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.


Laura Crum said...

So, in Broom Ball, do you end up on the horse, whacking the ball with the broom? Or does the horse whack the ball with the broom? (This I would like to see.)The goal with the unbroken colts is to have them push the ball around with their nose? I guess I'm confused. Sounds like fun, though. I'm with you on the fussing around with them too much before its time to ride them issue--I think it makes them dull and pushy. But there's sure a lot of folks who believe otherwise. It will be fun to hear how the warmblood colt comes along.

Joy said...

I'm looking forward to your results.

It's funny, I've got a horse who I consider to be a sensible-spooky horse. I admit, he spooks at some weird s*it sometimes, but it makes sense when i think about it later.

And he always cues me in on trail when I miss anything. If I see "it" first, "it" is all good. If I'm crusing and I miss "it", he shows me.

I luff him so.

Spotted_T_Apps said...

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. People that handle their horses past the point of sensitivity. Now I have to beat on the suckers to get them to move out of my way.

My young horses learn the basics and are then left alone except when needed. Period. I don't want them handled daily doing odd things to satisfy my boredom.

Studs in particular. First they don't want them in with other horses and they don't want them hurt, so they put them in stalls and small pens. Then they want to be sure they are well mannered so they handle them waaayyy to much. Now you have a high strung bundle of hormones that has no release of energy or boredom and can't figure out why he won't snap into place when you ask him to.

If you are going to have a stallion, you need to have the proper facilities for him to have real turn out on a real pasture, not in a dry lot. It would be prefferable if he can have some pasture buddies. Be they bred mares, geldings, yearlings or whatever, but other horses are needed for manners and socialization.

Leslie said...

I was glad to read your views on overusing the sacking out method. This has been my view after I've studied methods (various popular clinicians) for a while and then watched as different horses at the barn where I worked, still spooked at various things. You can't desensitize to everything. You have to get them trusting you, or people, if you're training other folk's horses.

I like your comment: "Learn to trust me to help them negotiate their percieved danger." I haven't been so far off in my thinking after all!

Sometimes in working with my two geldings I've wondered about the way I do things, but since reading your blogs, I feel better about it.

Being fairly new to working with horses on my own (just my two guys now), I've tried to find ways of teaching my guys that work for me, and both horses. They are at different levels and have different personalities.

Thanks for sharing your wealth of experiences!

McFawn said...

I agree 100%. Horses aren't afraid of all plastic bags, but one particular bag, the way the sun hits it, how it looks next to other rubbing them with a bag does jack squat.

On the other side, people shouldn't go out of their way to make enviroments non-spooky. I rode at a barn where you couldn't leave your saddle pad out when the horses were coming in (they were all run into to eat) because it might spook them. Everything was done the same everyday, and nothing was ever out of place. This made for some dumb horses--they never had to just deal with trotting by a saddle blanket to get their food.

The tragic part of this is that the women who owned the barn ended up paralyzed because, you guessed it, one of her horses spooked when the barn door was opened. This horse had never been off the property, never been made to really deal with change, and sure enough it was TOO sensitized to slight changes...its a fine balance between dull and overly paranoid/alert!

McFawn said...

And I totally agree that getting the horse to trust YOU matters more than "de-spooking." No horse can be 100% "de-spooked." A de-spooked horse is not one who walks around covered with a tarp with tin cans tied to all four feet. It's a horse who looks, waits to hear his rider's opinion on the scary thing, and then moves on when told its okay!

ORSunshine said...

Mugs, I think I want to hear about the tin with the rotten baling twine! It sounds like an adventure!

So, what do you do when you have a desensitized horse who doesn't listen worth a crap? And is mouthy on top of that? And smart, and playful and 20 yrs old? That's my current horse. I'm at a loss as to how to get him to pay attention to me on the longe. I've tried ripping his face off. And yes, I used a stud chain. He's patterned for lunging. I've had him just over a month and now all the other behaviors are surfacing. Actually, like Cathy's VLC, he's a slug in hot weather, which is when I saw him, but he's full of himself now that it's cooling.

mugwump said...

orosunshine- You've got a lot on your hands. Pick one behavior at a time to focus on. If he's dragging you on the the longe, start him loose and everytime you feel the slightest tension on the line, pull him toward you hard. Then release and send him out again. Only pull until you have changed the direction of his feet (toward you) and make sure you get him going again immediately.As soon as he gives to the line without a battle, and makes at least a half circle without towing, stop for the day.
Eventually, (this could take a long while)he will prefer to give to the line, and keep some slack in it.
Then you can go to the next behavior.
Don't let him play or distract you. Get his feet moving, and keep them going until he's listening.

Jamie said...

mugs.. i would LOVE your feedback as to what to do with my 3 1/2 year old. he's a sensitive guy with a lot of go. i've done tons of groundwork with him and have just recently started him under saddle. he has been doing really well, until our 6th ride. it went well for about 20 minutes, which i'd only planned on riding him for 20-30 minutes, then i went to the one-rein stop him (which i have worked on with him more than anything else so far). he bent nicely, stopped, usually he'll touch or try to nibble the toe of my boot, but this time he bopped his nose on my boot. he freaked. his head popped up and he leaped forward, sideways, dumped me in the process, then ran around the arena like a loon until i could stand up and dust myself off. it was like he all of the sudden realized that there was "something" on his back?? my question is do i chalk this up as a fluke 3 year old, 6th ride thing? or should i be doing more desensitizing, "pay attention to me" work?

mugwump said...

Hi Jamie,
I'm not sure I can help you. I think we have very different approaches to training.I'll tell you what I would do, but I don't know that it applies.
First off, I've always called it "third ride." They all do it. It's like they wait until they're comfortable, and then say, "Maybe I don't want to be ridden," and there you go.
I don't do extensive ground work, I'm pretty basic.
I would have made sure I could bend my horse, kick his hip out, and continue going in the opposite direction, then I'd leave that for an emergency control thing.
I would be moving that horse around by the sixth ride. We would be at least trotting, and I would probably be creating more energy with an active posting seat.
I don't use a one reined stop. I don't bend and turn them for several rides. I keep them going until they want to stop, and then I sit deep,take my legs off, exhale, and wait for them to stop.Eventually they always stop.I don't pull on their face until they stop off my seat, then I say whoa and back them a step.
I hope you can pull something of use from this.I would have gotten back on that day and gotten going again. If I was hurt, I'd have gotten on the next day.
Good luck.

manymisadventures said...

Sounds like fun.

I did something similar, I suppose -- a few months ago I got a big blow-up ball and got McKinna to go round kicking it. Or rather just walk into it so that as she took a step she kicked it.

It was kind of fun, though she thought I was an idiot.

ORSunshine said...

Thanks Mugs! You give me so many "ah-ha!" moments!

I realize my comment was clipped earlier. I've been pretty upset with Charlie. He bit my thumb, pinned his ears at me, double barrel kicked in my direction, tried to pull me off my feet when I made him move out, low crawled out of a paddock when the power briefly went out at the boarding stable, then ripped open a couple brand new bags of grain and pigged out on another boarder's hay in the barn this week. Follow that with a still sore thumb, recovering from something viral and flu-like, colic and founder watch and I'm pretty drained.

You're right. He's a handful. But I know he has a heart of gold too.

Jamie said...

Thanks Mugs! It mostly helps to know that they all do it. I was wondering if I had some sort of spaz pony or something :o) I also agree with getting him moving. He's an ADD horse and gets distracted very easily, and I think that's when he's prone to do dumb stuff. If I keep him busy, he stays more focused. He's been very good since then. I didn't get back on that day because while I was in the dirt he turned into a bucking bronc, got the saddle under his belly, and broke my girth. I also broke my tailbone. Few days and a new cinch later, all is well :)
I'm working on stopping off my seat too. I like to have both the emergency one rein stop, and stop off the seat for normal stops.
P.S. He LOVES pushing the ball around. He'll kick and paw the crap out of it. I use a big exercise ball from Target $9.99. It's a little more durable than the big bounce balls.

SolitaireMare said...

Hey Mugwump! Just letting you know I've passed the Arte Y Pico blog award on to you! Please stop by my blog and pick up your award! Congratulations!

LatigoLiz said...


verylargecolt said...

>.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.<

God, that is SO true.

I agree completely. You can desensitize to 99 things and they'll spook at the 100th - but if you teach them to trust you and listen to you even if they're scared, that covers everything. Great advice!

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