Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Maisie Greets Me, and How Far to Push Things

Maisie has been somewhat herd-bound and anxious lately when we ride away from the barn. And then Sunday, when I was bringing my horses in, Maisie ended up being the last mare to come in, and had to spend some time in the pasture by herself before I got her. She wasn't galloping, but she was pretty wound up - calling and pacing. When I opened the gate, she could barely contain herself, and clearly was thinking about bolting past me to get to the barn. She's usually pretty reliable on the lead, but I wanted to interrupt the thought of bolting before it turned into the action. She's a big horse, and when she's upset, she's Really Big. I asked her firmly to pay attention to me, and she did come back to me, although she was still pretty nervous.

Then yesterday, in one of those odd (perhaps not so odd after all) coincidences, after my post yesterday, when I went to get Maisie out of the pasture at lunchtime, she greeted me. As I walked up to the pasture gate, she walked up to the gate from her side and stuck her head over. It wasn't bring-in time, so that wasn't it. I hadn't brought a treat - I never do, so that wasn't it. Now for some of you, this may be a common occurrence with your horses, but with Maisie, it's not. I got her in the summer of 2002, and at that time she was totally shut down, and really wanted nothing to do with people. She would stand in her stall with her head buried in the corner. It was very sad. And she would never look at me with her eyes. It took a long time to gain enough of her trust that she would acknowledge me by "seeing" me, and I always asked her to turn in the stall so her head was facing me, but I had to ask, she didn't offer. When she first came to our barn, she would run away from me in the pasture. That was fixed fairly easily, and now she acknowledges my presence by watching me as I approach - until yesterday. Now granted, she didn't have to walk very far to get to the gate, but she did choose to do so.

I felt honored by her choice to be with me, and think it does represent some sort of shift. We didn't do too much yesterday - her hind feet and my back were both sore. I took her away from the herd at lunchtime, since we're working on her herd-boundness, and took her into the arena to groom her, thinking the surface in there would be easier on her feet. I ground-tied her with her head facing away from the pastures, and she was quite content to just stand there. No herd-boundness that day. When her feet and my back are less sore, we'll see if this new feeling between us translates into more confidence away from the barn.

* * * * * *

One thing I've struggled with in my work with horses is how far to push things. Most of the horses I've worked with are naturally alert and reactive - what some would call high-strung. I've always really liked an eagerly forward horse, and one that is very sensitive to the aids - although I've learned that any horse can be that sensitive, given a chance. Any horse can be pushed too far outside its comfort zone, but it seems to happen more quickly with these horses - often with little warning. Once seriously worried, it can be hard for them to settle again - I don't really care if my horses become scared or worried, but do care how they come back to me. A horse that checks out completely and is in "I've got to do this [bolt, buck, etc.] right now or else I'm going to die!" mode doesn't give you much to work with and can be downright dangerous.

But I do think for a horse to learn new things, particularly how to deal with things or situations which are stressful or scary, does sometimes require us to put pressure on them, by putting them in the stressful or scary situation - but there are degrees of this and I believe forcing the horse, rather than giving the horse a choice, can result in either the horse shutting down or explosively losing its mind. Small fits or struggles are a different thing entirely, to my mind. I think I, and I expect many horsepeople, sometimes avoid situations that we fear will stress our horses. As I get older (and older!), I've also become more protective of my physical safety and well-being, which I think sometimes leads me to not persist when a problem needs to be solved with the horse, perhaps out of fear that I'll be hurt. I expect this is an issue for many of us older riders.

This is a natural, self-protective thing, and also I think sometimes I (or we) don't know what to do when the fit happens. But one thing Mark Rashid said at the clinic on this subject really stuck with me - that sometimes the horse has to have a fit to make a change - and if we don't allow this to happen the change we're looking for won't happen. I don't think he was talking about meltdowns, but rather about the horse struggling with something, and he definitely wasn't talking about the rider fighting with the horse to force it to do something.

There are two parts of this for me, both of which are far from easy. The first is how far to push the horse, so that it can work through an issue and make progress, but not so far that the horse is overwhelmed. When I was first taking Maisie on the trail, I would often push her so far that she would have a complete meltdown. I never really had a good feel for how much was too much, and I didn't necessarily have the skills to help her be more comfortable inside to get past the problem. I also still had some of my residual thinking from the ways I used to ride - where it was the horse's job to just get over it, and darn it, we were going to go down that trail whether the horse wanted to or not. I don't think that really helps the horse deal with the problem - the horse may submit, or not, but we've fought with the horse and confirmed for them that they should be concerned about whatever it is. And the horse hasn't been offered the opportunity to choose the right thing, but rather forced to do it (sometimes by us making the wrong thing impossible - that's not teaching the horse to make the right choice either - it's just another way of forcing).

I think I'm getting a better feel for how much is too much, and how much is just right, in terms of putting the horse into a stressful situation so they can learn. It still isn't easy, and I really have to pay attention. When I start to work with Dawn this fall, this will be very important - she is hyper-reactive and not very willing to trust a human's leadership - her first reaction to stress is to check out mentally and head for the hills at high speed - it's going to take a lot of care and sensitivity to work well with her.

The second part is knowing what to do to help the horse feel better on the inside about what we're asking them to do. I still have trouble with this, although I think I now have a much clearer understanding of what my job is when working with a horse that is anxious or troubled. One thing I know better than I used to is to pay attention to what the horse is telling me about how they are feeling, and to "lead the thought" before the horse's thought veers off and causes the horse to take an (undesirable) action. This requires concentration and anticipation to catch the thought forming and not just react to the action after it has occurred - often by then it's much harder to help. The other thing is to have a plan - a way of approaching the situation that puts some but not too much stress on the horse, and also a plan for how to work with the horse to help it as the stress level rises.

And one other point that's become more important to me - if we put the horse into a stressful situation and it is our responsibility to help them get through it to a more comfortable feeling on the inside - if we don't do this we've just left the horse hanging and have probably reinforced whatever the problem is. But the trick for me is to do this in a way the horse can deal with, where the change happens on the inside of the horse and not to just get compliance on the outside of the horse. I firmly believe what Mark says, that a horse that is just compliant on the outside will often lose its training when put into a new situation, whereas a horse that is comfortable on the inside can take its training anywhere - I'm not there yet with my horses but intend to keep trying to head in that direction.


  1. I always liked John Lyon's approach for this though it is highly conservative. What can you ask your horse with a "yes" 100% of the time and then start from there. He is all about 100s of repetitions varying the degree of "stress" slowly. He has a great explanation for his buddy sour exercise are you familiar with it? If not and if you are curious I could scan it or find it on the internet.

  2. "a horse that is just compliant on the outside will often lose its training when put into a new situation, whereas a horse that is comfortable on the inside can take its training anywhere"

    How perfectly and succintly you worded that - I would have written out five paragraphs trying to communicate that thought! Of course there are variations on that, such as a horse experiencing a huge horse show with multiple rings and breeds all at the same time. But still I completely agree with the spirit of that point and you worded it beautifully.

  3. Golden the Pony Girl - yes, I like a lot of what John Lyons has to say, and his buddy-sour advice is good. I'm a fan of his magazine - it has a lot of useful information on training and barn management. I think his repetition method probably works - I do things a little bit differently (less repetition) but like a lot about his attitude to horses and his approach.

    Melissa - thank you for your kind words - I'm just repeating something I heard Mark say.

  4. Perceptive as usual.

    First, how interesting that Maisie came to you today after the comments on the previous post. Do you think she was reading our minds? It would not surprise me.

    Training horses is so complicated, but as we get older, I think we have to take a new direction. It does become so much more a mind game for both horse and rider. With my rather opinionated boy, I have to keep coming up with ways to work around any potentially explosive situations while still finding a way to get new things done.

    Tucker did spend some time with a John Lyons trainer and it made a world of difference. I just need to always remember to follow through on the basics...repetition....because it does make an impact.

  5. I really enjoyed your post. I'm so glad to hear Maisie greeted you. It is an amazing feeling to develop that bond. Both of my mares are extremely attached to me. They see me coming from far away and whinny and run to me. It always makes me smile!

    I am facing some new challenges with my three year old. She is incredibly willing, and trusting. So far anything I have asked of her she is willing. The one problem I am having is on the ground. She still acts like she is small and tends to walk right over me. Not in an aggressive way, but since she is almost 17 hands she can easily over power me. For example, I put her on the cross ties and when I turn her around she starts to walk back out and I sometimes cannot stop her. She isn't going anywhere in particular, but she isn't paying attention to what I want her to do. Something I will continue to work on. There is always plenty to work on!

  6. Another great post, thank you!! Know exactly what you mean about Maisie. I reckon it took Captain 6 years with me to relax and believe he was safe. He's not a "cuddly" horse - but sometimes when no-ones looking he gives me the smallest little nudge of affection. Unmistakeable and so very special!!
    Agree that training horses is a real balancing act! Sometimes our requests for new things or change lead to unwanted behaviour. But I try to think, "Thank you for that offer. Now how about we do this?"

  7. I think you will go just fine starting Dawn as it seems you are a very perceptive person who is taking the time to really understand your horses and their needs. I enjoy reading your posts .....they often make me stop and reflect on my own journey with my horses

  8. I remember the warmth I felt in my heart the first time my Poco chose to be with me. Yes, it may sound like a small thing if you have a normal (LOL!) horse with no issues. But if you have a problem child, it's such a big deal! Mine still don't call to me.

  9. Very interesting post. I'm struggling with a similar situation: my young horse needs to learn to face scary new things and trust me enough to venture out of his comfort zone, while I'm now older (every day!) and more cautious about dealing with this large guy when he's worried. Add in time restraints (work, life, etc) and all too often I stick to the familiar, and avoid the new. I'm very aware that no matter how well he's working in his home arena, it does me little good if we can never leave home!

    This horse has some real trust issues, also, so I'm very worried about over-facing him and stressing the bond we've slowly developed. It's hard to break things into small enough bits, and sometimes I suspect that I'm keeping the bits too small. I also wonder if hiring a younger/better rider would help; but haven't found that rider yet.

    So...baby steps. It helps to hear others are struggling in the same way.

  10. I don't comment here enough but I have to say I really admire your approach to horses. Not many people are willing to admit that horses are a life-long learning sport.

    "a horse that is just compliant on the outside will often lose its training when put into a new situation, whereas a horse that is comfortable on the inside can take its training anywhere"

    I agree 100% with this statement - and then every horse is different so how we get them to this level changes with each horse.

    "One thing I know better than I used to is to pay attention to what the horse is telling me about how they are feeling, and to "lead the thought" before the horse's thought veers off and causes the horse to take an (undesirable) action. This requires concentration and anticipation to catch the thought forming and not just react to the action after it has occurred - often by then it's much harder to help. The other thing is to have a plan - a way of approaching the situation that puts some but not too much stress on the horse, and also a plan for how to work with the horse to help it as the stress level rises."

    A trainer I apprenticed with called this "riding ahead of the horse." He also said, "what they practice is what they do." If they practice paying attention elsewhere, that's what they do. I think it's one of the biggest challenges the average horse owner faces.

    Great post!

  11. Excellent post. And I think it's great that Maisie chose to be with you. I always feel honored when my independant mare chooses to come up to me, especially when she will leave the herd to walk beside me.

    You said: "She's a big horse, and when she's upset, she's Really Big. I asked her firmly to pay attention to me, and she did come back to me, although she was still pretty nervous."

    Sometimes when I lead my horse, something in the distance will alarm her, and she seems to forget I'm right there beside her. After having been hurt twice by my mare, I get so nevous when she does that, and the only thing I think of doing to get her attention back onto me, is to disengage her hips...and so we go...around and around until we are finally away from whatever alarmed her. I wish there was a simpler way, instead of having to repeatedly disengage her hips to get her mind back on me again.
    How do you 'firmly as her to come back to you' when she gets BIG?


  12. Lisa - It's really hard for me to answer your question in general - I'm no expert and I can only tell you what I did with Maisie - a sharp tug on the lead - but that really wouldn't necessarily work with another horse. Some horses you have to (briefly) get bigger, but sometimes that's a bad idea and you need to balance the horse's energy by getting even softer. Every horse is different. I feel I need to build in some of this stuff under less exciting circumstances - leading well is a big deal for me, and I'm a big believer in helping the horse learn to "self-calm" - a horse that's losing its mind is hard to have a conversation with. One of my favorite things to help a horse self-calm is teaching them to give to halter and hand pressure, and to lower their heads - that releases endorphins. That said, disengaging the hips is a good control device to keep you safe, and safe is my highest priority, for both person (first) and horse (second). I'm doing a post today that's going to include "standing around" as a self-calming tool, and that sort of training can help too.

  13. Speaking to a nervous horse on the ground. While I agree the hip disengagement can work here and there, I disagree with the way I've seen it taught. (BTW Lisa I am not disagreeing with you, but speaking to what I've seen elsewhere.) Some say that disengaging the hips makes it so the horse can't run. So not true! They most definitely can run sideways.

    For me, with a nervous horse, I keep their attention with my voice, little clicks and a follow up with the slack out of the rope. If that doesn't work, I stop and back them up. Not 100 steps but just 2 to 4, just until the horse softens in my hands.

    I do not use a whip nor do I kick the horse, I am trying to get them to think they are safe with me...not make them more afraid of me than they are of spooking (another training theory that works but doesn't produce nice results).

    Timing is key of course but if you catch them right away, you get their mind back. Reminding them you are there and you are taking care of them so there is no need to look off into space.

    As I walk, I require the nose at my elbow. So I start to correct the horse at the moment they take their nose away. I guess it heads it off a bit more.

  14. EveryoneThinks - you're right that getting the attention back as soon as possible is key - a horse standing and staring may be making a plan to take a quick exit - I find also if you can give them something to do that they can do easily that is also good - it takes the thought away, at least in part, from what they're concerned about.

  15. I've re-read this giving my experience in conception and am going to see how I can incorporate this into my work with Cibolo. Right now I'm gaining his attention by being pretty firm and irritated. I'm going to see how far I can scale it back and still keep his attention - and hopefully move into a positive space with it.

  16. EveryoneThinks: Oh yes, you don't need to tell me that horses can run sideways. That's how I fell off my horse and ripped my ACL in half. My horse is very adept at running sideways indeed!

    For me the disengaging the hips, does what Kate said, "gives the horse something else to focus on" By keeping my mare's feet busy, I'm keeping her mind busy, too. And that's the only thing I've found that works with her so far.
    I don't smack or kick my horse ever. I tried that one time, while riding her and she nearly bucked. She's a very sensitive horse and it doesn't take much to set her off. Even leg aids to strong or firm will upset her, so I'm always soft and gentle. Always.

    When we would go out on the trail, just she and I, just some gentle quiet words from me "It's ok" or "Oh, girl, that's just a silly donkey out in that field" and she would instantly calm and refocus her attention on the trail again.

    And although she doesn't tend to be terribly spooky, she doesn't know how to always 'spook in place' and has bolted, spun, ran backwards and ran sideways while I was on her back.

    So, when I was walking her back from the pasture at dusk and she saw something spooky 'lurking behind the trees' in the distance, her head flew up high and she blew up BIG. She didn't prance and was still walking with me, but her eyes got that wild in them and her nostrils flared (the way you know that a horse is ready to fly away), so I had to immediately refocus her energy and get her mind on me and walking quietly and not reacting.

    That's where the disengaging the hips came in. I don't think the backing up would have been a good idea in that particular case, because going backwards would have meant my mare would have to walk blindly back towards the spooky thing...and she would or could have ran me over instead.
    Like Kate said, my safety (followed by my horse's safety) was the first on my mind.

    So, we disengaged her hips for about 50 yards along the road that goes along the pasture. I just wish I had other options.

    Looking back, I think one other thing that might have helped would have been for me to walk alongside the pasture, between my horse and the pasture, so she would have felt more protected. But she's always been uncomfortable about me leading her from the rightside, so I rarely do that. Maybe I should work on desensitizing her to right-side leading more often?



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