Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Q and A's - Kicking

I'm working on a Sonita story. But the question of a horse kicking came up, and I think it's important to address it.

summersmom says:

I have a mare that has started 'cow kicking' at other horses recently. She never did it before, and at first I thought it was something 'left over' from her over protective mothering instincts being that I weaned a foal off of her in July. I just noticed this behavior within the last week and I suddenly realized she may be doing this out of fear from an attack by another horse in July.

Let's analyze this scenario first. Summersmom admits it was the first time she didn't look to see where the other mare was. Obviously she won't ever do that again. No finger wagging from me, I've learned my most valuable lessons the hard way, I think we all do.
Horses have two responses to danger. Flight or fight. Being prey animals they will only fight a perceived danger if they don't think they can escape.

A horse kicking is saying, "Move away, now."

The mare who attacked Summersmom's mare was more than likely telling the mare to move away from the gate. Mare's with babies feel safer in a group. She didn't want to have the group broken up and was trying to move Summersmom's mare and foal back into the pasture. Because Summersmom was holding onto her mare she couldn't go where she was told, so she got beat up for it. If the mare had moved the first time the other horse pinned her ears, or if Summersmom had chased her off, none of this would have happened.

Fairly simple when you think about it. Now Summersmom's mare Rockette, is freaking every time another horse comes near her. Mainly because she has learned she can't get away from another horse when Summersmom is with her, the flight option is gone. So she feels she has to take charge of things, and the fight is on.

That said, guess what? I DON'T CARE. SHE DOESN'T GET TO KICK. PERIOD.

There's a few things Summersmom needs to do. The first is reassert her dominance over other horses.

When she catches Rockette, she needs to drive the dominant horses completely away from the two of them. I do this by swinging the end of my very long lead rope. I'm not afraid to wack them. Remember, that boss mare kicks a lot harder than you can. She needs to body block the dominant horses and not let them near Rockette.

I have had dominant mares run other horses into me and the horse I'm trying to catch, so watch them. They know how to keep the herd together.

Rockette is nervous at the gate because she got her ass kicked there. I don't blame her. But I would ignore her. Give her plenty of loose lead rope so she can move away, (I'm assuming she's been trained to NEVER crowd you) open the gate and go through. Don't soothe or praise her, you're just going through a gate for goodness sake. Do make sure you're protecting her though, once she understands you will drive away any potential attackers she'll be able to relax.

When I have a kicker there's a few things I'll do. I will work the horse pretty thoroughly so the fresh is off before I start. Then I will stand in the middle of the arena and have a friend on another horse circle me. My friend will slowly spiral the horse down until I get a reaction from my little Rockette. My reaction only needs to be pinned ears by the way.Then I will put the pedal to the metal and leave. I do mean hustle that mare out of there, by whatever means necessary.

My horses will lope off with a smooch from me. If yours won't then kick, spur, smack with a crop, whatever. But she needs to git, and git now.

After she is away from the scary horse I'll lope around the arena a few times. The I stop her, relax my reins, and start the whole process again. Every time Rockette lets the other horse come a few feet closer without a reaction I'll have my friend take the pressure off by moving the circling horse off a ways, stop, and rest. I repeat this exercise until Rockette is letting the horse circle around pretty darn close. She will too, once she understands she can move away from her perceived danger. Rockette will learn she is allowed to move away from danger when she feels trapped, even though you're riding her. She will begin to actually assess the situation before she reacts.

The next thing I do is play "Leap frog" on the rail. The more people involved in this the better.
I trot Rockette along the rail and have the horse behind her pass. Have them pass with enough room to be safe, but then they cut in front of you, everybody settles, and then you pass. Keep trotting through the entire exercise. Loping gets wild, and walking is gives everybody too much time to worry. Eventually I leap frog at a lope and walk.

The trick here is that as the other horse passes you, the second you feel your mare tighten up, you WIGGLE. I mean grab the horn, sling yourself back and forth, jiggle the reins, bang your butt on the saddle, just flop around. Your horse will immediately refocus on you believe me. By then the other horse will be past, and the crisis is over. Continue on as if nothing happened. Eventually as you pass the other horse, or it passes you, Rockette will flick her ears back to you, expecting you to lose your mind again. Relax, don't wiggle, give Rockette a pat. If she forgets and puts her attention on the passing horse wiggle again. Rockette will learn she is safe from attack when she pays attention to you.
I started this when I was giving little kids group lessons. When a little kid has a kicker they don't have the strength or timing to discipline the horse. This works so well I started using it myself. I haven't looked back. Plus it's fun. And it makes you look like a loon in front of your peers, something I think everyone needs to do once in a while.

Then comes step three. This is hard, but by now you and Rockette should about be fixed. Have your sacrificial lamb, er I mean friend, come by, and whack your mare. I'm serious. She can just swing her reins, or give her a tap with a crop, but another horse needs to come by and move your horse. You have to sit there, then scoot her forward, and get her away. Then relax, pat Rockette and do it again. Eventually she'll turn to face the oncoming horse, don't have your friend thump her. Have the friend move off and release the pressure. Give Rockette a pat.

When I ride, all of my horses are expected to allow another horse to move them any time I want, this includes studs. If they try to fight I'll get after them. (the horse being moved) In my mind it's a job requirement.

It's my job to ensure other riders are safe around me. It is never another riders responsibility to be aware of what my horse might do. A pink ribbon in my horses tail means I can't control my horse. It means I shouldn't be allowed in a group of horses as far as I'm concerned.
Rockette will learn she is expected to give to crowding, bumping, or passing horses because you expect her to. When she listens, you keep her safe.
By taking these steps it will help you establish three things.

You will be back in the role of leader and protector for your horse.

Your horse will know she is allowed and expected to move away from a threat.

She will know to focus back to you and let you decide the course of action.

I hope this helps. I would make this my priority to fix before I took my horse anywhere in public. Good luck.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Q's and A's

CDNcowgirl-I'm not blowing you off, just thinking....:)

i know nothing said...
My mare randomly decides to 'spook' at places she's been many, many times. I know she's not afraid, she just needs any excuse to screech to a halt and start crowhopping. I've tried working her extra hard in those places, and I've tried ignoring it and just keeping going. I don't know what to do to deter her from suddenly taking off on me. She's six and has been ridden for 3 years. I haven't come off yet (guess she doesn't buck THAT hard), but I'm annoyed that she continues to to it. I ride her at least 4 times a week, in the arena and on the trail.

I have been approaching my horse's spooking from a fairly new (for me) angle. I have also done the ignore it, or work harder, or kick her through, or.....In the old days I used to just ride through it. I thought spooking was kind of fun and part of riding. As Spookerrific was exposed to more and had to negotiate different situations, things just faded away.

This time around, (being older, slower, and fatter) I have been taking on spooking with a "Trailer loading" mentality. I am really, really, good at loading horses in the trailer. I have helped lots of people load their horses, and have had to go pick up some rank S.O.B.s and load them myself. They always get in. I'm not always nice, but if anybody ends up bloody and sore, it's usually me, the horse is always fine. And in the trailer.

I ride the same way through the mountains as I do on a busy showgrounds or in a strange arena. Anyway, as I ride along I try to stay relaxed and focused, with a loose rein. I want my horse to know by my actions there is nothing to fear.

Inevitably, Spookerrific will do his thing. AAAAAGH!! Horse Eating Beast Ahead!!!!

My priority becomes to keep the horse looking where he's supposed to, nothing more. If I am walking on a trail and Spookerrific stops dead, that's OK, as long as he stays facing the direction we are heading. So if he's afraid of a log off to the right, he can look at it, but he has to keep his feet pointing the right way on the trail.

If Spookerrific tries to spin away, or buck, or whatever, I'll handle that behavior, get him looking the direction we'll be going and relax my rein. I'll do this over and over until he understands that the release comes from facing the right direction, that's all I'm asking.

If you keep it that simple, he'll eventually stop and stand there. Let him look. The biggest mistake we make is not letting them see what's worrying them. After we've analyzed the situation I'll ask for some forward. Most of the time they'll sigh and go on. I don't make them approach the scary thing unless we have to go through it to stay on task.

I have found that grabbing hold of their face gives me the biggest leaps through space. If I can gut up and let them spook on a loose rein, it's usually a pretty small event. It's when I go fetal and drag Spookerrific's nose into my bellybutton that we have trouble.

If the horse is spooking at the same place over and over again I find it comes from anticipation of my reaction.
Believe me, he doesn't think "When we go by here I get scared and then we fight."
He's thinking, "When I go by here my dumbass rider always goes freakazoid on me, I just knew this was a scary place!"

If I'm loping circles in an arena we've shown in two hundred times, and we're still spooking at the same flappy tarp, I get a little cranky. I will lope small enough circles far enough away from the bad place that Spookerrific feels safe, but we will lope until he is so eager to stop that he'd rest inside Yogi Bears picnic basket if I'd only say whoa.

I also monkey with my reins, jiggle my legs around, i.e. be really annoying, except when we go by the scary place, then I ride quiet and loosen my rein. I gradually enlarge my circle so we're passing pretty close to the bad spot.

I don't force him to stop, but once he's really hunting a rest, I'll offer a whoa at the scary place. If he's worried enough to try to spook away from that spot, we'll keep on loping. Eventually he'll be airing up with his spooky little butt backed into that tarp.

Have fun, and stay loose.

Smurfette said,
I am still battling the issue of the lead changes with current horse, though. I worked on your detailed instructions and certainly wore MY legs out, moving his hips around, but I think I don't get to work him consistantly enough (so far this year its been hurricanes, a bite on the back and now an abscess) to progress, or do some horses just never pick up this skill? This is the first horse I have ever worked with who won't at least learn to make a rough change on cue.

Some horses are not good lead changers. It's a fact. They don't all switch naturally even running with their pals in the field, and some are just one leaded. Sometimes conformation issues, back or leg pain can cause it. Sometimes they are resistant to the rider pushing on them.
That said, you can try a couple of other things.
First lope a circle to the left. Make sure your weight is in your right stirrup and hip pocket. Stop your horse in the middle of the arena, where you would normally change for a figure eight. Walk the horse forward in a straight line about 4 or 5 steps. Dramatically shift your weight to the left stirrup and hip pocket. Ask for a right lead from the walk.
Lope a circle to the right. Make sure your weight is to the outside. Stop in the middle of the arena. Walk forward in a straight line about four or five steps. Dramatically shift your weight to the right stirrup and hip pocket. Ask for the left lead from the walk.
It's important that the horse lope off from a straight line, not into the shape of the circle. Begin your circle once the horse has his lead.
Repeat this exercise for several days. It doesn't have to be continuous, but you have to keep it slow, clear and calm. Give your horse time to think. Do it at least ten times for each lead, every time you ride.
Also try backing him in a circle. One to the left, one to the right. A big, perfectly round, with the horse in a "C" shape circle. Start with a step or two, move his hips with your leg, take another step or two. This will help develop softness in both of you, and make it really clear where your horse's stiffness lies. When you can guide him through a backing figure eight with clear cues and no resistance, your lead changes will become a lot easier.
Now back to the lope stop change exercise. Your horse will begin to anticipate the change of direction. Keep him straight, but make the amount of walking steps fewer and fewer. Encourage his anticipation. If he tries to change, reward any small effort. Be patient.
When he changes (even if it's ugly) let him come gently down to a walk, and walk him on a loose rein. Be happy with one change each way for a very long time.
Hope that helps.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mort/Chapter 5

I had been invited to ride with the big girls. Pine Run Ranch was sponsoring a horsemanship clinic for the Pikes Peak Rangerettes. The Rangerettes were the epitome of everything I said I hated, and everything I wanted to be. A drill team of beautiful young women on beautiful horses, they rode in parades, the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo and the Denver Stock Show.
They were just about the coolest human beings to ever grace a horse’s back. They had money, clothes, matching tack, and well bred horses that knew how to behave. Gangrenous with envy, I wanted to hate them with every poisoned fiber. The only problem was these weren't your average sissy rich girls. To be a Rangerette you had to be able to ride. Really, really ride.
The drills were performed at a full gallop. Complex, twisting and hair raising. It was hard for me to hate anybody who could ride like they did. I had secretly dreamed of being a Rangerette since the first time I saw them.
A good friend of mine was a Rangerette. Karen was the only one who knew how much I wanted to join them. She knew how little a chance Mort and I stood of ever making the grade. Between his attitude and mine, we were doomed. The Rangerettes were not a club who welcomed social malcontents.
Karen called me when a girl dropped out of their clinic, I was being offered the slot.
“Mom said you can trailer with us. If you do good maybe they’ll make you an affiliate,” she said.
“There’s no point,” I answered.
“How do you know? Maybe Mort will be good.”
“That’s never going to happen and you know it!.”
Even I didn't know why I was so angry. I couldn't douse the brief flicker of hope though. I was sure I would make an ass out of myself, but maybe, just maybe the clinician would think I was worth giving some help.
The morning of the clinic I groomed Mort from one end to the other. I had cleaned all my tack the night before, and desperately tried to find a pair of jeans that weren't six inches too short.
For some reason I could never seem to own a pair of jeans that covered the tops of my boots. Resigned to my geekdom I saddled up Mort and rode him to Karen’s house.
I had come to a truce with Mort by then. He had a huge extended trot. If he stayed there I would stay off his face. If he bolted we would end up in the yank and jerk drama that defined the majority of our life together. If I tried to make him go any slower he would jig, and foam, and growl.
So trot it was. We covered the three miles to Karen’s house in about fifteen minutes. Like I said, it was a big trot. He arrived with most of the stink off him and ready to load. I arrived with the stink on, my shirt dirty and my hair blowing wild.
As we unloaded our horses I couldn't keep the waves of panic that kept pounding me under control. The Rangerettes seemed so together, their horses so perfect. Most of them, including my friend, took lessons at Pine Run, they looked comfortable and relaxed. I didn't belong there.
“I can’t believe you did this to me,” I hissed at Karen.
“Oh shut up, you’ll be fine,” She hissed right back and rode her horse into the shadowy alleyway that led to the arena.
The clinician, Mike Craig, was a local trainer and horse show judge. He started us out by having us walk, trot and lope our horses around the large indoor arena. He stood in the middle of the arena, watching each horse and rider and taking brief notes.
I had never been in an indoor arena, and for all I know neither had Mort. The girls and their horses flashed in and out of the sunlight slanting through cracks in the old wooden walls. They rode along the wall of the arena, quiet and evenly spaced.
Mort and I charged along the inside, his head high, snorting like a freight train. I tried to hold him in, he shook his head and growled deep. I hoped desperately his mouth wouldn't start bleeding, I waited to be pulled aside and thrown out of the clinic.
The clinician called for a whoa. Every horse in the group had stopped and was standing while Mort lugged against me for half the arena. I finally pulled him down. He fretted and pawed, his neck already soaked in sweat.
Then Mike walked over to each girl. He would ask a question, listen intently to the answer, and take a few notes. As he worked his way around the arena I tried to hear what he was saying over the pounding in my ears. No such luck. The closer he came the harder I had to fight the urge to blow out the arena door.
Finally he came to Mort and me. I stared hard at my saddle horn, willing my hands and my horse to stay quiet.
“How are you today?” His voice was deep and calm. I heard no laughter, no judgment at all.
“OK.” I managed.
“What do you need to work most on with your horse?” He asked.
I heard snickers behind me. My face burned as I imagined the eye rolling bitches having a field day with me and my awful horse.
Seriously, did this guy think there was anything I didn't need to work on?
“I don't know how to slow him down,” I managed. “He’s always so scared and mad, I can’t figure out what I’m doing to upset him all the time.”
The clinician thought for a minute.
“For today, I want you to try something. Right here at his wither there is a spot that can help him feel better.”
He had me put my hand on Mort right where his neck joined his withers.
“If you push here when you feel him start to get nervous, it just might calm him down a little.”
“He’s nervous all the time.” I managed to take a quick glimpse at him. I saw kind brown eyes with deep smile lines fanning from the corners.
“Then try this. Every time you feel him speed up, push on his neck there and take a deep breath before you pull. Let’s see what happens.”
I couldn't believe it. He hadn't thrown me out. He hadn't asked why I was there. I never did hear what he was saying to the other girls. All I knew was I had been given something, a nugget of information that offered me not just something to try, but hope for my horse.
As the day wore on I put my new training tip to use. I pushed on Mort’s neck with everything I had. As my timing improved, something short of miraculous happened. Mort started to stop when I pushed on his neck. He began to relax. His ears flicked back and forth more and more as we practiced. I found I could stop him with just a touch of my hand.
For the first time Mort began to wait for me. He walked, trotted and loped, still about fifty miles an hour faster than anybody else, but I didn't have to pull. I couldn't freaking believe it. I could have cared less about those damn Rangerettes. I was figuring out my horse.
The day came to an end and the clinician had a final conversation with us. He went around and said a little to each of us. When he came to Mort and me he stood a minute and absently stroked Mort’s shoulder.
“When we started today,” he began, “I asked each of you what you needed to work on with your horse.
I heard a lot of complaints about headsets and leads, lead changes and neck reining. This young lady here didn't ask any of those things.”
I froze in absolute horror when I realized he was talking about me.
I was so panicked I almost didn't hear what he said next.
“She’s riding the toughest horse in here,” Mike continued, “and I haven’t heard a single complaint out of her all day. She asked me what she could do to help her horse.”
This was getting good. I began to sit up a little straighter.
“She took my advice and has been working on her horse all day. This horse and rider have shown the most improvement of all of you.”
The clinic was over. I was in shock. We took our horses out to the trailer and began to untack.
“He sure liked you.” Karen said.
“I don’t know about that.” I didn't know how to be humble either, I was glowing. More than one of the Rangerettes came by and gave me a “Good job.” A few seemed to actually mean it.
Right before we loaded the horses Mike stopped by for another word.
“You did a good job in there. Why don’t you give me a call. I think a few lessons will get you on the right track.”
“I guess, uh…I don’t know how I’ll get here.” I replied in my best dork mode.
“Maybe you could come out with me sometimes.” Karen offered, whacking me in the ribs with her elbow.
“Make the effort,” Mike said, “You have the makings of a good trainer.”
When the Rangerettes called the next week and offered me a spot on their waiting list, I turned them down. I had better things to do. I was going to learn how to train my horse.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Q and A's:Collection and other stuff

As always....I'm sharing information I learned from the trainers I worked with, the good hands I've known, the books I read, and the horses I've had the opportunity to ride.

I'll answer a couple at a time, OK?. I'll try to figure out how to archive these things too....

CBrewster said...
When your first ask your horse to collect and carry themselves correctly how do you do it

One of the first things I try to remember is that my young horse has to learn to pack me around before I ever think of asking for any level of collection. Little Silliyum has to be able to walk trot and lope comfortably with me on his back. I want him to be able to be there before I even say whoa, much less involve my hands and legs in any way. I cannot stress enough how important I think this is.

Imagine a four year old child toddling off to pre-school. He's given a backpack to wear that's carrying a couple of cinder blocks. Now he has to run around in circles with it slipping and sliding and banging around on him. Instead of giving him time to learn how to carry it, he's expected to learn to carry it while dancing the Hustle.

How long do you think it will be before the little kid shags loose of the backpack?

If I'm having confidence issues, (and believe me I do) I will address those first. Which means both my horse and I will walk trot and lope comfortably before I begin collection, even if I'm worried about the lope. If this is your personal horse and there's no time restrictions, what's the hurry?

So, on to collection.
Collection can only begin when Silliyum has plenty of consistent forward I can ask for with a squeeze, even balance between my legs, and a soft give through the poll when I asks for his face.

Step I. I'll start with serpentines, done at an energetic trot. I post through my straightaways (correct diagonal please), and sit deep through my turns, encouraging the outside hind leg to extend forward and towards the inside front leg using pressure from my outside leg. My inside leg stays quiet at the cinch, touching just enough to give support. I only turn with one rein at a time, and I don't pull back at all.

I use my turns to slow Silliyum down. If he gets fired up I'll guide him in a gentle circle until he relaxes and we start again.
I try to shape my horse into as perfect a "C" as I can through the turns while maintaining an even, balanced seat, his release comes during the straightaway.
This exercise encourages Silliyum to drive with his hind legs through the turns.

Collection begins with the hindquarters driving towards your hand. I'll know he's right when he smoothly goes through each turn at an even cadence and I see his head break at the poll without any pull from me.

StepII. I will walk Silliyum along the rail on a loose rein. I will bump him into a faster walk with my calves and an active forward seat. As he lengthens his stride and speeds up, but before he breaks into a trot, I'll gather my reins until I can just feel Silliyums face. I will essentially be driving him into my hands, not pulling him back to his hindquarters. His back should rise up underneath me, his head will drop into the pressure on the bit, he will slow, but his stride length will stay the same. That's an ideal.
If he goes too fast, I slow down my legs, if he's too slow, I'll increase the pressure. If he tosses his head or won't go, I soften my hands, if he tries to run through them, I take a firm hold until he stops, and then back him a step or two before starting over. Play with this, with the goal being soft contact.
I'm only going to ask for a few strides before I release the pressure and let him walk along on a loose rein again.
As Silliyum becomes comfortable at the walk I'll progress to the trot and then the lope. I'll collect him for a few strides, and release for at least twice as many steps before I ask again.
I mix this up with serpentines and lots of walk trot lope on a loose rein.
It takes a long time to develop a true collection. It takes strength and coordination on Silliyums part, and timing and feel on mine. I never ever hurry.
My horses have usually been competing for two years before they look completely in hand. By the time they are six they are rock solid. It's worth the wait.
Let me know how it works!

Enjay said... Ever run into a horse who had been trained to do something dangerous and you couldn't retrain them out of it? I had a mare who was taught by her breeder to shake hands for a treat. It was allowed to progress to vigorous pawing at the floor, stall door and people when the treats weren't flowing freely. She'd even paw when she was eating from her bucket. She didn't have a mean bone in her body, she'd just been trained to do something stupid and they had encouraged it to the point where it was dangerous. She'd caught her breeder just right and ripped up a bunch or ligaments and tendons in her knee doing that. When I bought her she was five years old and it was a deeply ingrained habit.

So now do you guys get why I don't feed treats? Pet, hug , kiss, whatever......but skip the damn cookies!
Yes, I have run into behaviors I couldn't change..... here's what I would have tried with this mare. What can happen is I change the behavior for me, but not for anybody else.This mare has had her pawing reinforced either positively, or negatively her entire life. My instinct would be to take the focus away from the behavior. I have discussed my personal space rules with stallions before. I would try a variation of these rules with a horse like this one. It would be about where she stood in relation to me, not the pawing.
She would not be able to approach me to get close enough to touch me ever. I would approach her to catch her, groom, tack, whatever at her shoulder. I would not engage in any kind of play behavior with her. While I was handling her I would wack her with a crop for pawing, (as you did) on the forearm muscle of the offending leg, but only until she backed away from me one or two steps, and only if it effected me personally. That includes annoying me by the way.
The biggest point I want to stress, is she would be taught to stand as I approached her, from the side.
I would leave her tied for very long periods of time. I'd ignore her pawing, or whatever else she was doing until she was standing quiet, in a relaxed manner. If she started pawing as I approached, I would leave and we'd try again later. Check out my story on Captain, you'll see what I mean. I'm serious when it comes to dangerous behaviors.
When I feed horses I expect them to stand quietly, facing me until I have dropped their hay in the feeder and walked away. Horses that paw or whinny or buck or pin their ears....ANYTHING other than stand there and look at me with a pleasant look on their face, don't get fed.
I don't make a big deal of this. I don't yell, or wave a stick, (unless I'm in a loose paddock situation) I just walk away. I'll let them watch everybody else eat for an hour or so, and then I'll offer them some dinner again. If they keep it up, we'll can try again the next time I feed. This may sound mean, but I've never killed one doing this. As a matter of fact I don't think I've ever had one misbehave to the point of skipping two meals. And when it's time to feed my horses stand quietly waiting for dinner.
This is a sad situation. This mare was extremely lucky to land with you. This is the kind of crap that happens when people treat their horses like Chihuahuas. As you can see, this stuff gets me cranked. If she had ended up with anybody else but you she could have killed somebody. Lucky, lucky, mare.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Ideas, New Rides.

I've noticed that not cleaning stalls in the morning has seriously cut into my thinking time. It takes me longer to process my thoughts on horse training , and of course I miss the stimulus of daily riding problems to give me stuff to write about.

So how about sending me questions? All you want. I'll save them, catalog them and work on answering them. I'll use stories as examples when I can, and still keep talking about the horse world as I see it. As a matter of fact, if I don't know the answer, I'll see if I can find someone who can.....What do you think?

I have been doing a pile of trail riding though. I am riding Pete on my side of town, and have my yellow mare out at a client's ranch in Kiowa. I go help her once a week and get to ride my sweet mare, the rest of the time she's running like a loon with her ranch horse buddies. It's a well earned rest for her, (she's been in training since she was two) and I love seeing her fly across the prairie.

Pete needs to be sold and typical of a horse who has spent his life with a trainer, (that would be me) he knows a lot of stuff, but he's not as broke as he should be.

So he's the horse I'm keeping by my house, and riding the most. On the trail. Poor little arena baby, he's never had to take a single step on uneven ground, or contemplate the concept of a trail that may never end, and now he's in the mountains.

The Big K used to swear that if he was well trained enough, a horse would do whatever you said, without question. In his mind a horse that could run a reining pattern could certainly head down the trail.

Even though I had spent my entire training career, and my horse life before that, thinking all horses needed time on the trails, I bought it hook, line and stinker.

This is the first time in about ten years that I have been consciously taking a horse out on the trails with the intent of "finishing" him.

So right off, I decide to go on a ride with my daughter (who loves having her horse, Snicket, in the mountains so much she may never show again) and one of the boarders at our barn. The boarder owns a NATRC competing, trail chewing, been there done that horse. Perfect for taking our quaking newbies out with.

We took off on an "easy" trail, mostly park service dirt roads, with a little bit of trail thrown in.

It took us a while because at first Pete and Snicket couldn't walk two feet without finding something they had to stop, stare and snort at.

I kept the same rules I try to maintain in the arena. My reins stayed thrown out, and I didn't come in contact with Pete's mouth unless he wasn't looking at whatever horse eating beast he was transfixed by at the moment. If he tried to leave he got his head pulled in and his hip kicked out, and we'd go 'round until he stopped and faced the direction I wanted him to go in, then I'd drop my hand again. I didn't try to push him forward though. I just let him look. Pretty soon Pete realized he could either move forward, or stand there for eternity. He knows me quite well you see. So with a deep sigh he would agree to go along with the other, more experienced horse.

It was amazing to see how quickly Pete became interested in our surroundings, and wanted to see what was around the next bend.

He was so busy looking around, he didn't seem to realize a trail horse needs to watch where he's going. We'd be schlumping along, and he'd just walk off the side of the trail. It didn't matter if it was into the trees, or down a gully, off we'd go.

I couldn't believe it. After I'd kicked him back up to the trail for the fourth or fifth time I really started to think about it.

I know Pete's not stupid. He has always ridden on a loose rein. Why all of a sudden was he veering me into yet another mouthful of tree branch?

It occurred to me that this was his first time out of a controlled environment. In the arena, I rode him in circles on a loose rein, or a straight line on a loose rein, but I never just put my reins down and let him go along a path he had chosen. Ever.

You would think it was because I had been in charge of every step his whole life under saddle, and he didn't know how to think.

But I encourage my horses to think all the time. They're so much better on cattle than I am, that I try to get them working on their own ASAP. I teach them from the get go to carry themselves in a circle on their own, same for a straight line.

It finally hit me. Poor Pete was trying to hold a line. He was walking completely straight, as he'd been taught to do, and he was bravely trying to stay straight no matter the size of the drop off in front of him. Jeesh. The things we do to these poor horses.

As the ride went on I kept patiently pulling him back on the trail with a sympathetic pat. I kept my reins loose and didn't help him until we stumbled. Don't think I'm mean, Pete wasn't helping me ignore the snickers I was getting from my rotten kid and my friend. My daughter has taken off and ridden her horse like a proper child should her whole life, so Snicket has at least been out in the prairie and knows enough to duck a gopher hole.

By the end of the day Pete was doing better. He had learned to pretty much follow the trail. He started picking his way through the rocks instead of scrambling as fast as he could. He wasn't crowding the horse in front of him, and he actually flagged his tail in pure happiness when I loped him up a hill and across a ridge. He led, he rode in the middle, and he rode behind. He was cheerful and interested. I think this is going to be perfect.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sonita/Chapter 10

This is Sonita and me, finally getting competitive enough to be photo worthy. As you can see, I still had a death grip on my reins. I think by looking at her expression you can get an idea why I had trouble letting go.
Sonita/Chapter 9
We were on our way. Sonita and I had negotiated a usable partnership. She spent roughly seventy percent of her time making life hell for everyone around her and the rest, well the rest was brilliant.

She finally understood what we had been alligator wrestling over. It was all about the cows. Sonita lived for the chance to work a cow. She wanted to follow them, sort them, herd 'em up and move 'em out. She wanted to eat them, the little Doberman.

She had begun to place at our shows. Erratically, and only when all the moons were aligned just so, but sometimes, we were in the money. I liked it.

Unfortunately, that was only half of what I needed from my redheaded step-child. She hated the dry work portion (reining pattern) of reined cowhorse competition. She saw no purpose, and felt no obligation just because I said so.

Our training became broken up into two parts. The first, was the cow work, which was blazing along like a house on fire.The second , constant drilling on her dry work. Sonita took an enormous amount of warm up to even get her thinking. I started each day with 100 to 150 foot circles, twenty on the right lead and twenty on the left. The first 10 would be on a loose rein, and then I'd begin the battle of collection.

She was naturally collected, and cat-like in her responses, any attempt on my part to take charge of her way of going disintegrated into an immediate duel. A duel to the death if she had her way. My legs sent her blasting forward, my hand caused her to gape and shake her head. She would be so angry, I couldn't begin to get through to her.

"What do I do with her?" I asked the big K.

"You have to get off her face, she'll never gather up until you two quit fighting over who gets her head." He said for the umpteenth time.

"I get that, but how? She'll run until she dies."

"No she won't."

"Yes she will."

"Go set up for rundowns, and STAY OFF HER FACE! I want you to do at least 20 stops each way. She'll get tired soon enough. When she wants to slow down bring her down to a walk, and we'll go from there."

His face was set and angry. My mare was foaming and chomping at her bit. I felt totally useless. I was incapable of doing this right. The Big K, never a fountain of information, was at a loss. I could see the disappointment in his face.

I set up for my rundowns. The Big K's outdoor arena is well over 100 yards long. I sat one end , with Sonita shifting uneasily under my hand and squinted at the teeny tiny Big K waiting for me, so incredibly far away. I forced myself to feed out more rein, took a deep breath, sat back and headed for the center post on the opposite side of the arena.
Sonita jumped forward in her usual shot-out-of-a-cannon style and leveled out when she realized I wasn't going to pull her in. She gained speed with every stride and by mid arena we were going faster than any horse I'd ever had the pleasure of being freaked out on.
"Park her ass into the dirt!" The Big K yelled as we roared by.
I lifted my hand, and then pulled her down. The stop wasn't pretty, but before I had time to do anything about it he yelled again.
"Just turn and go, this isn't about stopping. Just Go!"
So we went. Sonita powered into a flat-out run within two or three strides, she was so strong and out of control I was terrified. But the disappointment that had darkened the Big K's eyes out-weighed everything. I gritted my teeth, sunk farther down into my seat, and got ready for the next bone jarring stop.
It was endless. Sonita would not slow down. The only concession she eventually gave was a solid, deep stop at the end of each run. She knew I would release her through the turn, so she began to really bury her stops. Somewhere, through my mind numbing fear, I filed that away.
"We're almost to twenty!" I shouted.
"Keep her going until she slows down!"
I lost count somewhere around thirty runs. Remember, that's each way. Sonita was tiring. We were going slower, but each time we came out of our roll back she would take off with everything she had.
I felt her begin to stagger, and pulled her down mid-run. Sonita stood, head down, legs spraddled, her entire body shaking with each whistling breath.
"Why'd you quit?" The Big K yelled.
"I'm not going to kill her. She's going to run all out until she dies." I yelled back.
I sat my horse, anger slowly bubbling up inside me. Anger at myself, my trainer, my horse.
"Well, I guess that's not going to work." The Big K added.

I stepped off, and loosened Sonita's cinch. She almost fell over when I tugged at the girth.
I went to her head and lifted her forelock. She stood quiet and let me rub her ears. Foam dripped from her sides, rivulets of sweat streamed over my fingers as I stroked her face. The hollows over her eyes pulsed under my hand, beating in rhythm with her ragged breathing.

My anger faded as I rubbed my wild, willing and courageous mare. I realized she was doing what she thought I wanted. It hit me with such force I leaned against her and dropped my forehead to her withers.

I turned my back to the Big K and began to lead her around the arena. It was going to take hours to cool her down.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Desensitize Or Tune?

My step-daughter and I spent a lot of time together the last few days, be it in the phone or trailering up to a cowhorse event to hustle a few horses. We are both horse trainers, I'm recently retired, and she's on the verge of doing the same.

She has a Ray Hunt background, as a matter of fact it was Jill that introduced me to him and his teaching several years ago.
I in turn brought her into the fold during the years I was with the Big K.

We both like cowhorses, and our approach to training is close enough to at least appreciate and learn from each other.

I was asking her for some input on which direction I should send the folks with the warmblood colt. He is pretty much at a place where I would be content, if he was mine. He is picking up his feet. He has learned to keep his flailing legs to his own little self, his nipping is under control. He handles well with a rope halter, and he will eventually be able to be moved into one of those leather, safety-snapped halters you dressage folks hold so dear, and he'll mind in it without a stud chain. He longes safely, without pulling. His lead rope stays slack, and he follows along like a gentleman. He stands tied. He will continue to work with his barn mates wandering through the middle of the arena while longing and stay fairly quiet when they wander up to the tie post to bug him.

None of this is perfect yet. He has lapses. But Bruce knows how to effectively correct him and they're progressing at a fast clip.
If it were me, I'd mess with him once a week or so until it was time to start him.

But Bruce is intrigued with my training methods, this colt is truly going to be a beast, size-wise anyway and when the daughter came in for a short visit from Washington she was very happy with his progress. She is a working student for a dressage barn out there and has high hopes for this colt.
Add it all up and we're going to keep going.

My concern is I worry about desensitizing this horse. I would hate to create dullness or resistance from over-handling him.

I have long had an aversion to the training programs that involve lots of sacking out with all kinds of different items, or lots of repetition in a training maneuver.
I want my horses to work with me on the concept that they need to pay attention to what I'm doing. I've talked before on my one, two, three method of cuing.

I also reward them by quitting the current activity and resting, or moving on to the next one if they have given me the appropriate response.
They quickly learn pick this up. I try to respect them enough to assume once they tolerate whatever it is I'm trying to do, it's understood, and time for us to move on.

I also strongly believe that I can rub a horse all over with a plastic bag and he will go ahead and spook at the next plastic bag he sees flapping from a tree.
All I managed to do was teach him to ignore the stimulus of one plastic bag. It has nothing to do with his wild blast into space at the sight of the next one.

What I want them to learn is to trust me to help them safely negotiate their perceived danger.
If my horse is afraid of that evil horse chomping Walmart bag and I just make him go past it, once he realizes he survived, he will trust me a little more to make a decision for him next time.

In order to get him to listen he can't tune me out. He has to listen to my cues, even over his own fears.
If he has learned to tune me out when I'm slinging a saddle blanket at him for the 100th time in a row, what do I do when I really need him to listen? What good will it do me if I've very successfully taught him to ignore stressful stimulus, and then do something he'd prefer to ignore? Like a cluck, my heels, my spurs, the bit...
I also want them to understand when I do something to them, it's for a purpose. I need them to carry my rain gear. I need them to get in the trailer. I need them to haul twenty sheets of rusty tin tied together with rotted baling twine across two miles of bumpy, rocky ground with a questionable tow rope. But that's another story for another day. I sure can't take the time to desensitize them to every wacko thing I decide we need to do, they have to feel safe because I say it is safe.
So, my point to my step-daughter was, how do I engage this colt without turning him into a 70 games playing, carrot eating, walk-all-over-you butt munch?

Jill had some good thoughts. "How about broom ball?"

Broom ball is an Alice in Wonderlandesque game I made up many years ago for six rotten little girls, stuck in a tiny, dusty indoor with me and their horses on a rainy afternoon.
Jill uses it as a teaching and training tool.

It takes a kitchen broom per kid, a $3.00 big ball from Walmart, and lots of patience.

"I teach people how to play on the ground first," she continued.

"Chicken," I replied.

"Students keep coming back," she snarked.

"The idea is to get the student to talk their horse into touching the ball first with their nose, and then with their feet,"Jill continued.

"So they start playing before you're ever on their back?"

"Eventually, but the main idea is for the horse to accept direction from their owner in a ridiculous situation. It gets them to trust."

I liked it. The horse will stay fresh. It's stimulating and creative to both horse and owner, and fun.

I love it when somebody takes an idea of mine and runs with it. Broom Ball has taken on a whole new meaning now. It is perfect for where I would like Bruce and his colt to go.
So we're grabbing a ball and going for it next week, I'll let you know how it goes.
Later, gators.