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.