Horsing in the Rain

18 02 2009

It is no fun for either horse or human to work in the rain. But sometimes it has to be done.

ladyhawkeNot the best picture, but its wet here!

I took Ladyhawke out today. She is a pretty polite girl. I let her buck and play in the round pen for a bit so she could get some energy out. When she was done, she came to me in the center of the pen. I asked her to walk with me. She walked right along with me. When I asked for an inside turn (turn toward me), she moved herself around me to remain right at my side. “Good girl.” When I asked for an outside turn (turn away from me), she faltered a little bit. Instead of yielding away from me, she stopped moving forward and lifted her head, likely reacting to the pressure I was putting on her left shoulder and neck. Not physical pressure. I was merely walking into her neck. Because these were new requests, I decided to let her have that one. I continued on and turned in front of her. She then made an inside turn and joined me at my side.

No technically, this is not correct. What she should have done was when I began to turn into her, she should have yielded the space and stepped away from me while staying at my side. Instead she reacted to my pressure by halting and saying, “Not cool with that.” She was taking the dominant role and telling me no. As I said above, these were new requests, she was doing pretty well, so I let it slide. After doing a few more turns, I put her halter on, and we exited the round pen. Behind the main house there is a creek and a flat grassy area. I wanted to see if Ladyhawke trusted me or if she would resist being taken out of sight of the other horses.

We walked down the short path to the flat grassy area. Ladyhawke’s breathing quickened, and she became very twitchy. I thought, “Oh boy.” By the time we got to the bottom of the hill to the grassy area, she had completely forgotten I existed. Every sound she heard could be the boogie man coming for her! She bolted forward a couple of times and swinging her whole body all around. After about 5 minutes, I’d seen enough. I walked her back up to the round pen to work more on her confidence and trust. Leading a horse to a new placeis a good way to evaluate how well they are actually listening to you. Its one thing to be in a place they feel secure in and have them behave. There is no real threat and if the horse is a kind horse, she may comply with your requests because its in her nature. But once put into a situation where she may feel threatened or insecure, you can quickly determine how much the horse trusts you. Ladyhawke clearly did not trust me yet.

Once back in the round pen, I thought I’d change subjects and work on respect. I brought some food into the pen, put it down, and asked Ladyhawke over. She came over and plowed into the food. After a couple of minutes, I walked away from her. I circled around behind her to see if she was paying attention. She was not…..

Now was the time for the “Taking Space” ritual of Carolyn Resnick‘s. In the “Taking Space” ritual, the point is to surprise the horse and run them off the food. In horse herds, only the lead horse would do this. In horse society, one horse may establish dominance over another by surprising him. Back to Ladyhawke. Since she was not paying attention, I was able to surprise her and run her off the food. She was shocked and went to the other side of the pen and looked at me. Over the next few minutes, she walked over a couple of time and I shoo-ed her away. The point is for her to give up on getting the food. Once she does that, she can have it. It helps to establish that I control her food, just like her mother would have done.

So here’s where it gets cool. Ladyhawke did give up. She settled in over at the other end of the round pen. At that point, I said “Good girl!!!!” I walked a bit away from the food and invited her to me. She wasn’t real sure, but she came to me. I told her what a great girl she was and I led her over to the food. She looked at me and I directed her down to the food. What a good girl. After several minutes, I went to leave Ladyhawke. I wanted to get behind her again to see if she was watching. I circled around behind. At this point, she moved her butt in order to keep me in her sights. Good girl! That is what she is supposed to do. Horses in a herd keep an eye on the lead horse. If they don’t they get surprised.

I went back over to Ladyhawke. I groomed her a bit and then went to leave again. This time she came with me! She voluntarily left the food to come with me. I’m not sure if I inadvertently asked her to come with me or not. I was so pleased! I told her what an angel she was then led her back to the food. To make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I again walked away from her. She picked up her head and followed! I was beyond pleased. She chose to leave the food to come be with me. So sweet.

Ok. Now I wanted to readdress the trust issues she had with walking down the path to the creek. We walked back and forth in front of her paddock each time going further towards the path. I kept her attention on me by asking her to stop, back up, and turn. By keeping her busy, she didn’t have much time to freak out. We got about halfway to the path without her getting worried. I thought that was a great ending to a great, but wet day.


R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Using a cocktail of trainers

12 02 2009

So today I went out to see Picasso. It has been raining like cats and dogs here for a few days. We desperately need the rain, so I’ll refrain from complaining….. too much. I went out and put a halter on The Man. Robin Gates told me about a nice little “pulse check” tool. She said a horse may move away when asked, but can you control his nose? She said I should be able to move his head left, right, up down, back, and forward. So I took hold of Picasso’s halter, one hand on either side of his nose, and proceeded to test. He gave down, he gave up. He gave left. When we tried for right, he moved his butt around so as to avoid actually giving. I repositioned him and asked again. He gave this time. We tried all directions and except for a couple of hiccups, he did great.

Now for food! As we did the other day, we were going to practice “head up” and “head down.” I placed his grain in a flat rubber pan and put it down. I told him to wait, then grabbed his halter, pulling gently down, saying “head down.” Once he was thoroughly engrossed in his grain, I said “Head up.” He brought his head up. It wasn’t panicky, but he brought it up quickly. “Good boy!” I waited to see if he would try to drop his head. He held still, so I said “head down” while pulling gently on the halter. We did this a few more times while he finished his grain. I tried to extend the “head up and hold” time so that he learned it wasn’t always going to be a quick up and down. I want him to learn he can’t go down until I say “head down.” He’s doing good.

Now for my trainer cocktail. Thanks to Robin, I have a better idea of how Picasso subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) shows his disrespect. One way is that when we walk together, he will either walk ahead of me or try to get his head behind me. Both of these are attempts at dominating and controlling where I go. He will also subtly move into me to try and alter my direction. I remember Carolyn Resnick saying that hand walking was a good way to develop a bond. So I decided now we be a good time to walk to our mailbox. We live on an about 3/4 mile dirt road. So its a nice 10 min walk to and from the mailbox. As we walked out of the stable yard, I remembered an exercise Paul Dufresne had me do at a clinic. He asked the whole group to get on the rail and lead our horses. “Ok this game is called ‘How Fast Can You Go; How Slow Can You Go,'” he said. As we walked around he would shout out, “How Slow Can You Go!” and we were supposed to slow our walk down to….. as slow as we could go. Our horse was supposed to stay with us and adjust his speed. Alternately, when he shouted “How Fast Can You Go,” we were supposed to walk as fast as we could while still walking. Our horses were supposed to adjust their speed accordingly. I did this clinic with my mustang, Rowdy. Rowdy, of course, had mastered the exercise even before we started it. (Why oh why did I SELL HIM!!!!) (sigh) Anyway, I thought Picasso should learn this exercise…..again.

We started down the road. At first Picasso attention was everywhere but me. So I took a tidbit from Chris Irwin. Chris says that when a horse looks away from you, two things are happening. 1) The horse is saying, “That thing over there is more important than you. If I decide its scary, we’re leaving.” 2) The horse is bowing their ribcage into the handler. This is a sign of disrespect and invasion of space. Chris solution is by using you hand, bump the horse in the ribs. This is a like little “pay attention” button. By doing this, I am essentially “calling the horse out” on their disrespect. With the proper sized bump, the horse will turn their head back to straight and will be paying attention again. So, as Picasso stared off into the bushes. I reached over and bumped him in the ribs. He ignored me…. I bumped harder. There we go, now he was back.

We walked down the road in what was thankfully a break in the rain. I altered my speed from creeping to speed walking and back to regular. At first Picasso just stopped when I slowed down. I said nope, move your buns. He then would get ahead. I would say no, maybe give him a tap on the chest with my whip handle. He was a bit miffed that I was making him pay close attention. As we walked along, I decided to see how he would do at a job. Recently, he has been snarky and would pin his ears at me when we trotted together. He tried it today. I stopped very quickly. He halted right next to me with a shocked look on his face. I grinned…. “Got ya.” He walked on. All the way down the road, I alternated speeds. Near the end of the road, I could see Picasso battling with himself to pay attention! “There were so many things to look at, but she might change speed. Must keep an eye on this one….” I could see him look off and then bring his ear around to me and his head straight, almost like he was saying, “Bad Picasso.”

At the end of the road, we stopped to check my mailbox. No mail. Phoo….

On the way back, I thought lets try the right side. I want to keep him ambidextrous. The right side was definitely more rusty and it took more correcting. But as we walked up the hill to the ranch gate, he was doing much better. His halts were crisp, he stayed with me, and he was paying attention!

This day just goes to show you don’t have to follow any one trainer. You can integrate the teachings of many and achieve customized programs with great results. Each horse is unique and requires a unique approach. I’ll leave you with a shot of the massive rainbow over the barn this afternoon.


Teaching Picasso some manners

10 02 2009

So I visited a great trainer this weekend. Her name is Robin Gates. She is down in Sonoma County. Robin does liberty training and uses Carolyn Resnick’s method, since they have been close friends for years. I had sent Robin some clips of horses I have worked with in order to get some feedback on my technique. We discussed some of the overarching philosophy of her training and how to properly apply it. We mainly discussed my dear Picasso. It seems I have let him become a wee bit disrespectful.

As I sit and reflect on Robin’s advice, I realize I let Picasso do some things I would never accept from a client’s horse. In one clip, you can see Picasso “herding” me. I would not allow another horse to do that, but I guess in my attempt to get my horse to LOVE me, I let him get away with some naughty things. Now I am tasked with fixing this pattern.

So Robin gave me some great advice and some great tasks. The first was to teach Picasso the “head up” and “head down” cues. Basically, while he is eating something (hay, grass, grain) I should be able to control when he eats and when he doesn’t. This is the first lesson a horse learns from his mom or from the herd. My task was to say “Head up!” If Picasso did not respond, I should say it again and this time give him a tap somewhere (I chose his withers) to get his head to pop up. If it came up, I should praise and then give him the head down cue and pull his head down by the halter. In this way, Picasso will learn “head up” means bring your head up; “head down” means bring your head down. Also, I am not to use the lead line in any way to direct his head.

Because Picasso is a piggy, I had to chose how hard the tap should be. I felt it needed to be a medium sized tap. Hard enough to get that head up, but not so hard he flipped down. So I brought Picasso over to some nice, juicy grass. He thought…… well he thought of nothing but the grass. All other things on earth disappeared as he wrapped his lips around that first mouthful of juicy, grassiness. I let him get all situated with a snort full of grass. As he was merrily munching away, I made sure my lead rope was slack, stepped next to his withers and said “Head up!” Nothing…… So I said it again and this time followed it with a whack with the end of my lead rope at his withers.

Whoa! His head came up in total shock. He took a few steps backward and just looked at me. “What the hell was that for?” Okay, maybe that was a wee bit hard. I said “Good boy” and before he could get his head back down (which he was half way through doing anyway) I grabbed his halter and gently pulled his head down saying “Head down.”

Okay, now I needed to do it again, but this time with a bit less enthusiasm. I layed the lead rope over his back to assure myself I wouldn’t pull on it. I let Picasso get delirious with the grass again and then I said “Head up.” I followed it with a tap with my hand to his withers. His head came up again like it was spring loaded. He took one step away from me, probably hoping that I would leave him alone if he moved. He started to drop his head, so I grabbed his halter again and pulled down saying “Head down.” He learned that cue very quickly.. Go figure………

I siddled up to his withers again, rubbing his back, and cooing to him. I then said “Head up,” waiting to see if he would bring his head up without the tap. He brought it up, but only about halfway. He appeared to be weighing his choices. “If I don’t bring it up, I get a tap; but what will happen if I do bring it up?” He knew I would tap him if he didn’t do it, so about halfway up his eye was on me, waiting to see what I would do. He then brought it all the way up. I said “Good,” and quickly took him by the halter and said “Head down.”

In an effort to give him a break and let him forget I was there again, I then took my shedding brush and proceeded to “de-mud” my not-so-grey grey horse. I groomed him for a bit and then wanted to see if he would still bring his head up. I said “Head up.” Picasso immediately and efficiently brought his head up. Once up, he started to go down. I said “Uh uh.” He kept it up for a few seconds. I was trying to get him to realize the command is “Keep your head up until I say head down.” I then said “Good boy.” “Good boy” for Picasso seems to mean “You’re done.” So again he tried to drop his head. I said “Uh uh.” He kept it up a few more seconds. I then grabbed his halter and said “Head down.”

Over the course of maybe 20 minutes, we did this dance a few more times. By the end, I could say “Head up” and his head would come up. When I said “Good boy,” he would still try to drop, but I would then say “Uh uh” and he would keep it up. I then said “Head down” and he needed no encouragement to drop his head back into grass heaven.

Ms. Zephyrine

7 02 2009

I had this great little mare in for training during the fall of 2008.  Her name is Zephyrine, aka Zephy. Zephy is a 3 yr old Andalusian-Arabian.  Zephy is a dream girl.  She is sweet, spunky, curious, and down right gorgeous!

When Zephy first arrived, she stepped off the trailer and immediately there was an energy in the air around her.

zephy1Look at that face!

Along with being all those descripters above, Zephy was also opinionated.  Before she was brought to me, I went down to her home to meet her.  While there I discovered she wasn’t a fan of the “squeeze”, i.e. going through doorways or anywhere there was a solid wall on at least one side.  I also discovered she was a bit “sided.” Zephy was not a fan of being led, pet, or at all messed with on the right side.  While fiddling with her at our first meeting, I would go on to her right side and she would deftly move herself around to put me back on her left side.  Cute….

So, back to her arrival to me.  The day after she arrived, I went down to get Ms Zephy.  I thought I’d grab Picasso too, walking two horses…. no biggie. Oh was I wrong. I had Picasso, I went to grab Zephy. As Picasso stood outside her pasture, I haltered her and made her walk through her gate, not fly. Well, at this point I thought I wa safe. No…… Little did I know, the tarp of death was at her feet. As I walked Picasso over it, Zephy launched herself over the tarp. She rammed into meand then flew by me. Two of my rather long nails snapped backwards and I got a massive rope burn across my hand. Once over the tarp, Zephy was still wired. Turns out this was her M.O. When pressured or spooked, she would spurt forward. I was able to remedy this tendency with one session, although total habit rehab took more time. We started with leg yields so she knew what I meant when I told her to move her hinny.

When Zephy looks away from me, she bends her ribcage into me or into my space. That, in horse society, is disrespectful. She is essentially saying, “That thing over there is way more important than you, so if I decide it’s too scary, we’re leaving.” So, by tapping her ribs, I am calling her on her disrespect and asking for her attention. Its amazing how subtly a horse can show lack of respect for their handler. Carolyn Resnick talks about how horses will nip each other when one horse is not paying attention. Horses establish hierarchy by catching each other of guard. If I can surpirse Zephy when she is not paying attention to me, I can establish my leadership. I am always aware of her, she needs to be always aware of me. As you can see, she improves dramatically after only a few repetitions.

Zephy has a great heart and mind. More on Zephy later.