in his face--it was like his mind drew a blank and he just couldn’t figure out what was being asked of him, and he was getting nervous. Instantly, he was physically “stuck” in place. Looking back, I can see how he was first mentally stuck, and this then translated to stickiness in his limbs.

Patrick, in that moment, just kept asking for the bend and the hind leg to engage, and commented, “We’ll just work through this sticky spot. We’ll help him get unstuck.”

And, just like that, you could see a wash of relief come over Txoko’s face, a “lightbulb” moment as it were, and he almost shouted “Oh! You want me to do that? Ok!” His legs moved fluidly, his mouth stopped working nervously on the bit, and he flowed forward as if that sticky moment had never happened.

I had felt this kind of stickiness in him before, and it had made me extremely nervous to proceed. How did I know what it would take to get him “unstuck”? Would it involve his engaging in equine aerial acrobatics? I didn’t have the courage to find out. But, watching him work with Patrick, I didn’t see even the tiniest of intentions from Txoko’s part to act out in a dangerous way. All I saw was confusion and, yes, stickiness.

Later, when it was my turn to get on him, I sat on him and felt Txoko under me as I could only have ever hoped to have him: relaxed, connected, ready for adventure. My fear dissolved in an instant. Nothing sticky there! Nothing to fear. I tapped him with the whip on his hind, and off we went, as if he and I had been trotting around loosely all our lives. When, on the last day, it was time for me to canter him around, again, it felt so natural, so anti-climactic---I couldn’t have been more ecstatic!

So now, when I see a horse confused, unable to respond properly, or working up some strong anxiety, I think of it as stickiness, and immediately determine whether I should persevere and let him find his way through it to the unstuck side, or stop, take a break, help him let down his anxiety, and then pick up where we left off.

Either way, we will work together to find our way to a non-sticky place, where our communication flows and our joy is mutual. And, should we be unable to get there ourselves, I know who to call!

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