“Stall Rest”

20170628_130416 (2)Galahad’s in a stall for the next few days; he refused to go back into the pasture last night.

His best friend Dancer’s owner put Dancer in the barn, unfortunately, because of the heat. It’s supposed to top 100 degrees for the next four or five days, and the thinking is that it’s better for Dance to be out of the sun.

Dance’s owner texted me mid-afternoon to let me know what was planned, and was concerned at that time about Galahad. Apparently Galahad was very upset (as was Dancer). Somehow both horses knew that this wasn’t a “take Dance out for a ride” event. How do they do that? But they knew.

I got a call from Midnight’s neighbor’s owner around dinnertime. Galahad, she said, was completely soaked with sweat and behaving strangely—standing in the corner of the pasture, then running over to the mares fence, then running back to his corner.

I dropped everything, of course, and raced out there. Poor Galahad was huddled in the far southwest corner of the pasture, as far as he could get from the other two horses—Stewart the Pony and Moose—and obviously very stressed. I took him out, and instead of standing to wait for me to close the pasture gate like he usually does, he took off for the barn at a fast walk, and I had to scramble behind him to pick up his lead rope.

I could hear Dancer screaming in the barn, and I guess that he had been screaming all afternoon, because Galahad knew exactly where he was and went directly there. They nuzzled noses a bit, and Galahad must have decided his buddy was all right, because then we went walking around for a while.

He was on edge the entire time. I  hosed him down—he had been sweating and rolling—and although that cooled him off, it did nothing for his nerves. Between bouts of standing at attention and staring at the pasture, he lawnmowered the grass between the barns, spooking at every noise. I wanted to walk him down to Midnight’s paddock to get flyspray, which I had forgotten to bring; he would have none of it. He flat-out refused to go down the lane. This was beyond his usual stubbornness. There was just no way that he was going down the road.

Finally I started to calm down and listen to him, and stop trying to get him to do anything in particular. Poor guy was so tense! About that time a friend came by and offered us some of her fly spray, and Galahad was willing to walk over to her horse’s stall and stand there while I sprayed him down. We grazed a bit longer, but I was getting hot (though the sun was behind clouds and it really wasn’t too bad, considering…), so I suggested to him that we go back to the car and get carrots, go say good night to Dancer, and head back for the pasture.

All went reasonably well, except that he wouldn’t leave Dancer’s stall…and then he parked himself out and peed, right there in the barn aisle. I don’t think I have ever seen Galahad pee outside his own stall or the pasture in the entire time I’ve had him. Nevada, yes. She’d pee while you were sitting on her—she didn’t care. But Galahad prefers not to do that kind of thing “in public.” He peed, and then he went over and looked in at Dancer—there was no question that it was deliberate.

I thought he’d leave the barn with me after that, but he wouldn’t. Apparently he was planning on spending the night right there in the aisle. After some persuasion, I got him back out and we started off to the pasture—but he was having none of that, either.

Now, Galahad is always reluctant to go back to the pasture after he’s been out, but this was really different. This was a sullen, foot-planted, leaning-back kind of refusal to move. I’d persuade him to take a step, and he’d either plant himself again or dive for grass. Either way, he was not moving. Ten minutes later, we were fifteen feet closer to the gate, and he started to side-pass toward me. That’s his way of pleading with me not to make him do whatever it is I’m asking…but there’s also a feeling of threat buried in there someplace, covering desperation. Hard to explain it but you can feel it if you’re paying attention.

It was hot, and I was tired and frustrated and worried—I’m not nearly as convinced as Dancer’s owner that a stall is a good place for horses in the heat. So I wanted to get him back into the pasture. No dice. When sidepassing didn’t work, he started to spin and dance around on the end of the rope, getting more and more agitated.

Yes, I could have MADE him go. I could have used all the Natural Horsemanship methods, “moved his feet,” and he would eventually have walked over there. I could have put him back, locked the gate, and left. But there would have been a lot of drama…and that was definitely NOT going to help his nerves. It was too much of a betrayal of our growing relationship for me to be willing to do that. And once I left, then what? A night of terror for him? “He’s just a horse; he’ll get used to it.” Yes; but at what cost?

Finally, I gave up—should have done that an hour earlier. We went back to the barn, found an open stall across from Dancer, and called the barn owners to be sure he could stay there. He went right in, and though he wasn’t best pleased when I locked him in (with lots of hay and water), he didn’t argue.

So in the end, I figured it out, the message he’d been sending me so clearly all evening long: He’s afraid to be out in the pasture without Dancer. He doesn’t feel safe there; he doesn’t trust the other two horses, all that’s left of his herd, to keep him safe. He and Dancer are OK together, but once they’re separated, he’s on his own—the worst possible thing for a herd animal.

Once I understood that, everything fell into place. This has been a terribly stressful time for the gelding herd—new members, lots of fighting, and then the loss of the two herd leaders. Charlie, mean and domineering as he is, still left Galahad feeling safe. And bossy little Otto actually would be a great herd leader if he could take his little band off by themselves—he’s very protective and capable. But those two are both gone now. Stewart the Pony apparently doesn’t inspire confidence, and easygoing Moose isn’t leader material.

Poor Galahad. His herd members are being “picked off,” one by one…maybe he’s next, eh? No wonder the poor guy is terrified to be out there alone.

So he’s on “stall rest” until the weather breaks. Wouldn’t be my choice for him, but it’s the only one I can see at the moment.

I hate Missouri summers….

 

Conversations With a Couple of Mares

dsc00174I had such a wonderful day at the Ranch today! I nearly always enjoy myself, but today I met two very special mares. So very different, but both delightful. It will be great finding good forever homes for these ladies!

The first one was very nervous at first, a hair’s breadth from quivering. Tuning in to her, what I felt was confusion and fear. She seemingly had no idea what was going to happen next, and she expected it to be unpleasant and likely dangerous. I don’t know her story, and my guess is that someone she trusted fell on hard times and this lovely girl suddenly found herself with no human connection.

She didn’t offer to do anything wrong while she was being saddled, and I talked to her to try to explain what was going on and why. If she’d just do what she was asked, I said, we’d get a video and that would help us find her a good person to love her. She may have had no idea what I was saying, but she must have understood voice tone, because she did calm down.

Out in the arena under saddle, she did a wonderful job. This girl has a Quarter Horse stop that you’d better be prepared for—she tucks her fanny and if you’re not ready, you’ll go right on over her head, or nearly. Very nice! Rusty, but nice.

Afterwards, she was so much calmer—it’s like she figured it out, and felt like she could do what we were asking. And then the magic: You could feel the beginning of hope in her energy, and her eyes were brighter. The trainer and I walked her back to her turnout area, with cookies and stops for grass along the way. No worries, Sweetheart, life is on the upswing now!

The seco201609211037351nd mare is an interesting sort. She’s self-assured, reserved, and exceedingly capable. She’s also big, athletic, and FAST. She was in a good mood today, and we shot some nice video of her moving through her gaits, stopping, standing, backing up, and generally being a good Quarter Horse.

An hour or so later, after she’d been put back in her stall, we realized that we hadn’t done the “interview,” where the trainer talks about the horse. So I went back down to get her out again.

I rarely get a chance to handle the horses myself—usually I just shoot video—so this was really exciting. I had the usual moment of nervousness, entering a stall with a horse I don’t know well (that has never gone away!), but it didn’t last long. She was great for haltering and led nicely down the barn aisle.

Things got interesting when we got to the arena. I walked over to the tie ring and went to loop her rope through it—and she gave me a pretty good shove with her head. Hmmm….

Here’s the ensuing conversation. It was quiet and calm on both sides, which was the really cool part.

Me: No, we don’t do that. That’s not polite. Let’s back up now.

Mare: Nope. I like shoving people and that’s what I do.

Me: No, you need to back up. Can you back up?

Mare: Nope.

Me: Well, how about you move that foot back a step. Can you do that? (I lean toward her, no pressure on the rope. She doesn’t budge.) Come on now; move that white foot just a little bit. Can you do that? (I tap her chest gently with a fold of the lead rope.)

Mare. I guess I could do that.

Me: Thank you! Now, how about that other foot. Could you move that one back?

Mare: OK. I could do that.

Me: Great job! Thank you! Now, let’s try moving forward again.

And of course, as soon as I got ready to tie her, she went to head-butt me again, but this time I was ready and stepped aside. She looked at me, and I looked at her….

Me: No, we don’t do that. When that happens, we back up. Now let’s go. Can you back up for me?

Mare: No. I don’t want to. I like butting people. I told you that already.

Me: Yes, I heard you, and you’re going to back up now. Move that white foot again. Good girl! Now the brown foot. Good! Now take another step.

Mare: OK. Fine. Whatever.

Me: Good girl! Now let’s get you tied up here.

And this time she didn’t butt me. She thought about it, but didn’t do it.

We got our interview done, and I got ready to take her back. First, I suggested she stand beside me and back up with me. I leaned back, then stepped one foot back myself.

Me: Come on, back up with me.

Mare: Nope. I don’t know how to do that.

Me: OK, well, I’m going to stand here and you’re going to move that white foot back.

Mare: Nope. I’m going to go sideways.

Me: No, I don’t think so. There’s a wall there.

Mare: Oh. Well, then. Maybe I’ll just stand here.

Me: You could do that. Or you could move that white foot back. (I tap her chest gently.)

Mare: Oh. I remember that. I can do that.

Me: Good girl! Now the brown one?

Mare: OK.

Me: Wonderful! Here’s a cookie!

Mare: Oh! That’s tasty! Can I have another one?

Me: Sure. We’re going to walk a little bit first.

And off we went down the aisle back to her stall, with several more “stop and back with me” practices along the way, with a few more cookies.

By the time we got there, she was stopping and backing up with me several steps at a time, with no fuss. She seemed positively pleased with herself. Her head was down and she was relaxed and happy.

Got her into her stall, though, and she braced up again—old habits resurfacing. It seemed like we’d had enough of a lesson, so I just looked at her hip and took a step toward her—and she yielded her hindquarters very nicely indeed. Think I caught her by surprise, before she had time to decide not to do it. So I took the halter off, thanked her, and left her to her hay.

Woohoo!

I’m posting this not so much because of the fact that I got the job done, and done really well with absolutely no drama. I’m mostly posting it because I was SO HAPPY AND EXCITED about the interaction! I may be 65 on the outside, but inside I’m still that horse-crazy ten-year-old whose biggest, brightest, most precious dream is to be able to talk with horses and to be around them.

It’s not often that we grown-ups get to be a kid again, and I want to enjoy every opportunity that comes my way. Woohoo!

Livin’ the dream, folks! I am so incredibly blessed!

Trust is a precious thing

20160108131912 (9)It’s been a long-time dream of mine to learn dressage—just the basics, nothing fancy. I’ve had my eye on my mare Nevada, because she’s a natural athlete and has a wonderful way of moving. Now that she’s six, we figured it was time to start her under saddle again.

Originally, she was taught to carry a rider when she was really young—there was an error on her papers from the Rescue Ranch. She took to it quite well, and I actually rode her a couple of times, including out on the trail. She did wonderfully! But when we realized how young she actually was, we gave her a few years off to let her bones mature.

I didn’t anticipate any problems with the re-training, given how well she had done the first time. But I had forgotten one BIG and important rule: Don’t make assumptions.

One of the reasons we hadn’t started her last summer was that for the past two or three years an underlying skin condition had gotten worse. Poor Nevada was just so itchy and miserable, for no reason that we or the vet could discern. We even tried steroids, which helped, but she also gained a couple of hundred pounds, and we decided that it was too great a risk to her health to continue. Once we tapered her off the dose, the itching returned.

This winter, we decided to try freshly ground organic flax seed, and by early this spring, the itching had diminished considerably. These days, she doesn’t scratch any more than any other horse out there.

Unless, that is, she gets nervous. Then, she starts biting at her side and front leg. Once she settles down, she quits scratching.

All this is background to the real “drama.”

Back in February, I made the decision to hire a trainer to bring my little mare back up to speed. This woman has years of experience and is someone I really like and respect. I especially like her firm-but-gentle hand with the horses, and they respond well to her. So again, I didn’t anticipate any difficulty at all.

My first inkling that something was amiss came when I tried to saddle Nevada. We’d gotten the saddle on her a couple of times, and the fit was good. The first few times we put it on, she gave no more trouble than you’d expect from a green horse. But things got worse, not better, once the lessons started. And she’d try to scratch throughout the lesson. We and the trainer thought it was likely just a nervous habit that she could unlearn.

Her very first lesson seemed fine. She responded well to the bitless bridle and moved forward readily. But there was that pesky saddling issue. I noted it in my journal: “I do think it makes her itch a bit; that’s unfortunate, for sure. But I don’t think it’s bad enough to not put a saddle on her.”

Key phrase: “I don’t think it’s bad enough to not put a saddle on her.”

Second lesson, and my journal entry doesn’t mention the saddle. I was just so proud of her:

I am so happy and excited, and I can’t stop thinking about it. This really is a childhood dream come true—Nevada and I are going to be able to dance together, to ride together beautifully and enjoy the experience. So wonderful!

I had decided that the fix was to practice with the saddle in between the weekly lessons. Two days later, I tried saddling her again. Nevada was really clear that she didn’t want any part of it. She’d evade and spook and walk away from me (I refused to tie her up and force it on her). It took me half an hour to get the thing on her back. She was clearly NOT enjoying this business at all.

I kept at it:

Yesterday I didn’t try to saddle her—just left the stuff in the arena on the mounting block while we did other things. She said it was too scary to go sniff it—but then when I left the arena to get carrots, I caught her sniffing it when she didn’t know I was watching. She is a drama queen….

“Drama queen”?

It may be that she associates the saddle with itching—which is a nervous habit, for the most part, at this point. She can be persuaded to keep moving through it, but it’s not easy. We can’t catch every instance, and if we try, it makes our interactions kind of jagged and not-fun. Our trainer says it won’t be too hard to get rid of the habit, but I’m not so sure.

Dunno…. But I think that with patience she’ll be just fine about it. I’m just going to keep at it until she gives in. It isn’t, after all, such a big deal that she can’t do it. I watch horses go through the process every time I’m out at the Rescue Ranch, and I know how it works.

Finally, a month into the process, I really started to question:

I’m kind of sad this morning—I think I won’t be able to continue lessons with Nevada under saddle. I question whether I have the right to demand that she do something that so obviously makes her uncomfortable. She is my friend, a sentient being…and if I force this on her, then what’s all that liberty work for? If, in the end, I still force her into service, that it’s all been a sham.

So. We’ll see. Wish I could ask her how she feels about it.

Really? You “can’t ask her how she feels about it”? Could she be any more clear?

And again, the next day:

I had a kind of come-to-Jesus moment yesterday morning—the simmering concerns from the other night coalesced, and I realized that what was really bothering me was that I was well on the way to forcing Nevada to wear that saddle regardless of her feelings…. That was pretty painful. If I’m going to insist that she do something that she really dislikes, then all the liberty work, and the pretty words about how she gets to say no, is meaningless. That was pretty shocking. I was so upset!

So I argued with myself for a while, but finally and tearfully admitted that if Nevada really hates the saddle, I will simply not ride that way. Bareback, if she’s OK with it (and she does know how to tell me yes or no on that one), even though that’s more dangerous for me. But if she truly hates it, no saddle.

Poor Nevada. Since I clearly was NOT listening to her, she started “acting out” in the pasture:

Nevada came over willingly to get her food, but let me know in no uncertain terms that she did NOT want to leave the pasture. She wasn’t unpleasant about it, but moved off as soon as I showed her the halter. I let her do her thing.

My response? None. Lesson day came, and when she wouldn’t let me catch her easily, I “walked her down” and made her come out. The lesson that day was memorable:

We did the lesson in the big indoor arena. I had worked with her in there a number of times, but she was still nervous about it—and the trainer came off. Evidently the saddle shifted just a little when she got on, and when she tried to shift it back, Nevada got scared and bucked her off. Gently, or as gently as a horse can buck, and the trainer did a tuck-and-roll dismount, with no harm done. Nevada stopped a few paces away and waited, apologetically. After walking her around for a few minutes, the trainer got back on and continued the lesson. Whew….

And my comment? In my own defense (I don’t really feel like I have much of a defense, actually), this was after consultation with the trainer herself and my partner:

We all decided that the little horse is doing really well, all things considered. It’s just going to take time. I’ll continue to take her in there and walk her, trot her, lunge her, and anything else I can think of to do. She’ll come around, eventually. This is a tough point in our journey—we’re going to feel like it’s just too hard, and that maybe we should just give up, but we need to press on and work through it.

By early May, the trainer had come off once more, and Nevada was not “getting used” to the saddle. I continued to worry, and thought about pulling the plug on the lessons. Left to my own devices, I certainly would have done so. Unfortunately, the others involved still felt like we needed to “not give up on Nevada,” and to “give her another chance.” And there was that long-time dream of mine to learn to ride dressage…. But my journal records that I knew that I was lying to myself:

Nevada is not ready for it, wants no part of it, and I’m pushing past the limits of our “contract.” Not good…and I’m not sure what I’m going to do about it. I also realized that the problem I’m having with Nevada is a failure in my leadership. She no longer trusts me to look after her. And damned if I can figure out how to use liberty methods to fix that….

No, Kay, it’s not a failure of leadership. Or actually, it is—but first and foremost, it’s a failure to listen. And no, you cannot use liberty methods to accomplish something that is completely against the basic tenets of liberty work.

Wow…I really didn’t want to see what was going on.

Toward the end of May, I had one wonderful day with her—a day where she regained, for a little while, the softness and trust that I was so sure I had lost for good. On that day, we did real liberty work, and played with obstacles like ground poles that she enjoys working with. It was wonderful—and it really reminded me of what we were missing.

But true to form, I let the lessons go on. The final lesson was memorable indeed:

Well. No more riding lessons for Nevada; she has been expelled from school. She bucked the trainer off again yesterday, and this one was pretty dramatic, apparently: Nevada got spooked by something; she bucked and twisted; the trainer went up, the saddle pad (!) somehow went sideways, the saddle went down, and Nevada careened around the arena for some time with the saddle under her belly and the reins around her legs. OMG. I am so glad I was not there to see it. Bad enough hearing about it. The trainer, thank God, wasn’t badly hurt, and neither was Nevada.

OMG. I should have listened to my horse—she has been trying and trying to tell us that she can’t do this, but all of us thought we knew better. Nope.

OMG.

Anyway, there go my dreams of riding my little mustang and learning dressage. She’ll have to become my liberty horse, I guess. Maybe I can find another horse to ride….

I am a wreck….

That was a month ago. During that month, Nevada steadfastly refused to let herself be caught in the pasture without half an hour of “walking her down.” Mostly, I don’t try; I just bring her food to her in the pasture. Sometimes, though, I need to get her out—for the farrier or the vet—so we go around and around in the blazing sun until she finally tires out or I’m able to bribe her to stand still. It has been heartbreaking.

I would love to just sit with her and share space in the pasture—sharing territory is the best possible way to bring back the bond. It’s mid-summer, though, and it’s been a hot one. The older I get, the less well I handle heat, so sitting out there is not an option.

Trust is so easy to win, initially, but once it’s broken, it’s nearly impossible to win back. Worst of all, I knew better, but wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my horse. I don’t deserve her trust, at this point. It’s been a painful lesson.

Wish I could say it was the first time this kind of thing has happened, or that it will be the last. It happened with Galahad several times when I first got him, but didn’t know enough to call a halt when my then-trainer worked him hard for hours at a time.

But then just two weeks ago, during a session with a client, I was trying to get Galahad to go over a tiny cross-rail jump. At first he was willing—but then he hit the rail on the way over, and the pole moved and he got scared. I asked him to go over it again, and he refused, frightened…but rather than acknowledging his fear and changing the subject, I went straight back to natural horsemanship and tried to make him do it.

Poor Galahad! He was trying in every way to explain to me that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to do it, but that it was a terrible, horse-eating creature that I was asking him to step over. “Please, don’t make me do it! I’m scared!”

He was so clear: He was turning his head away and pointing at the gate to the arena—not trying to run, just pointing to the gate. SO clear…but did I listen? Nope. I was deep into “making him do it” and refused to hear him.

Then suddenly I realized what was happening. Oh my…how embarrassing. At first I tried to blame it on Galahad, and explain to my client that what I was doing was for Galahad’s benefit. But then I realized that NOBODY was fooled. Not me, not my client, and certainly not the horse…. So in the end I just said, “I really screwed up.”  It turned out to be a good learning experience for the client, but oh my goodness….

Fortunately, Galahad and I have worked through a lot of things together, and this was a pretty small and isolated incident. He didn’t hold it against me, other than to be a little standoffish for about five minutes the next day—but after that, no problem. He still hesitates to go over those ground poles, though—and I haven’t even suggested cross-rails.

Sheesh.

I’m hopeful that Nevada and I can work things out, too. Just the last couple of days, she has come over to me when I crawled through the pasture fence—something she had not done for two months, at least—and didn’t run off when I started to put the halter on her. The weather is cooler this week, too, and that means I can spend some time just hanging out with her and her girlfriends in the pasture. No more saddles, no more forcing her to do things just because I want her to. Maybe this time I’ve finally learned my lesson…or at least, maybe the next time I do something stupid, I’ll see it sooner.

Yeah. That’s probably more likely. There’ll just be a shorter time between doing the stupid thing and seeing the stupid thing. Maybe I’m just being too hard on myself, but still….

Sigh.

Just as I finished this blog piece, I got the Horse Conscious newsletter from my friend Mark Mottershead. In it I found this quote—could NOT have been more appropriate:

“When your horse shows resistance to compliance with a request, rather than saying he doesn’t want to do this or that, consider saying he is afraid to do this or that. If you do this your approach to the entire situation will change and will put you on the path to a successful outcome.”

Absolutely spot on.

 

 

Note: There is NOTHING wrong with using natural horsemanship techniques, if a person knows what they’re doing and they remember that the horse is a sentient being who deserves to be treated with an eye to respect and relationship, not simply dominance and fear. However, natural horsemanship is not the paradigm from which I try to work with my horses, and it’s not the “contract” we have together.

 

Galahad and the Hula Hoop

20150603_162758Galahad loves his games and toys!

I got him a hula hoop early in the summer but never got around to giving it to him until a few weeks ago. The plan was to ask him to stand with his front feet inside the hoop.

When I first showed the hoop to him, of course he told me it was a horse-eating monster. Oh, the snorting! But he had such fun with it. Here’s the video; you can watch almost all of our first session.

Later that day I posted the video on Facebook—I was so proud of him! But then I started second-guessing myself. Typical behavior on my part, and something I sure wish I didn’t do.

By midnight, I had convinced myself that I hadn’t done anything right. I couldn’t sleep for judging myself and imagining how others would judge me, especially my natural horsemanship friends. I “should” have been tougher on him—asked, increased the pressure, and so on, until he actually DID it. I know that stuff, inside and out.

Wow…. What a complete dodo I was, in my mind, at least.

The comments I actually got, when I read them the next morning, were mostly very positive. But of course I looked for that ONE that questioned what I had done, and therefore reinforced my self-doubts. That was NOT what the friend who posted it had in mind, I know! She was trying to be helpful:

” ‘Yeah yeah, that could be a Galahad-eating hole instead of a hula hoop!’ says Galahad. 😉 How about putting a carrot inside the Galahad-eating hole?”

I spent an hour or so thinking about that, and finally, amazingly, realized what had happened in the arena. The cool thing is that I had a goal, which was for him to accept and touch the hoop…and the bigger goal was for him to have a good time and really enjoy himself.

Finally, then, I started feeling good about the interaction again. I realized that of course, as my friend suggested, I could have made it go faster; but watching the video, I don’t think it was necessary. Galahad likes figuring things out. Notice in the middle of the video, he didn’t even take me up on my offer to leave the hoop to get a carrot.

And most important of all, the point of the exercise, in my plan, was not to make it happen quickly, but for Galahad to accept the hoop and to have fun doing it. We accomplished those things! He had a blast!

One of the things Galahad has always enjoyed is being “a little bit scared,” and then getting over it. We’ve played that game since he first came to live with me—we used to do “scary things walks” around the barn when I first had him (even though my natural horsemanship friends assured me that it would ruin him). In this video, I love the way he comes over toward me and THEN makes another approach to the scary thing.

This horse loves a challenge. He likes to play. He trusts me, and I like that he comes over to me. The natural horsemanship folks would likely say he’s invading my space, being disrespectful, and so on. It’s true—he does tend to crowd, and he’s a big horse. That’s partly why I carry a stick when working with him. In this case, if he’s crowding it’s because he’s asking for comfort and reassurance. In the video I’m constantly aware and reading his energy, and I move away in a safe manner.

What I really like about the video is that it shows our relationship so clearly. We’re having a “conversation;” it’s definitely two-way. I’m not ordering him to do anything—just encouraging him, supporting him in his curiosity, and building his confidence. I think he understands that—even though he was nervous, he never moved away from the hoop or from me.

That’s how it is pretty much all the time with us, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. If I’m calm, he calms down. Back in October, I led him around the ranch the night of the big Hoedown. Crowds of people, kids running around, kids playing UNDER the tractor (which is, of course, NOT RIGHT), and all of it happening at night. Although he spooked a couple of times, he never tried to run, or to leave my side. I was impressed, and very pleased.

I just love the state of our relationship!

Another thing about Galahad is that if you push him AT ALL, he gets sullen very quickly—a leftover, I think, from some of the treatment he received when he was a youngster, when he was punished for expressing his opinion about anything at all. When he’s sullen, he’ll do what you ask, but without energy, and certainly without any pleasure in the doing. So these days, I just let him figure it all out on his own, in his own time.

Here’s another example:

A week or so after the hula hoop encounter, I took Galahad into the arena. He wasn’t in the mood to “work” that day—he’d been fine and happy while we were out walking, but put his head down and pouted as soon as we went through the gate. No problem, fellow. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.

While he stood there and sulked, I laid out some ground poles in an “L” shape, and let him watch me as I walked through them a few times, exaggerating the turn in the middle.

I could see it, the instant his attitude shifted from sullen to curious—it was like someone turned on a switch. Suddenly, I had his attention. His ears flicked forward, and his eyes lit up. At that point, I started talking to him, and once again walked between the poles.

Then I asked him to come with me, and he did, watching closely. I stayed outside the poles. He walked halfway through, but didn’t negotiate the turn properly. I showed him again, then asked him to come around and try it. This time, he made the turn perfectly. He was happy with himself, and I made sure he knew I was happy, too! We didn’t keep at it—I wanted to end on a high note for him, and not drill him at all. This way, it’s all his idea.

I wouldn’t work with Nevada this way. She doesn’t have issues, and doesn’t mind being asked to do something that isn’t her idea. In fact, she prefers it if you just tell her clearly what to do so she can do it efficiently and get to the carrot part of things.

Here’s a video of Nevada with the hula hoop. I deliberately used the same techniques with her that I did with Galahad, to demonstrate how very different the two horses are. You can see how it doesn’t work at all well with her.

With the big guy, though, I’ve learned that unless I want an argument and a sullen horse, he needs to be in the right frame of mind, and I have to be in dialogue with him. Once he’s engaged, he’s smart and fun to work with.

My hope, and my belief, is that he’ll become more and more willing over time, as we continue to work on liberty exercises that grow our bond. The level to which he trusts me—and trusts me not to demand things of him—is growing quickly, and he’s already begun to look forward to coming out of the pasture with me—as far as he’s concerned, all the fun stuff happens out there.

I plan on keeping things that way.

 

Crazy Hans

20150730_103305Hans—crazy Hans: I was feeding Galahad in the corner by Midnight’s house, and everyone else was up at the north end of the pasture grazing quietly. Suddenly I heard hoofbeats, and looked up to see Hans driving two of the other horses, at a gallop, straight down the fence line toward me. Darn guy. So I ducked under Galahad’s neck, stepped toward them, and cracked my little whip on the ground a few times. They did go around—even Hans—and Galahad, of course, just kept on eating. I swear Hans was smirking. He got NO carrots.

(Just to be clear: Had I been in any real danger, I would have ducked under the FENCE. But there was plenty of warning and these are horses I know well.)

Leading “Tarkin”

20150504092825 (2)I so enjoy my days at the Rescue Ranch. These days I’m creating the adoption videos, and it’s such fun capturing something of each horse’s personality along with documenting where they are in their training and how they move.

It was an especially interesting today. Little “Tarkin,” who has come SO FAR in the last few months since his rescue (he was a little stray stallion, apparently never handled), is now learning to trot under saddle. He is much calmer, but not quite comfortable around people other than Sarah, our trainer, and the apprentices. I’m still a little scary.

After Sarah finished their ride and stepped off, I asked Tarkin if he was ready to say hello to me yet (the good old “cowboy handshake”). No, not quite yet, he said. So I backed off. As I backed away, he took half a step forward toward me for whatever reason, so I asked for another. No, not so much…too scary to approach directly when asked.

Sarah handed me the reins. Since they were attached to a bit, and he’s very new to bits, I made sure to put absolutely no pressure on the reins, other than the fact that I was balancing them on one finger. Then I asked him to step toward me (by backing up from directly in front of him, leaving my hand where it was so as not to pull him). No, he said, that was still too scary, so I dropped back to stand near his withers.

From there, I took a couple of steps back and to the side, to draw him toward me. That, he felt like he could do; and once he took a couple of sidesteps in my direction, I used my body language to suggest that he might walk forward with me. And he did!

Slowly, at first. Then I said “whoa,” which he knows, and stopped my feet. He stopped right with me. After a few seconds I suggested with my body that we walk forward again, and he was willing to do that, mostly. I had to draw him toward me to the side a couple of times after we’d stop, but then he decided walking and stopping was just fine.

I was really happy, for a couple of reasons. First, because this was NOT natural horsemanship, the way I was taught. There was no deliberate “pressure-release” here, but rather, communication in the way horses communicate with each other. I’d make a request, and he could decide whether or not to comply. What really delighted me about this was the fact that I’ve learned enough to be able to facilitate this dialog.

Yes, a horse who’s learned to follow a lead rope and/or reins and bit will naturally be more inclined to follow a moving person when he’s wearing a bridle than he might otherwise. Would he have followed me as willingly if he’d been at liberty? Probably not. But I bet I could have persuaded him, given a little time for him to get used to me. And how cool this little old lady was able to do it at all!

The second reason I was so happy about this little interaction was just the fact that I was able to bypass my “natural” tendency to “make it happen” and, instead, just let things unfold. It’s taken quite a while for me to get to this point. As I’ve said often, natural horsemanship techniques come easily to me because that paradigm was the way I was raised. Un-learning something so basic isn’t all that easy after 64 years of practice and reinforcement!

So the fact that this spooky little guy would feel comfortable and willing to come along with me with only suggestions (made in a way that he instinctively understands), just pleases me to no end!

Woohoo! The old gal’s learning something!

Covering the Knots

knots 1I went by the barn yesterday afternoon to feed everybody. I was planning on staying only a very short time, but the day turned out so lovely (40+ degrees and sunny!) that I could hardly tear myself away. I took some video of me working a little bit with Galahad and Nevada on the halter but with a slack or draped lead line.

What fun! Even out in the open (video here), HRH sticks pretty close with the rope draped over her back and only a tiny touch under her chin now and then. She’s generally very good about this in the small arena. She’s not that “well behaved” in the pasture, but I think that’s because she has her duties as a lead mare to consider.

Galahad isn’t as “easy” as Nevada is about staying with me—that’s just his nature. I don’t feel safe draping the rope over his back and just walking around. He’s apt to take off to play bite-face with the gelding in the pen across the road, or investigate the pretty mare tied up by the barn.

I covered the knots and the noseband of my rope halter the other evening to make it a gentler tool, and tried it out yesterday; I learned (at least) two things:

1. There is indeed some pain/discomfort produced by the rope halter’s knots. I know this because Galahad tested me a lot more yesterday than he normally does, most likely because he wasn’t having to avoid discomfort.

2. I have been jerking on his face with the lead rope, whether or not I intended to do so. If I hadn’t, he wouldn’t have noticed the lack of discomfort yesterday, and he likely wouldn’t have tested me more than usual.

Interesting. Good information. Rather horrifying, actually.

It is much harder for me to do liberty work outside an arena or the pasture, because my barn requires that the horses be on the lead at all times when not in an enclosed area like the round pen or a stall. And when there is a lead rope attached, all my natural horsemanship training comes into play again, whether I want it or not.

Especially the “bump their nose” idea. If the horse is doing something you don’t want him to do, or isn’t paying attention, “bump his nose” with the lead rope. This transfers the pressure sharply to his nose via the knots on the halter. I never liked that part, though I can see the effectiveness of it.

I do try to be gentle with the rope halter, way more gentle than I was originally taught, and for the most part I get good results. But I find lately that because I don’t want to jerk the halter, I end up using just plain pressure—i.e., pulling steadily—which doesn’t work particularly well with a 1100-pound animal. No surprise, that.

My horses have had their noses bumped a LOT, both of them, by trainers and by me. The result has been that they do what they’re asked in that way, and they do NOT pull on the lead rope even when they’re spooked. They will dance all around me, pivoting on that lead rope, and it looks pretty impressive from the onlooker’s perspective. I’ve seen that happen many times, and until just this moment, as I type this, have thought it was a really good demonstration of their trust in my leadership.

“They trust me!” Um, maybe not so much, eh? Maybe they’re just avoiding pain! When I consider what the horse might be experiencing, it makes me never want to that to happen again. Which is more frightening to my horse: the scary object, or the threat of pain on a sensitive nerve bundle? Oh my goodness.

That doesn’t make me feel so proud.

I also watched the video that I took of me and Galahad yesterday, and saw how often the lead rope tightened in response to something he did that I didn’t want him to do. He wasn’t offered an option at those times—I just pulled (gently or not) on his head. I’m not giving myself a whole lot of grief about this, since it’s something I’m working on; however, I look forward to the day when I can work with the rope draped over his back and not pull on him at all.

Well, my goodness. Galahad is certainly my teacher, in this and so much else.

I’m not sure what to think about all of this. I don’t wish to pass judgement on any good-hearted and well intentioned horse person; there are many, many effective ways to train a horse. I sure don’t have all the answers. All I know is that I want to do what is best for my horse, keeping him and me both safe and happy in each other’s company; and I want to do so in a way that is cooperative, not dominant, and that builds a relationship based on trust and pleasure.

What a fascinating journey!