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.