Dawn is always an entertaining horse, because she's always responding to and interacting with her environment. Friday when she came out of the stall she seemed a bit stiff, so I decided I would only work with her at the walk that day. It was also cold and windy, so bareback was appealing. We used our modified Dr. Cook's bridle (I've since modified it from the pictures by shortening the throat latch/under jaw straps so the unused rings don't have to be tied together but just rest on the side of the nosepiece out of the way), and worked on one of my favorite patience and relaxation/self-calming exercises - just standing around. There were lots of things to stand and watch - horses being brought in from the pastures, Charisma being groomed and then lunged in the arena, and various people working in the vegetable gardens with various tools and making different noises and movements. We would walk around on a loose rein and then stop and stand and watch what was going on. My objective with this is ultimately to have a horse that can stop anywhere, anytime and just stand there and stay relaxed. I also want ultimately to have a horse that can spook without moving its feet and can quickly self calm after a spook. I also want a horse that feels confident about being with me, just standing, in situations that are new or possible of concern. Dawn, who is an extremely reactive and high-strung horse, isn't there yet on any of these objectives, but she's making great progress towards them. (For more on Dawn, her history, and how I'm working with her, see my sidebar post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . .")
When we stand around, I select a place and ask her to halt and then sit there quietly with my reins loose. The purpose of this exercise is not to make her stay put, it's for her to choose to stay put, and ultimately to be happy staying put until I ask her to do something. Two keys that I find make this exercise work in a progressive way - first, I never ask her to stand longer than she's likely to want to, so at first I may move her away after only a few seconds - the timing is important: I want to direct her out of the halt before she does it herself. This reinforces that I'm there to provide direction. If she does move off, and it's not a worry/fear situation, but just restlessness, I'll turn her in a circle and ask her to halt again and this time get my timing better so I ask her to move before she takes matters into her own hands. Pretty soon, she's able to stand for longer and longer times. As a horse understands the exercise, I start to look for signs of relaxation - a sigh, yawn, or relaxation of head posture - before asking the horse to move along. This is also "active standing" - the horse's motor is running, but the gears are in neutral until I ask for a change.
At one point we were standing looking at a man raking in his vegetable garden - nice noises to hear and not worry about - when Dawn noticed something I had already seen - a large black dog lying down next to some piles of lumber and equipment. The dog was very still and somewhat in shadow. When Dawn saw it, she went on full alert - the head went way up and the ears were stretched upwards and she was blowing gently. She was getting ready to move her feet - perhaps even to spin away, so I turned her and directed her away from the dog but turned her back towards it at a point a bit further away. Still too close - it took several circles, each one a bit further away, until we found a distance where she was comfortable standing for about 3 seconds looking at the "dog/bear/cougar/?" Then I turned her away just before she would have left on her own and we went about our business as if nothing was of concern at all. After something like this, I want our next few "standings around" to focus on relaxation, and I got a few nice sighs, so we were done. I didn't take her back to the dog - I'm not trying to desensitize her to the dog or to anything else in particular, but just to help her learn that she doesn't have to spook/spin/flee in the face of a new or startling object, but can rely on me to provide her with direction. If she can learn to rely on me for direction and assistance, over time I'm confident that she'll be able to stand longer/closer and also react less and calm more quickly after seeing something worrisome or spooking.
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Last night, I was picking Dawn's feet in the barn aisle after bring-in time when all of a sudden there was a huge crashing and banging in the barn loft above our heads. Dawn was pretty alarmed. I immediately took her off the cross ties, held the lead loosely and waited a moment but the crashing, thumping and sound of an animal running continued. Dawn was now snorting, with tail flagged, and when she started to almost trot in place, I turned her and took her out of the barn. She behaved very well - even though she would have preferred to bolt, she stayed aware that I was there and led and handled well - it was a bit like having a fireball on the loose lead. While we were outside, our barn cat Night jumped down from the loft and ran out of the door, with a sticky fly strip attached to his tail! Poor kitty - he was completely panic-stricken. Several hours later, we found him under the manure spreader - he'd shed the fly strip in his panicked running - and with the application of some Dawn (dishwashing liquid, not horse!) and water, most of the stickiness was gone. This was one of the times I was grateful for all the leading work I do with my horses to make sure they know my personal boundaries and not to ever run me over no matter what else is going on.
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This morning when I got to the barn, Dawn was standing quietly in her stall, a peeved expression on her face, with part of her tail stretched out and firmly trapped in the spot where the handle of her heated water bucket attaches to the bucket. This is a perpetual problem with Dawn - when it's cold and the heated buckets are on, as they were last night, I think she likes to warm her hinder parts by standing backed up to the bucket to benefit from the rising heat. She also tends to leave "deposits" in her bucket because she's standing so close to it, making stall cleaning even more entertaining! For a long time, she would pull large pieces of her tail out by doing this, but this morning she was standing "tied by her tail"! Nice giving to pressure, in an unexpected way!