Eye Contact

20160417_153304I gave Nevada a bath the other afternoon. By the time we finished and I put her back out in the pasture, it was getting late and the sun was low in the sky, giving everything that lovely golden glow. From way down by the road, clear across the geldings pasture, I could see Nevada’s coat gleaming copper-bronze. She looked so beautiful!

I wanted to get a photo of her, and I wanted to get it from the side, so that the light would reflect off her flanks. I kept walking back and forth, the length of Midnight’s paddock—quite a distance!—but all I could see in the viewfinder was her blaze. That seemed so odd!

After a couple of trips back and forth without getting a single shot of her standing sideways, I finally figured out what was going on: Nevada, across the pasture, was playing her version of Carolyn Resnick’s “eye contact” game, which she enjoys and is VERY good at: She was keeping her nose facing me, with two eyes watching my every move, no matter where I went.

Of course, by the time I figured that out, she had quit doing it, so I was able to get the photo, sort of…but the sun had gone behind the clouds.

Smart horse, with a sense of humor.

A really good day!

Galahad and the bridge(12)Today was a really good day!

I went to the barn around noon and spent quite a while with Galahad. First we did an Easter Egg hunt in the muddy jump arena (plastic eggs with bits of carrots in them, hidden near the jumps; he has to find them and touch them with his nose). It took him a bit to realize there were eggs hidden there—at first all he wanted to do was eat the grass around the edges. Once he saw the first one, though, he was all attention (other than taking time out to roll).

His problem was that I had deliberately put the eggs fairly close to the jumps—and he’s nervous about those jumps, which was my whole point. He managed to touch the first one after I moved it two inches (!) farther away from the post. When I asked him where the next one was, he looked around, saw it (I swear he saw it, over by the next jump), and spent a LONG while examining each and every fallen leaf, clod of dirt, or spot of poop in the area, just in case one of them turned out to be an egg.

Finally he made brave to go and touch the egg—and tried to roll it away from the jump so he could get it himself. No, fella, you have to touch it, raise your head, and wait for me to open it. Nice try, though.

He does love this game. I’ve learned to use only the biggest plastic eggs (so he can’t get them into his mouth) and limit the number of eggs to six or seven so that he doesn’t get bored. So we finished up quickly and sampled a little more grass at the edge of the arena before moving on out to the next event.

I let him graze for a little while near the “bridge” that I’ve been trying to get him to walk over. Back in June, we spent some time working near it, and he would walk over it the short way but not walk along it with me (the photo above was taken on that day). Today I decided to see what he’d be willing to do for me.

What I most love about learning to work with my horses in a less structured way is having a big “toolbox” of techniques and skills and being able to pick whatever tool or method works in the moment. As my relationship with Galahad grows closer, it seems that “less is more” for sure. Our training sessions have become shorter, less demanding, and way more fun and effective.

Today, for instance, he still didn’t want to walk along the length of the bridge. When I asked, he’d paw at it; he’d put both feet on it—no problem. I made sure he knew that whatever he gave me was wonderful—he got praise and grass in between tries…and then I’d ask again. It was a slow process, and very low-pressure.

We started by watching another horse walk over it twice, with a rider. Galahad paid close attention. I asked if he would just follow that horse across, but he declined. Too scary, still. I asked if he’d walk behind me across it. Nope, he couldn’t do that, either. So we just kept at it, slowly, over a period of fifteen or so minutes—not long, really.

What I did was based in the natural horsemanship methods that I’ve studied in the past—from one of the best trainers in the Midwest—and learned quite well. But there was no “increasing pressure.” Instead, I made a request with a gentle “send” signal and the barest hint of a wave with my other hand. He knows what that means, so the communication was perfectly clear. Then I waited for him to respond. And then I’d ask again, in the same, low-key way, and wait. If he tried to evade it completely, I’d gently ask him to back up and try again, but I never pushed, pulled, or smacked him with the rope.

Galahad knew what I was asking, and I think he appreciated the fact that I didn’t try to pressure him into doing it before he was ready. And he got praise for the slightest try! That big horse—stubborn as he can be when he perceives something as “work”—really does like to please. He likes knowing he’s done something “right.”

Finally, he offered to sidepass over the bridge—that’s always his fallback move. “Can I do this instead?” Um, no, buddy, it’s WAY too wide for that. How about you walk behind me, and let’s go across it together.

Suddenly, I could feel him make up his mind. I wasn’t looking at him—in fact, I was already partway across the bridge when I felt the change, through the loose lead rope. No idea what it the signal was that I received—but I KNEW at that moment that he would follow me across, and he did.

Wow—good boy! I turned around to face him as he made the last few steps, and just praised him to the skies! He put his head down and I swear he looked pleased as punch! What a good horse he is! Needless to say, we went and got carrots and dinner after that!

It was such a thrill—a silly little task in the grand scheme of things, but heartwarming to realize how far the two of us have come. Clear communication, mutual trust and respect, and virtually NO pressure…we got the job done and had a good time doing it.

It just doesn’t get much better than that! Boy, do I love that horse of mine!

(“Leading Tarkin” is another post that describes this method I’m using these days.)

Pita and the Mean Little Black Horse

A friend and I went by the barn late yesterday afternoon to give Galahad and Nevada a bit of grazing time and to feed Midnight his third meal of the day. It was already pretty dark by the time we got there—a lovely, chilly evening. We were standing around in the yard near the barn, listening to the munching and crunching.

Pita the Barn Dog—a half-grown Border Collie pup—was playing like she usually does, picking up whatever comes her way and tearing around with it, growling like mad. First it was an empty plastic milk jug, then a piece of hoof left by the trimmer. We and the horses pretty much ignored her as it got darker and darker.

Suddenly, both horses spooked. A small, bright light was zipping here and there across the lawn! The horses snorted as it got closer and closer…but relaxed when we all realized it was Pita, carrying…a cell phone. Fortunately, Pita understands “drop it!” pretty well, and we were able to rescue it and return the phone to its owner, who had been down in the pasture with a flashlight looking for it.

After putting Galahad and Nevada back, I got Midnight’s evening meal ready: beet pulp and senior feed soaked in hot water. He loves it!

Of course, Pita went with me to call Midders, who whinnied and came running across the pasture. Meanwhile, Pita trotted along across the bridge over the creek, carrying something else that required a lot of growling to keep it in line. Even her light weight made the boards on the bridge rattle, too.

Midnight, who was on his way to cross the creek, saw a small, dark shape moving across the bridge, making all kinds of ugly noises: Clearly, this was the proverbial horse-eating monster. Then it crashed into the brush, obviously on its way to eat him for dinner.

So Midnight took off at a gallop.

Meanwhile, Pita who had apparently misjudged the distance from the bridge deck to the brushy ground beneath it on the other side of the creek, picked herself up, shook herself off, and was about to continue her romp when…

…Midnight discovered what it was making the noise. Well, Midders has a temper. And he hates to be fooled. So he put his head down and charged after the dog.

Pita, shocked, ran for her life, with little Midnight galloping right at her heels. They splashed across the creek, Midnight’s teeth two feet from the pup’s behind. Pita flew up the bank and just kept going. Midnight skidded to a stop inches from the gate, snorting and blowing his irritation. That was the last we saw of Pita that night.

That wasn’t the end of our evening’s adventures, though. As Midders was enjoying his dinner, my friend and I decided to put his lightweight blanket on, so I went to find it. Just as I got within ten feet of him on the way back, he finished eating and decided to have some fun.

Of course, I hadn’t put a halter on him—I never do, because his priority these days is always FOOD. When he finishes, I just put a lead rope around his neck to put him back out. Tonight, the blanket foray threw my timing off, and he saw his chance. Off he trotted, in that purposeful way of his.

Finding a black horse on a pitch-black night isn’t the easiest thing, especially with eyesight as bad as mine. I can still hear, and followed his movements by sound. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of his white star when he turned around to look at me. He wouldn’t come to me, though. Oh no! He had adventure in mind.

When he headed for the barn, I thought I had him: He’d just go into a stall. Nope. He walked right on through and out the other side. Fortunately for me, his stomach got the better of him, and he made a tactical error: He turned to check where the round bale used to be, and I was able to cut him off.

Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased at being caught, and he made that clear as we put the blanket on him—threatening to nip, trying to move away, and all the other games he plays. But he went quietly enough, in the end. I think we all enjoyed the romp.