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!

Measures of Learning

20141204154411 (2)It was an interesting day at the barn yesterday. Foggy, misty, cool but not really cold. When I arrived, the horses were grazing peacefully in the east pasture. Galahad followed me back to the fence, where I put on his halter and tied him so he’d stand still for me to treat his rain rot with iodine. Sometimes he gets bored and wants to wander off.

The peace and quiet didn’t last long. I had gotten maybe six square inches of that big, broad back treated when things got going.

It started with the mares in the other pasture. SOMETHING BAD, they said, was on the trail. Their intensity got the geldings’ attention, including Galahad’s. I couldn’t see a thing. The rest of the geldings were tense, snorting and dancing, not really sure what was wrong.

As everyone’s energy mounted, Galahad started to prance and snort, and I could feel my fear rising—an old reaction that I haven’t felt in a while. If he hadn’t been on the lead rope, I’d simply have moved him off to a safe distance. As it was, my mind called up the old image of a Raging Creature on a String. What to do?

First thing I did was take a breath and feel into the fear. Yes, I really did have the presence of mind to become conscious of it, and to understand that although I was afraid, I do now have the tools and training to handle the situation.

I’m quite proud of that split-second awareness! Guess I’ve learned something over these last few years!

The next thing I did was to untie the rope from the fence. Then I waited to see what would happen. Didn’t have to wait long. He reared and tossed his head. I bumped the lead rope, surprisingly calmly, and he dropped back down. Then I backed him about 25 or 30 feet, asked him to circle me on the line a time or two in each direction, then backed him some more. He did it all with a lot of energy, but no resistance.

Then I walked over and took the halter off, expecting him to whirl and run.

He didn’t. He stayed facing me, paying attention to ME and not to his herd mates, who were still milling excitedly around near the mares. In fact, I was able to back him up, circle him a bit more, move his hind end, and get him to change directions, all at liberty.

Then I sent him off to be with the herd. Pretty amazing.

In general, I think I did OK. My first thought was to control him—back to the natural horsemanship techniques that are (thankfully, sometimes) second nature by now. Control is probably not a bad thing to think about, considering that he’s 1100+ pounds of muscle, bone, and hoof. And goodness knows how tall he is when he’s standing on his hind legs! There was also the fact that he was not at liberty—I couldn’t readily send him off—and I needed to have him calm enough to get his halter off safely.

The unexpected and delightful part of this experience is twofold: First, he never actually tried to get away. His rearing was just a statement of what he’d LIKE to do. He wasn’t threatening me, and had he wanted to get away, he most certainly could have. I wouldn’t have tried to stop him.

Second, he trusted me way more than I trusted myself in this situation. Galahad did what I asked, even though the other horses were agitated and moving around. He chose me over his herd. I know that, because he did not leave me after I took his halter off, until I asked him to go.

Wow….

How interesting. Hopefully, next time I’ll remember all this, and not need to be afraid. My horse trusts me. That is amazing.