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The horses went back out to the pastures this morning - we've been in dry lot for a while because of the continuous rain and amazing mud. Things have dried out a bit, so it's actually possible to get out to the pastures without slipping and falling or having your footware (horse or human) come off. It was very chilly and clear - about freezing overnight - with a spectacular full moon setting. There was much excitement - everyone thought pastures were a delightful idea, but they all led well although I could tell they were barely containing themselves. There were several spectacular bolts from the gate after halter removal - Dawn in particular did her best racehorse-out-of-the-gate imitation. And then from time to time as they were grazing, for some reason known only to themselves, the mares would take off running as a group. Have you ever noticed that horses flow like water - they are so smooth and perfect in their movements and make instantaneous adjustments with their perfect horse bodies - and everything just flows. A glorious thing to behold! Now if I could just be that fluid in how I move when I'm on my two feet and when I'm on a horse - something to strive towards.
Now that it's getting dark earlier due to the time change, I went to the barn a bit early and got Maisie out of the pasture to take her for a trail ride. As we've been doing recently, she wore her Dr. Cook's bitless. The wind had dropped, and the sun was low in the sky, and it was really lovely out. We took a slightly different route to continue our work on her relaxation. We rode to the entrance of the local school (there's a charter school in our development), and Maisie's job was to stand still on the path where it ended at the street opposite the school parking lot. There was a lot of commotion - cars lined up and coming and going, crowds of children waiting for pick up, a coordinator with a megaphone calling out car numbers, and just down the road all the construction equipment for the road widening on the state highway was parked for the day.
Maisie was doubtful, and kept trying to turn back for the barn. When she was standing, she would cast somewhat annoyed glances back at me. I wanted her to choose to stand on a loose rein, without my constraining her, so every time she wanted to move, I turned her in a circle until we were standing stopped (at her choice) facing the direction I wanted. I had to do this a number of times in both directions until she was convinced that deciding to stand might be the better option. Big sigh on her part - "OK, I guess I'll do it". We stood there for a while, then turned back towards home. As soon as we started off, she wanted to speed up, so I asked her to slow, and she did. Repeat, and repeat, and . . . At one point she felt as if she might start to jig - there was a dog with a jangling chain in its yard that was barking and she spooked a bit, so we did serpentines for a bit. And then she relaxed! Her head came down, and we completed our return to the barn in perfect form, on a completely loose rein. That was just what I wanted - for her to become a little bit stressed and then be able to calm herself down. I didn't do it - she did.
All along, both coming and going, I worked on my "flow". I tried to become part of the horse by deliberately noticing where I was braced in my body - my legs and hips particularly - and consciously relaxing so that my body could move with the horse and not impede her motion. When I do this, I am much more connected to her and can better sense what she is feeling and thinking, and can more effectively influence her as well.
And then Dawn and I had a work session. We did a little bit of head-down work first - my objective was to have her keep her head down to the ground rather than having it pop right up again - she got this easily. I wanted to start working with her on two new things - patience and scary objects - while continuing to use the skills she has already learned. First we worked on patience. I started with ground tying while grooming. My objective was to have her stand ground tied, by her own choice as opposed to my correcting or holding her in place. For me, this is the first "just standing around" exercise I do to help the horse develop patience. I had worked a little bit a long time ago on this with Dawn, and she quickly picked it up again. I led her to my grooming tools in the graveled parking lot area, then dropped the lead rope. When she started sniffing around on the ground, I asked her to raise her head. I only had to do this a couple of times before she stopped. If she took a step - even a small one - I asked her to circle me until she offered to stop again. Some horses have to circle quite a bit until they decide to offer to stop, but Dawn took less than one circuit each time. I only had to do the circling a couple of times, and then she was standing perfectly ground tied, watching as the other horses came in from the pastures.
Then we put on our surcingle and driving lines - she was already wearing the fuzzy-nose halter - and went for a drive to start our scary object work. Before I got her from the pasture, I had set up our work area - the arena is still unusable due to the recent constant rains and I set up on the grassy area next to the arena behind the barn. I had taken a large black heavy plastic garbage bag and hung it on the arena fenceline - Dawn had already noticed it from a long way away on the way in from the pastures. It was fortunate for today that there was only a little wind, so the bag wasn't moving around much. I also set up four cones in a line at right angles to the fence, so that each cone was farther away from the garbage bag. My plan was to use the cones as markers for our passes up and down, so that I could gradually work Dawn closer and closer to the bag. I had no idea how far we'd get in one session - Dawn has a history of being extraordinarily spooky, especially with plastic or other objects that move - balloons, plastic bags, flying papers, etc.
We did our passes up and down and all around, with some detours into the parking lot and around the barn. Her ground driving just gets better and better. We didn't work on our patience - stopping and standing without moving out immediately - I want to get some more of that established in other ways first so she'll have an idea of what I'm asking for. Her turns and softening at the walk are really coming along. We'll start doing some trot work soon, but that wasn't today's task. On every pass, or every couple of passes, we got closer to the bag. There was no forcing involved, she just marched along. Sometimes we would approach the bag straight on, and then turn away. After perhaps 10 minutes work, she was able to walk right by the bag with it only a few feet away. And then I drove her right up to it, and she touched it with her nose! No snorting or unusual worry, just curiosity. And then we did it again!
I hooked up her lead and took the driving lines off and we did a little clicker training with the bag. I clicked and treated when she touched the bag with her nose. We did this a few more times. And then, with a hand on the lead but not holding her in place, I touched the bag with my hand and it rustled. She startled a little bit but came right up and touched the bag, and got a reward. We repeated this, and she startled a little bit less. Then I slid the bag along the fence. She spooked and moved her feet, and wanted to leave the area but I asked her to stay. I asked her to approach the (now not moving) bag. She touched it - another treat. I did the same slide the bag - a smaller spook. She touched the bag again, got her treat and we were done. I was ecstatic! This was really excellent progress for Dawn - I had no idea that she'd trust me enough to deal with something like this right off the bat. She only got a little bit worried, and got over it - just what I wanted to happen. We'll continue to work with the bag, and moving the bag, until she can spook in place if she feels a need to but doesn't move away or think about moving away. Then we'll progress to the bag touching other parts of her body, and also introduce other objects. My objective with this is not necessarily to desensitize her to particular objects, but rather to have her learn that she can spook in place, and not think about fleeing, and to also have her learn that she can have worries and work through them together with me. This is going to be a lot of fun, for both of us!