Desensitizing – what’s your theory?

We were just talking about how to cure horses of certain phobias. For example, the SSP is pretty sure plastic bags will kill him. Every night, he has to snort anew at the plastic bag I have been carrying his brushes around in. I have let him sniff it and thoroughly investigate it. He still thinks it has teeth and eats mustangs for lunch.

I was trained to believe that when they’re scared of something, you put it in their environment and make them deal. I’ve effectively used methods like hanging polo mallets in the stall so that they have to bump them as they move around, hanging a running clippers next to their grain bucket so that they learn to ignore the noise, and so on. So my instinct with SSP was to tie a plastic bag to the door of his stall so that he could bump it and learn that the crackly noise wouldn’t kill him. He has touched it with his nose and jumped back but he’s not panicking or anything so I’m going to leave it there.

A friend of mine brought up that she’d only had success with this kind of thing if it was done so that the horse had more control. For example, that if the horse was brave and touched the scary item, scary item was removed. This, of course, involves human participation – you can’t just leave the thing they don’t like in their stall or pasture.

What do you think? I mean, we’ve all seen the concept of “making them deal with it” go bad – like the story of the horse that someone tied plastic milk jugs with rocks to, who jumped the round pen and headed down the highway. Like anything, you can go too far and use bad judgment, but normally I’m still a proponent of “making them deal with it.” There are certain things, like being hosed off, that I can’t imagine any other way to teach. Or having to deal with livestock – living next to a cow, donkey or llama is really the only way I can think of to teach a horse that they are no big deal. I used to know a barn that had a pasture right next to train tracks. It worked – their babies didn’t blink at trains.

On a related note, do you believe that horses can get too desensitized to the point where they become dull and react to nothing, or is that your goal? I think it kind of depends on how you use them. I think a dull horse is the easiest horse to sell and the most likely horse to find a good home. But obviously that horse isn’t going to be your star athlete in a lot of disciplines. I know many people who believe, for example, that spooky horses just have a prettier jump and there’s probably some truth to that. They are not going to risk their hoofies touching a scary rail, that’s for sure. Does your discipline favor the dull horse or the edgy athlete, and how does your training seek to create that?

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm  Comments (1)  

The not-so-glamorous mustang challenge!

I’m guessing most of my readers know at least one well-intentioned person who has horses in need of training growing progressively older in their backyard. While they’re not abusing the horses, and the horses are well-fed, no training is being accomplished – or poor training has resulted in the horses training the people. I recently agreed to help out someone like this. Yes, money was involved, and I’ve only agreed to do ground work.

The horses are mustangs and while I think that some are quite nice looking and good-moving, they have just been pets for their entire lives. They kinda sorta lead. They are mostly friendly and like sugar cubes. That’s about it. So about two weeks ago, I started working with two of them.

The Good Mustang apparently had some ground work way back when, and he is not stupid. He seeks out human interaction and is interested in what you are doing. His past training consisted of being ponied on a trail ride without and then with a rider (he was good for that) and then one ride in the arena (he blew and hurt someone). So of course we are going back to square one and filling in the blanks.

He is the personality type that tests you, but he’s quick to learn. The first time I had him out of his pen, he got tired of standing still and shoved me in the stomach with his nose. He got bopped in the nose once and there has not been one single repeat of that behavior so I’ve decided he’s pretty smart. He already ties without incident, longes both directions, knows “ho” although he’s a little lazy about it (drops to a walk rather than a halt – so we are working on a sharper response) and is generally doing very well. He started out extremely distractable – he would look at everything but me and had a most annoying habit of craning his neck to look at spooky things and barging his shoulder into me as though I was not there. He has been poked in the shoulder a lot with my elbow, and does seem to be improving steadily with work. He’s actually a very good mover. Overall, I really like him. I think another week and he’ll be ready to start wearing a bit and long-lining. I’m not really anticipating any major problems with this guy – I think his previous explosion was merely due to a lack of consistent ground work before riding was introduced. He was scared and he reacted as you’d expect.

Then there’s the Spooky Sorrel Paint. Not quite as sharp and has no interest in humans. Every vibe I get from him says “throw me hay and leave me the F alone.” Clearly much more unhandled than the other, this guy took a week of work in his pen before I felt comfortable bringing him out. He started out deathly terrified of having me stand on his off side. He would turn himself into a pretzel to try to keep me on the “safe” side but I persisted, doing annoying things like standing in his stall while he ate and brushing the “scary” side until he pretty much got over it. He is still very spooky of the ear on that side – wondering if someone has eared him in the past, though earing on the off side sounds odd. Usually if people do that, they do it on the near side and as a result the horse is spooky about the left ear.

SSP leads but doesn’t back. Backing is completely new, so we’re working on that. He also doesn’t move away from pressure at all – he’s not panicky but he’s like a tree stump. “Over” means nothing in his world, so we have a lot of work to do.

I brought him into the arena yesterday and let him loose to play in a much bigger area than he normally has. He was fine about letting me catch him, which was a nice surprise. You longtime readers know that we have a converted barn with a solid fence in the middle of the arena so we usually tie horses to that for grooming and tacking. I knew he might not tie, so I just threw the lead over the fence and walked around to the other side. I held the rope wrapped around the side of one of the big beams so that if he moved out of the range of the lead, he’d feel resistance against the beam but he wasn’t really tied. I just wanted to see what he’d do when faced with a little pressure on his head but I was holding him the whole time.

Well, I was glad I was on the other side of the fence as we got a performance worthy of the Royal Lippizan Stallions. It was interesting. He’d stand quietly and not even act scared, then all of a sudden – walking on his hind legs. And I mean, straight up, Hi-Ho Silver rear. I was holding him so I would give and take but not let go. He would settle and stand – again, not acting scared or shaky or white-eyed – just like he was contemplating his next move. And then suddenly – a rear with a huge leap through the air.

As I say, I was glad I was on the other side of the fence. I could give and take but there was a lot of solid wood keeping me out of hoof range. I wasn’t bracing the lead against anything anymore – just moving with him but not letting go. He threw his fit, then settled, then another fit, then more settling. Finally he stood for a little longer than he had before and I pet him, unsnapped the lead and let him go. Amusingly, he stood right where he was “tied” until I left the arena.

I’ve dealt with these kind of theatrics before in a spoiled older horse (and worse – at least this guy isn’t aggressive or charging me), but this is a little different as I know SSP simply never learned his A-B-C’s in the first place. I’d like to rig something up to tie him from above as I think that’s the least traumatic introduction to tying. I’ve been around long enough to remember the days when we tied them to a tree with one of those one-piece poly cow halters and let them fight, but I’d like to think we can teach tying a little less violently these days! So my new challenge is how to rig something up that works – something that won’t break but has some give. Your suggestions are welcomed.

By the way, I’m not so sure it’s as much about tying as it is about being away from his herd. I will bet I could tie him in his pen and he wouldn’t care, but in the arena his whole focus is on getting out of the arena and back to his friends. If he’s loose, he stands at the gate trying to dig a hole to freedom unless I flag him off. Did I mention he was gelded late? Yeah, that too. And he led like a lamb going back to his friends so, again, I think the herd-boundness is the main issue here.

So after the boys, it was a real pleasure to work with Sly. She is so smart! She long lines both in a circle and on the wall now. We just started doing it with a bit, so she’s adapting to that and fussing a bit but that’s to be expected. She’s gotten so much less reactive to things and can do the most gorgeous little jog in the long-lines. She doesn’t seem to care at all about the lines anymore. (Her owner reminded me that she had a bad accident and got her hind legs caught in New Zealand Wire fence years ago, so she really might have had a good excuse to be so scared of the long lines at first). I was really impressed with her last night since one of my landlord’s cows was right up by the arena and the cow spooked at her, and while she spooked, she did it in place – she didn’t really go anywhere. Big improvement from when I started working with her and she’d try to bolt on the longe line.

‘course, mares are just smarter. *ducks tomatoes from gelding owners*

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who else hates this time of year?

I’m just gonna whine!

I hate it. I want it to be May. I want to be able to go outside and use the round pen. I want to be able to haul horses to another arena to ride without worrying that the roads will be slippery. And I’m ready for the horses to shed – I am tired of having long-haired, filthy yaks!

We have mud and intermittent snow here. Our indoor arena has not yet completely recovered from the flood damage, so it is nice in some spots and way too deep in others. Sly, the buckskin Paint mare, reacts to hitting a deep spot by freaking out and scrambling so I am hesitant to continue her under-saddle training until we get the arena in better shape, so I’ve introduced her to long-lining. I thought she was kind of spooky about it the first time until I learned that her actual first time doing it, a year or so ago, she flipped out completely. So now I decided that the fact that I got her going around both directions in a reasonably controlled manner to be a success, and we’ll keep working on that. She is terrified of the rope being near or around her butt, so we will work up to that – for now, I am letting it just lay over her saddle.

We are sticking to walk and jog. She needs to learn that it is OK to walk – I like for horses to have a solid walk on the longe line and she thinks you need to go out there right away and charge around – which I think is pretty common. Lots of people ignore walking and it’s not just the NH-ey round penning set – I see plenty of hunters that think you go out on the longe line and run around like a fool. I hate that. I want 3 good, reasonably controlled gaits on the longe, just like any other time. Fortunately she is a smart mare and is catching on quickly!

I also want to introduce her to ponying, so I’m going to try to put some riding on a very well broke, huge Appy gelding that we have here as I think he’ll tolerate the idea of being ponied off of. He is Mr. Personality – big as a house, so big that he looks part draft even though he isn’t. I have renamed him the Moosealoosa. 🙂

All my others are fine except for my 35+ year old, Clover, who had to be put to sleep last week. She just got to that point where her balance was going and even though she was still “cleaning her plate” and looked good, it was obvious she was going to go down at some point and not be able to get back up. She was a free Craigslist horse two years ago, thrown away by a girl who wanted “a young horse who could go fast” and “didn’t know why she was so skinny” (she was long past any ability to chew hay, and was starving to death). She ate hay pellet mush with me for a little over two years and died looking like you see below. That’s my idea of a happy ending!

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment