This morning when I was done with chores and cleaning my stalls, it was about 22F but the wind was blowing quite a bit and the wind chill was 11F. There's about 3 inches of snow on the ground from our little storm yesterday. If it had been colder but less windy I would have been fine to ride, but there was too much wind for me to uncover my face layers enough to get a helmet on (my left ear and the left side of my face react badly to wind and cold), so I decided to do some ground work with both Dawn and Pie.
I had discovered by chance that Dawn is extremely alarmed by the sound of an aerosol can - the shaking part doesn't bother her too much but the hiss when it squirts terrifies her. So this morning we started some clicker work on this, not so much to desensitize her to squirting cans (although that'll be a nice side benefit), but to build her confidence in herself and trust in me and her ability to spook in place rather than bolt when she's alarmed. We've already done some work of this type using clicker and tarps and other pieces of plastic (balloon are in our future) - if you search "scary objects" you'll find some of my posts on that prior work.
My approach is to use her natural curiosity and bravery and then reward her for approaching a scary object, and also reward her for being able to stand still when she spooks at a noise the object makes (flapping tarp, squirting can, etc.). The most important thing is to not force the horse to do something or to endure something scary, but to allow the horse to choose to approach or stand.
So I got Dawn from turnout, haltered her and brought her to a small paddock, together with my can (I used the Desenex can) and a pocketful of treats. First I held the can out to her and rewarded her for touching it with her nose, and then rewarded her for approaching it when I held it away from her and touching it - click (I just use my tongue to make the click) and treat - we've done this step before. I put her at the very end of the lead (I use 10' cotton leads because their length can come in handy for things like this) and squirted the can - she was very alarmed and moved her feet. We repeated the touching the can sequence. Then I held the can as far away from her as I could and did a tiny squirt. She was still alarmed but was able to startle and stand still - I was not making her stand still. She was clicked and treated and praised. Since she was still somewhat worried, I clicked and treated her for each small step she took closer and closer to the (non-squirting but clearly capable of it) can, until she touched it with her nose. Then we repeated this sequence, starting with her at the end of the lead. That was all for today - we've got a lot more to do on this but taking small steps will get us to our destination. Back out to turnout she went - good Dawn!
Then I went and got Pie from turnout. I groomed him and put his snaffle bridle on over his halter, after thoroughly warming the bit, which had gotten pretty cold just in the short time it'd been out of the heated room it's hung in. Pie and I are using a Mylar ported snaffle that looks like this but doesn't have the slots for the reins and headstall - I generally prefer the version without the slots - he seems pretty comfortable in it and it accommodates his large tongue:
We went out on the snow-covered field and started seriously working on our foundational softening work with both the halter and the bridle. This work is described in detail in this post from earlier today (I won't describe in detail what Pie and I did since it's described there), which is also included in my sidebar "Working Towards Softness". Keep in mind that the part of this work involving backing isn't really about backing, it's about softening - relaxing the top line and engaging the core, and the associated relaxation on the inside. Interestingly, Pie struggled a lot with the work in the halter, and found the work much easier in the bridle. I suspected when I got him that he might have learned to brace in the halter - he had a tendency to flip his nose and bump it against the halter when standing still, which made me think that he'd gotten inadvertent releases when he did that - and sure enough, he was really braced for the halter work involving backing, although he pretty quickly did the head down exercise since he'd been taught a bit of that by his owner - all we had to do was work on his tendency to pop his head back up. In the bridle, when he backs, he wants to drop his head down and back - almost to his knees - which isn't really soft and keeps him on his forehand - which means he's learned to back (move his feet backwards) pretty well but it really wasn't that soft and he wasn't using his core to carry himself.
In the bridle, he got that I wanted him to keep his head and neck somewhat higher and not take his face behind the vertical pretty quickly - he found the soft spot I was offering. We also did some "baby flexions" to the side - just a couple of inches - and he was right on that. (I don't do big flexions, and especially don't do those involving having the horse bend its head around to its side - I think all that does is create a horse with a rubber neck. I also won't need to do these flexions again - I never drill - since he's already got it.) We kept coming back to the halter work a number of times as he was struggling a lot with it. By the end of the work, we'd made tracks all over the field, some of them 30 feet long - it looked like a bunch of horses had been out there. He struggled more with the halter work when I was standing by his left shoulder than when I was standing by his right shoulder - I changed the hand I was using on the lead to be sure it wasn't something I was doing and confirmed it was him - I suspect he developed his tendency to brace in the halter while being led from the normal left-side position, making it harder for him to give up that learned behavior, which he believed to be correct. When I was working from the right side, that didn't trigger the learned behavior.
We must have worked for at least 15 or 20 minutes, and it was hard work for both of us - I wasn't even slightly cold by the time we were done. There was only one dramatic moment where he got stuck in a brace where he was applying a lot of pressure to my hand and his feet were stuck and I broke us free by briefly reversing the energy and taking him in the direction of the brace (read more about that in the detailed post) - his head went way up and be jumped backwards, which was where the energy of the brace took him, and then we kept right on with the work. By the end of our work I got a couple of decent repetitions of backing with the halter with me standing on both sides, and we were done. At the end, he was rewarded for immediately softening into the soft spot and taking one step backwards softly - that's just what I wanted. That will take more work, but I think the softening bridle work's going to go pretty easily once I'm in the saddle.
I think Pie's and my work session went well today for a couple of reasons. First, because I never, ever, released on a brace, even though it was very strenuous work for me and sometimes we had to go a long way, or even around a corner if we ran out of room, until he would give up on the brace. Second, because we mixed up the work, doing one thing and then another, so we weren't just banging away at the hard bits. Third, we took reward and "thinking" breaks - just walking around for a minute or so after each successful bit. And fourth, because we didn't stop until Pie started to more consistently understand what I wanted and was able to find his own release more repeatedly in the halter work - I didn't leave him hanging or uncertain. Although short, it was a hard and important session. I think some of this will cement itself overnight - that often happens. There's more to do, but I'm really pleased. Good Pie!