Thursday, November 5, 2009

More Bag Work, a Night Ride and Leading Work Pays Off

Dawn and Maisie both got in brief work sessions yesterday - I went to the barn a bit late and didn't have a huge amount of time, but we got some good stuff done. I groomed Dawn outside the barn, ground-tied - she didn't move a muscle while looking around at whatever was going on. Then we did some in-hand softening and lateral work - I just clipped two lead ropes to either side of her halter and stood by her shoulder with one hand holding the off-side lead rope over her neck and the other lead rope in my nearside hand. From time to time I switched sides - we both found it a bit harder when I was on her right (off) side. We worked on backing, turn on the forehand (with my putting a hand gently on her side while holding the nearside rein in my other hand) and turn on the haunches - with my reaching across her back to open the offside rein while asking her to rock back on her haunches. In backing, I was concentrating on having her soften her whole neck, not just the area immediately behind the poll, but without going behind the vertical or scooting backwards - I wanted softness, not just foot movement. As we softened, when she wanted to curl her head up, I lifted one rein to ask her to keep her head at or slightly in front of the vertical - this allowed her to soften through her whole neck instead of just at the front. She got it pretty quickly - she is just so sharp! Pretty soon she was giving me several nice diagonal-paired steps backwards with real softness - it was lovely to see her. And she works so hard! The lateral work went well too - she gave me a couple of tail swishes to let me know I was overcuing with my hand for the turn on the forehand, and when I was softer, she was happy to oblige without protest.

Then we did some more scary object work. Here's our set up from yesterday - there are a couple more cones behind me.

We used the cones yesterday as markers for our ground-driving as we got closer to the black plastic bag hanging on the fence. Today I also hung a white (white is a scary color, Dawn says) saddle pad on the fence as well:

First I led Dawn near the saddle pad and clicked and treated when she touched it with her nose. Then I shook it on the fence - she move away, somewhat alarmed. I wanted her to work on spooking in place and not moving her feet. I allowed her to move away until she found a distance where she could stand when I moved the saddle pad - first gently shifting it and then sliding and flapping it - if she startled but didn't move her feet she got clicked and treated. Then I asked her to take a step closer, and repeated. And so on. Next time I'll take the pad off the fence and present it to her, and flap it, and reward her for not moving her feet. Soon I expect I'll be able to flap it all around her.

Then we did the same exercise with the plastic garbage bag - she actually seemed to find this a bit easier than the saddle pad. By the end, I was able to drag it off the fence, flap it a bit and drag it on the ground, and she was happy to be close and even touch it with her nose for a click and treat. I continue to be delighted with her intelligence and willingness to try, and her trust. We'll move on soon to some work with white plastic bags and eventually even balloons - both of which have been problems for her in the past.

It was starting to get dark, but I wanted to take Maisie out for a bit. We didn't have the time or light to repeat our exercise from yesterday, but we did have a lovely dusk-to-dark trail ride. We saw one skunk, which piqued Maisie's interest as it crossed the trail and headed off into the prairie. As it got fully dark, the houses we passed were lit up and looked cosy, and the milkweed pods by the trail - now fully open with their fluff showing - were almost glowing in the dark. Maisie stayed relaxed and happy for the whole ride - it was a lovely evening, not too cold, and there was no wind and it was calm and peaceful, and as we headed back to the barn, the lighted windows glowed and the limestone path gleamed softly in the night, lighting our way back home - what a nice end to a day with horses!

* * * * * *

This morning was one of those days when leading work really pays off. It was frosty, and windy, and the mares were going to a new pasture, and they had to get there using a route they'd never taken before - through both dry lots - due to the mud and a pasture gate that is tied shut due to some needed fence work. You get the idea - really excited horses. And Sugar had to lead by herself, which I think turned out to be a good thing - Misty was getting her feet done. Maisie was excited, but she's pretty easy to deal with on the lead. Sugar was very excited, and really wanted to bolt, but held it together after a few corrections. This was excellent in light of Sugar's history.

Sugar came to our barn several years ago with some serious leading (and other behavior) problems. She had been at a barn where the horses were run to and from the pastures - a labor-saving device that causes lots of problems, in my opinion. When you led her to the pasture, she would become more and more agitated, and would then explode and completely lose her mind. No amount of pressure - including chains or anything else - would bring her back, and in fact it made things worse. She would completely panic and would fight to get free, even if it meant running directly into you. There was no meanness in it, but it was very dangerous - like playing football against a 1,000 pound linebacker. Her owner was about to give up on her but there was a good horse in there somewhere. She and her owner went for intensive training at another barn for a month, where her owner learned to provide her with leadership and she learned that if she responded to pressure, there would be a release, and that coming in towards a person was to happen only when she was allowed to. Just to prove there are no rules (in contrast to some of my thoughts in my post yesterday about why I don't do liberty work with my horses), she's one of those horses who really benefits from daily, repetitive liberty work - she takes comfort from the repetition and it reinforces her owner's leadership in a positive way. Her owner gets a lot of credit for sticking with her and for doing the work required, on almost a daily basis since. After that month of training, she's consistently led well.

Dawn was if anything more excited. We stopped a number of times, and on several occasions her entire body was rigid with excitement, head high, whites of eyes showing - she was ready to roll. Although her attention was far from completely on me, she paid attention to my asks and stayed with me. Both Dawn and Sugar were somewhat calmer when they reached the pasture, and we got there on a loose lead with both horses at or slightly behind my shoulder, and Dawn even walked away from me for a few steps before trotting off.

* * * * * *

And now I'm off to pick up some plain white salt blocks, that somehow were omitted from our feed order, and to bring back my trailer from the dealer, where it's had its bearings repacked.

Have a lovely November day, and may it include horses!


  1. Wonderful post! I am so intrigued with the clicker/treat training...what clicker do you use (just the ones they sell at any pet store?) I know I have to do more reading on this. I am so clutzy that I hope I would be able to handle my horse, a clicker, a spooked situation, and a treat. LOL! I can see me feeding the clicker by accident!

  2. I love your description of the night ride -- that sounds so nice!

  3. Same here, great description of your night ride. I was there with you.

  4. I'm back to having problems with Gabbrielle busting out of her stall full blast, and have discovered that the only thing that can get her to walk (without a halter) is if I hold a treat under her nose and have her walk toward it out of her stall. However, as soon as I give it to her, she takes off at a gallop to her feed trough. I might try clicker training with treats all the way to her feed trough and just keep rewarding her when she walks.

  5. Kristen - one thing that makes clicker a little easier than it might otherwise be is that there's supposed to be a delay between the click and treat, so you can click and then rummage in your pocket for the treat. I think the point is that the signal that the horse has done what you want is the click and isn't supposed to be the sound or motion of you reaching for the treat. I do just use a clicker from a pet store - mine has a wrist thing that means I can have it hanging from my wrist and close by if I need to use my hand.

    NuzzMuzz - you could also reward her for stepping back away from the door and then for standing there calmly when the door's open and then for waiting for you to ask her to proceed, and then for walking/stopping calmly as you described.

  6. The dusk to dark ride sounded so lovely, wish I had been with you! About a zillion years ago (you know, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, hee hee) I boarded at a barn that didn't lead the horses in and out to pasture but just opened doors and gates and off they went. I never saw a horse develop any issues from that at all and it was a large facility with a lot of horses. As you said in your post, yet more proof (when I read about Sugar's issues) that there are no absolutes with horses.

  7. Wonderful description of your night ride. Also, sounds like you got some really good training in today with Dawn.

  8. What a nice night ride you had. The description is lovely.

    Good work with the bags and pad. The balloon should be interesting. My Toby is scared of the shiny mylar ones and despite a number of attempts to cure him of the fear, I still have to be on guard if we encounter one.

  9. I love the image of your night ride on Maisie. We have been having evening rides too and I am so grateful for the sky. I like when you said about the "houses you passed be lit up and cosy". That is so great! I bet Maisie liked the ride too!

  10. Thanks for the update on your scary object work with Dawn. It sounds like you are making great progress!

    I really enjoy reading these posts because I'm doing similar work with some of my young ones now. I find the clicker makes it so much easier for the horse to learn.


    Mary H.


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