Fell Pony mares Sleddale Rose Beauty and Willowtrail Wild Rose showed me a different version of the Squeeze Game the other day. The Squeeze Game is one of the seven games of Parelli Natural Horsemanship. It is about confidence in tight spaces such as gates, trailers, and over jumps. In training sessions on the ground, I start out with a squeeze game between me and a fence, standing several yards back from the fence and gradually moving closer, making sure that the pony stays calm and confident going through the narrowing gap and turning to face on either side of me.
I took some of the ponies back to ‘summer’ pasture last week, and I learned a lot about how different it is in winter. From my perspective, other than the ground being mostly covered by snow, the biggest difference was that the Michigan River was partially covered with ice. I didn’t think it was that big a deal, though, since I’ve seen Beauty walk out on ice in other places. But I was wrong. The sound of the river water flowing against and through the ice, similar to swirling water and ice cubes in a glass, was of great concern to the ponies. It seemed as though the river that provided them water during the summer and that they crossed willingly on a regular basis had turned into some sort of menace. During the few hours that I had the ponies at pasture, they stayed as far away from it as they could.
Beauty and Rose, however, did venture closer. There is a fence that runs perpendicular to the river, with a gap of about ten feet along the river giving them access to a small yard and shed. I left the pasture for an hour, and during that time Beauty and Rose had gone around the end of the fence into the shed yard. When I returned, I saw them there, and then I saw them exhibiting some very strange behavior. They would run along the shed side of the yard fence but then slam to a stop when they got close to the river and run back the other way. They wanted to come to me, but they were too afraid to go around the end of the fence near the river.
Their fear concerned me, so I started walking toward them. This caused them to charge the river a few more times and then retreat. Meanwhile, the rest of the ponies were watching them with concern since Beauty is the lead mare and was obviously upset. As I got to the fence I could see that my presence was calming them somewhat, and when I entered the yard, Rose came to say hello. Then I got to see the different version of the Squeeze Game. I stepped back and stood at the edge of the river, creating a gap of about eight feet to the end of the fence. Rose touched my outstretched hand then scooted around the end of the fence and ran to the rest of the herd. My presence between her and the river apparently gave her confidence to overcome her fear of the sounds behind me and enable her escape from ‘jail.’ Beauty then approached me, touched my outstretched hand and then also scooted around the end of the fence and back to the rest of the herd.
I knew the Squeeze Game was about developing confidence in navigating tight spaces, but I’d never considered my role in the game other than as fence post and director. Beauty and Rose showed me that my presence can actually instill confidence. I’ll never play the Squeeze Game quite the same way again now that I understand how great my role can be.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011