Wednesday, December 2, 2009

One Step Back and Maisie and Dawn Remind Me About the Basics

This is the second post I'm doing inspired by the concurrence of some things I've been working on and similar things Tom Widdicombe talks about in his book I reviewed in this post a couple of days ago. Yesterday's post "Quiet, Simple" is relevant to what I'm talking about here as well.

No, I don't mean the two steps forward, one step back sort of thing - although that's a frequent occurrence, at least for me. I mean the one step back, when you're on the ground and ask the horse to take a step away from you, either by gentle pressure on the lead or with another cue (I also use a raised hand with palm out). If you think about it, this is the fundamental thing - asking the horse to slightly move the feet - just one step - at our request. If the horse can learn to do this, consistently and as a matter of course, it is the foundation for all our directing the feet of the horse and allows us to create safe boundaries for our personal space on the ground. That's really all there is to it - it's so small and yet so fundamental. Maintaining your personal space so the horse does not intrude without being asked is really important to me, and the things I do to establish this and maintain it are so automatic now that it's hard for me even to describe what I do. But Tom's one step back is the foundation of this, and a lot of other things - read his book as he expresses it best.

* * * * * *

It was a beautiful day yesterday, at least 50 degrees, with some sun and wind - I'll take that on the first of December. Maisie and I got in a good trail ride. We went up to an area where there's some construction going on - large piles of dirt and bright orange and also black plastic sheets fencing off the work area. This is not somewhere we often go on our rides, so we hadn't seen that before. Maisie approached well, and when she got to her comfort boundary and asked if she could turn around, instead I asked her to take a few more steps forward. She did, and we stood there for several moments on a loose rein - she was nervous and her head was up, but she stood without my doing anything. When we turned around to go back the way we came, she asked if she could "hasten" back to the barn, I asked for walk and she walked after a few steps of jigging and a few serpentines to calm things down. She relaxed and we were able to complete our ride on a loose rein, despite blowing grasses which startled her a few times and at least one ferociously barking dog. We stopped a few more times on our way to stand for a moment, and she stood perfectly. I was very impressed!

Then I got Dawn out to work with. As part of Dawn's attention and self-calming work, we've done a lot of work on the ground on leading, standing around and attention, and have also done a lot of "one step back" while doing this. Today was one of those days when everything came together in a marvelous way - it was one of the best days I've had with Dawn yet - I was delighted and just recently I would have been surprised that she could do things so well but I'm not surprised anymore - she's a really capable horse and is making great progress. When I first started working with Dawn, she was one of those horses who barely knew you were there, would run into you by accident, was fidgety and couldn't stand still to save her life, and was always somewhere else and easily distracted. That's not how she is anymore, and she gets better every day.

We started by grooming ground-tied in the parking lot. She started out being a little fidgety, but quickly settled. Then we just stood for a while - she stood perfectly still and looked around at everything going on. From time to time I would ask her to bring her attention back to me, by laying the lead across my open palms and very gently running my open hands down the lead - almost no pressure at all but after a moment her attention would come back to me. Every time I did this, her attention came back, and it was coming back more quickly the longer we stood - she remained completely calm.

Then we went to the arena to do some exercises. I had already set up a maze, a pole to walk across, some cones, a pair of poles to practice backing through and a large plastic barrel (not pictured):

First, we stood for a while in the arena, so I could create a quiet safe place for Dawn to be with me in order to set the tone for our work. Then we did some leading work using the cones - serpentines, circles and tight turns to both the right and left. Her job was to stay right with me and pay close attention so she could adjust her speed and direction - she did great. Then we started working on the maze - the objective here is to walk through calmly and slowly, with the horse taking direction from you at each step. We haven't done this but once or twice a long time ago, and Dawn really struggled with it then - she was stiff, nervous, braced and wanted to rush. Today, she was completely different. It wasn't perfect the first go, but pretty quickly she was walking calmly, at my exact direction, and even able to stop and wait at points along the way. Her turns were even much better - she wasn't stiff or braced, but rather fluid and able to bend. We did it in both directions. This was even more impressive as we haven't really worked on the maze since our early efforts - all the other work we've been doing is really coming through in lots of ways. Her inability to do the maze before wasn't about her physical skills or ability to bend, it was about her being with me and trusting me enough to follow my directions without worry. It's interesting to me how if I focus on the basics with her, the "symptoms" just fall away - I've spent a lot of my life with horses working on symptoms rather than causes, it seems.

One other thing that really impressed me about her work today - as we were doing the maze a mother and running toddler came up to the fence, went around the arena and went to visit the goat. Dawn's attention strayed a few times, but came right back to me. Then the toddler climbed up on an overturned metal water tank and started jumping up and down to see how much noise he could make - Dawn startled a little bit once and looked a few times but came right back to the work and remained calm - this from a horse who would have spooked and been unable to focus only a little while ago. We even did some calm standing together while this was going on - she was happy to stay relaxed right by me.

We led over the single pole a couple of times - calm, no rushing (those of you who've been following for a while may remember how hard this used to be for Dawn), and then did the two-pole backing exercise. On this day, I only led her a little way into the "slot" and then asked her to back, first one step at a time and then two steps. I didn't ask her yet to back all the way through. Then for fun we went to play with the large plastic barrel. I led Dawn up to it and threw it over on its side - Dawn wasn't in the least concerned. They I rolled it a bit, and she followed along. Finally I got out my clicker and waited. She touched it with her nose, click and treat. By the end of our very brief session, she was nudging it with her nose - by next time I expect she'll be able to roll it. The purpose of this is to encourage her to not worry about strange objects or situations, to not worry about trying to figure out what I want and just try things out, and to just have some fun.

By the time I left the barn, it was almost dark and the moon was rising. I was able to get a couple of interesting pictures of Maisie:

Tomorrow through the rest of the week the weather is going to be deteriorating - rain, snow and a high predicted to be in the 20s on Friday. At least we got one really lovely day in December!


  1. Thanks for the descriptions and pictures of your pole work. I like these ground exercises a lot!

  2. You really did get done late! Great pictures of the moon over Maisie. Sounds like a very good day with both horses and i like your maze too.

  3. Cool! Isnt it neat the way that when you set up courses like that the horses find it much easier to focus? Even a single cone can direct their energy.

  4. Wow! I love the last two pictures!


  5. Love the picture of Maisie and the moon.

    Nice work with Dawn, she is really coming along for you.

    I'll be back in a few days.

  6. I too like to use obsticles...switch it up and refocus. I liked your work and your mares both did well for the task at hand.
    I can't change the cause of my mare's symptoms...but I am trying to change her mind for the reactions she has to work...maybe never will, but I am devoted to her and to calm.
    Those photo's were too cool...really quite beautiful Kate~

  7. It sounds like you and both horses are in a wonderful space right now. You are inspiring me! The jittery babies with their tiny attention spans are improving here, but I am working toward the calm you have now with Dawn. Just yesterday I had an backward step with Pie and the farrier, and I felt I was such a failure. Now, after reading your post, I am resolved to calmly start again to step forward (and back-for my personal space!) Thanks also for the moonlight photos!

  8. It is reassuring to see others doing the same thing I am with the maze, the poles, and cones. i am still struggling with getting shy to speed up when i do, she is a pokey walker!


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.