Friday, August 12, 2011

Is the Horse Soft Inside? Part II - Finding the Holes, and Not Quitting Until You're Done

Yesterday, Dawn and I had a very good, intense work session.  This was much less dramatic than the work with Drift yesterday and today (more on that below), but just as important.  As those of you who've been following along for a while know, Dawn and I have been on the hunt together for physical and mental softness for a while now - read my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . " for my initial take on these issues.  We've made enormous progress over the past two years - the fact I was able to take her to the Mark Rashid clinic in May and have us do as well as we did together is proof of that.  But there's still some ways to go - she's still inclined to be nervous, and to spook (and not just spook in place), and to be mentally braced, and so am I, just the same as her, when riding her.

So yesterday, Dawn and I did a simple exercise that was fairly substantive on these points, as a beginning.  When Dawn worries or is nervous, she tends to rush and/or brace.  I set up a line of cones down the center line of the arena.  First, we worked a bit on mounting - she's recently taken up backing just as I put my foot in the stirrup to mount, I'm not sure why.  Since she was thinking about going backwards, I had her move forwards, around the block, each time she took a step back.  Pretty soon she was able to stand still for mounting, and I repeated it at the end of our work and it stuck.

Our exercise was walking, and then trotting in probably about 20 meter circles around the cones.  The objective was for Dawn to carry herself - for me not to support or hold her up - without rushing.  The way we worked on this was my taking up some contact on the inside rein - very little to none on the outside rein since I didn't want to support her, and since I was only using one rein I couldn't brace either - and asking for the contact to soften as we walked or trotted in the circle.  The softening I was looking for was hard for her at first - she wanted to rush or push on the bit - I just kept asking, and I was looking for a feeling of mental as well as physical softness - hard to describe.  She got it after some work, in both directions - interestingly enough going to the left was harder for her - going to the right is usually her harder direction.  As we began to get really nice softness on the circles, I would take her in a straight line and by the end of our work she was really carrying herself beautifully with the softest of contact on both reins.  That felt very good.  And it corresponds to something I've been reading in Tom Moates's book:
If the human handles firmness consistently, always using it as a precursor to asking something specific of the horse and providing a release timed to build in the horse's attention, relaxation, and understanding, then there is every reason for the horse to consider firmness a very positive experience. (p. 87)
But this firmness is not negative, or from a point of view of getting the horse in trouble - this just leads the horse to want to check out.

Dawn and I made progress, and we hope to build on that in days to come.  I was trying with her to be insistent - in a good way - and absolutely consistent in not releasing unless the physical and mental softness I was looking for came through.

* * * * * *
Drift and I had two work sessions, yesterday and today.  They turned out to be about some holes he's got - his spookiness, which has reemerged since his bolt after being spooked by Scout running up, due to his lack of confidence - as Mark Rashid said at the clinic, Drift is not a very confident horse - and his petulance when asked to do something he'd prefer not to do.

Yesterday was about his spookiness - he wanted to spook at the goat, and did a small bolt/spook when someone in the community garden stood up from behind her plants, and thinking about the horses in the next door pasture.  We did a lot of standing and looking under saddle, with reassurance, and lots of circles.  Eventually he settled enough that we were able to do some very nice trot work.

Today was about finding holes, and not avoiding them.  I think, a lot of the time, we sidestep around areas of trouble instead of dealing with them.  I tried today to step up to the plate, instead of away from it, and make sure that if there were areas of trouble - holes in training - that we made a start in addressing them.  This isn't easy, and it isn't always fun, but I think if you're dealing with a horse who comes with some issues, you have to suck it up and deal with this.  Tom's book has some things to say about this:
When I think about this event, even now, what stands out is how Harry's advice focused on the horse's feelings as the primary concern.  I had adjusted things to gain a pretty good clamp on Niji's 'misbehavior' for years.  Most often I worked to stay ahead of it by keeping him 'with me' mentally to the best of my ability at any given time.  I redirected his thoughts sometimes away from trouble. Plus, I just finished all the working to break the grip of many thought magnets with him. Also, at home (and not in a particularly conscious effort), I developed an environment in which we rarely pushed up against anxiety in any serious mental way that could cause issues in the first place.  I had learned what might get him close to a run off or melt down, and I went about removing those unpleasantries thinking it was improving the horse's deal. . . . In this latest bolting experience, I realized due to Harry's strange advice [to let the horse run and comfort him when he stopped] that I'd missed a big truth: that keeping a horse from blowing his lid by avoidance is not the same thing as diffusing from within the horse what causes that horse to feel he needs to blow his lid.(p. 45)
"The Razor's Edge" is a term I use for that very delicate mental threshold where a horse teeters on the verge of losing it when presented with something he finds distressing. . . sometimes the human must confront a horse with the very things that disturb him and allow the angst to rise to a high level before it becomes possible to convince the horse to view those situations differently.  Pushing a horse to the brink of trouble may be the only way to enable the horse to make new choices about the circumstances and provide the opportunity for a new and positive outcome.  (pp. 117-118)
Drift and I started out our work session today working on his spookiness.  We contemplated the goat; we contemplated the gardeners; we contemplated the piece of farm equipment making rows that made a terrible grinding noise every time it turned rows.  He did very well with this, some big eyes and a few spooks but settled into the reassurance I was providing on the ground.

But then something interesting happened.  I placed my had on his nose - he braced and flipped his nose so I kept my hand there - I try very very hard to never give a horse a release on a brace - and next thing I knew he struck at me with a front foot, catching me a glancing blow on the thigh.  Major league not OK - I aggressively moved him backwards out of my space - he did it but was rearing and plunging, which was fine with me.  We ended up working for more than two hours - lots of backing - in hand, with hand signals (clapping worked well), with the halter, with pressure on the nose, and leading in between making sure he didn't ever - and I mean ever - intrude into my space.  Drift's clearly a horse that needs very clear boundaries and expectations.  By the end, he would back with very soft pressure on his nose, and there were no more incidences of striking - I expect he'd figured out that striking wasn't on the menu of options after my first reaction.

I've seen petulant behavior from him before - when I first got him he wouldn't let his hind feet be handled without cow kicking - we're well past that now - and he would swish his tail whenever he was irritated.  At the end of our session, I got on, a couple of times, and didn't get off until we got some softness in the turns and backing.

Now it was past dinner time and all the other horses had been brought in and fed and Drift could hear that feed was hitting the buckets as next day's feed was made up.  So when I dismounted and brought him out of the arena to lead him to the barn, we got another display of petulance.  Bolting/bucking on the lead - it looked like spooking but the spooking was just an expression of his annoyance/lack of being with me. No way Jose - back to the arena we went to repeat.  A couple of repetitions later and Mr. Petulant made it into the barn only to find that Scout and Fritz had their heads over their stall guards on opposite sides of the barn aisle.  Mr. Petulant went into a screaming, striking display and I backed him up.  Scout and Fritz were shut in and Mr. Petulant and I went back outside to start over - I wasn't interested in ending on that.  We made it back inside, without any bolting or bucking - I certainly wouldn't call what we had mentally soft - and I called that a win.

Drift is clearly a horse that got his way - a lot - by displaying aggressive/pushy baby behavior.  I'm dealing with the fallout from that.  I have no doubt we'll get there - he has no intent to cause harm, he's just acting out how he feels although that can be dangerous as well.  He basically wants to do well and be praised, but his attention span and tolerance for frustration are still at baby levels.  He's a horse I have to be very careful with not to avoid or gloss over holes.  He is only just starting to figure out that he'll feel better if he can relax, trust me and soften inside.  More miles to travel together . . .

7 comments:

  1. Good Dawn.

    Whoa Drift! Kudos for maintaining your consistency. That was a serious test of wills. I am glad that you set him straight. It takes as long as it takes.

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  2. Good work with both horses.

    Drift does sound like he has some holes that his previous owner was probably afraid to address. He's got quite the attitude when he doesn't get his own way. It's good you're not letting him get away with these antics and are consistent.

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  3. Drift is tricky. There is a difference between true fear and bad behavior. I think you are on top of it with him. Sometimes he needs true reassurance, and sometimes a firm hand of correction.

    Glad you ended on a good note with that leading. It's something you can never allow to escalate.

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  4. I'm with Val - it takes as long as it takes. Situations like you had with Drift mean agendas go out the window. Good job!

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  5. Gees, Kate, you are clearly more brave than me. I don't think I'd want to work with a horse displaying those particular holes. This post was very good for me to read. I know I avoid some of the potentially explosive areas with my horses when those are the exact things I should be working on. Beautiful needs more working tying and I should be working on that aggressively. I guess that's why horses eventually get sent to professional trainers--they're willing to push the buttons we aren't.

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  6. Whoa! Very challenging time with Drift... I've heard this called "testing behavior" annd have had a few very small instances of this with both horses. With Smokey I react big like you described, but with Lily, I found that it doesn't work. It sets up a very unhealthy cycle.

    She gets worried and distrustful if I ONLY react big. I have to follow up with immediate shaping effort/demonstration.

    I think it's that her trust has been broken somewhere so she's quick to go down that road.

    Maybe it's like the firmness discussion you mentioned?

    Interesting...

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  7. Wow! Good for you for not letting Drift get his way. I know some people with young horses that are totally setting themselves up for this kind of behavior someday. I wish I knew of a polite way to show them your blog posts about what all you've been going through with Drift!

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