Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Toning It Down for Effectiveness

I've been mulling over my ground work with Drifter - well, stewing would be a more appropriate description.  I'm disturbed by the resistance/dominance behaviors - balking/rearing/acting out - that have shown up, both in his ridden work and in the ground work.  There's some interesting stuff going on - he's a pretty dominant little horse who's often gotten his way by pushing his handlers/riders around, or intimidating them, particularly on the ground.  This has all been complicated by the EPM episode, where he wasn't able to move comfortably under saddle at the trot and where I gave him the benefit of the doubt if he couldn't/wouldn't move forward - we'd done a lot of work to establish a good work ethic and some of that has been compromised.  And now he's feeling great again - probably better than at any time since I've had him.  I'm pretty certain none of it is physical any more - I always try to rule out physical issues first - his saddle fits well, his teeth are fine, he's had good chiro care - although there may be some memory of physical issues due to the EPM although that's no longer a real problem for him in terms of his ability to move.

He's one of those horses who cares a lot about routine, and things being done "properly" - if you stay inside his comfort zone he is very cooperative and even friendly, but if you ask him to try something new or something he's struggling to understand, he can become frustrated and worried very quickly, particularly if you overdo your aids - he doesn't deal well with pressure.  And he has a strong sense of fairness - if you get big with him when he doesn't understand or thinks it's unfair, he becomes quite upset.  A lot of the work we're doing now is outside of his historical experience and he's uncertain - this is one of the times where he tends to get frustrated or dominant.  He's also very smart - all three of my current riding horses are very smart - which means he's always trying to figure out how things work and what the angles are.

With him, I need to think about whether I'm going about things in the right way and whether there's a more effective way I could work with him.  Obviously, my first priority is to stay safe - he must always respect my personal space, no ifs ands or buts.  We're getting that ironed out with reinforcement of his leading work, and by making sure I always say something if he tries to nip or head butt - this work is going well.

I think a lot of the issues we have with groundwork are due to my ineptitude - he's a sensitive horse who is very responsive to the signals I send him with my body.  In our recent sessions, I've tried to be much more deliberate and clear about what I want - my position vis-a-vis his shoulders and hindquarters is critical, and as Breathe pointed out in a recent comment, the angle of my shoulders is important too - I have to be sure I'm not inadvertently giving him mixed messages as that can lead directly to his frustration with the work.  And if I'm more deliberate and careful about the messages I'm sending, then my aids and direction will not have to be as big, which will go a long way to prevent his frustration.  Generally, if the horse is making big moves, then either your timing isn't right or you're overdoing the aids - this isn't always true and sometimes big stuff does need to happen but the general rule usually applies.

So one of my objectives is to tone things down to be more effective - if my position and timing are better, then I have to do less to influence his behavior and I won't be reacting to things he decides to do out of frustration or confusion.  (I was able to watch a good "tone it down" lesson at the Mark Rashid clinic two years ago - see this post.) We made a small start today - it was quite cold and windy today so we just went to the parking lot for a few minutes.  First, we reinforced his backing out my space using clicker - that went well.  Then we did a little bit of lungeing at the walk, just using the lead line - I use a 10' line - and a dressage whip - I thought he might find this less threatening than a lunge whip and that was so although he clearly understood that it was an aid to forward.  There was no resistance or difficulty in either direction, although I had to stand pretty far back towards his hindquarters to keep him moving forward and not turning in.  I kept my aids very minimal to see how little I could use, and it worked very well. We were both pretty satisfied with this little bit of work and now we need to continue to build on it . . .


  1. Smokey also picks up on very subtle cues, and while there's a little "shouting" that is needed now and again, he accepts it if its fairly applied. Seems like most frustration from him comes frome when I've corrected something but then asked for the wrong thing again. It's not as pronounced, but smokey is young and I'm virtually his only owner. And he is not dominant, so that makes a difference.

    He is very smart, and while he is trying to work (some times he is a little ADD) he will do a turn right as I shift my weight. I think bringing all your signals down will help. Simplify your language and requests was also key - when I first started with smokey the only thing I worked on was direction. I ignored everything else - gaits, ears, turns. Only when I could get him to turn on subtle signals did we work on speed.

    Might be worth hauling to a round pen, even just once or twice.

  2. I have one mare who can get really upset if she doesn't understand what I want. Chunking things down into smaller steps has always helped her...and she needs a lot of support and reassurance from me, *especially* when she doesn't understand or she knows it's not quite what I want.

    I think horses have a far greater connection to their bodies than we have--they aren't used to ignoring sensations all the time like we are. Sounds like Drift might be overwhelmed because he's feeling so much better. I don't know if he gets as much turnout during the winter months, but if the weather isn't insane, I wonder if that might help him process some of this newfound energy!

  3. I think it's a good idea to take things a little slower with Drifter. With smart resistant horses we tend to take it very slow. Just getting the walk down on the lunge is a perfect way to start with him.

    Our motto is one small step at a time leads to more understanding of what is expected and as a bonus the horse will feel good about himself and ready to move on to his next learning experience. It's very rewarding to have a horse respond and find confidence in himself. Good luck with your new plan.

  4. I've said it before but I always forget that Drifter isn't a baby. He's really showing almost childlike behavior when he doesn't get his way or when he's pushed. I re read the Mark Rashid post, and it does sound almost exactly what Drift needs. Me saying that and you doing it are two extremely different things. I wish you the best of luck. I think he really is a terrific horse, just has a bit of the stinkers. And always, safety first.

  5. A friend of mine, whose horse sense I greatly admire, stated that she beleives in longer pauses between tasks with horses that get frustrated easily. Sort of like a "wow, we really did that well, let's bask in that for a moment."
    She would stand and breathe, pet the horse, and look around for what seemed like a long time, and then gently ask if the horse wanted to try something else. If they engaged when she did, they would start working again. You could see her sort of Power up to work some more, and the horse would follow suit. I learned a lot form watching her act/feel as she wanted her horse to feel/act, and the mirroring was astounding.

  6. I read somewhere... I think maybe it was Clinton Anderson... that if one has a choice, it is better to work a horse three days in a row rather than every other day, three times a week. Supposedly the horses brain will retain the lesson (ended on a good note) from the day before, but otherwise each lesson every other day has too much "review" and not enough progress.

    Hope that is clear... ha. I try to get out three days in a row, but with six kids, that just isn't always possible. Just thought I would throw that out there.

    Keep working with him ... and I think the winter months bring out a bit more of the "stinker" in a horse!

  7. Kate--If it were me, I would try very hard to "read" when Drift doesn't understand and when he does understand and is testing for dominance. I respond to those two things very differently. A horse who doesn't understand needs patience and the handler/rider working hard to find the right signals to show the horse what is wanted. A horse that is testing needs the handler/rider to get as "big" (this is your word and I'm not clear about it--I would say needs correcting) as necessary in order to help the horse be comfortable in his confidence that the rider/handler is the boss. Or leader, if you prefer. My horse Sunny needs and wants regular correcting. It makes him comfortable. The results have been dramatic in terms of how much more cooperative this little horse has become. I have horses I NEVER correct, just show what I want. Its all about reading the individual.

    Drifter is complicated because he's older--not a colt--and thus has an older horse's patterned ways. But he doesn't have much solid background so in some ways he behaves like a colt. Add in the dominance and he's a challenge. I think you're doing a great job.

    If you want my two cents, don't worry so much about getting too big. I've read your blog for awhile, and I don't think you'll ever be too big with that horse. I also totally agree with the commenter who said to hold still and bask when the horse does it right. It allows them to take it in. I used that trick a lot teaching horses to do a good strong sliding stop (something we western folks value). When the horse did it well, we would sit a long time relaxing. A smart old horse trainer told me, "Sit there and smoke a cigarette." I don't smoke, but I would sometimes pretend to smoke a cigarette, just to get the sort of "dwell time" he was talking about. It really worked.

  8. Fetlock - good thoughts - he does seem to be "overloading" more easily than before. He does get plenty of turnout - all day which is what he's always had.

  9. Emme - good idea to think of standing around after a success as a reward. I think sometimes we (I certainly do this) are so eager to get on to the next thing that we don't stop to allow the horse to savor the success. I also like the idea of "leading with your energy" - both to encourage the horse to tone things down if the horse is fretful and to bring the energy up as needed.

  10. Margaret - I'm a big fan of the three days on/one day off or five days on/two days off schedule. Unfortunately, with the facility I'm at - no indoor and and outdoor with mediocre (at best) footing - there are a significant number of days I can't ride. Also, our weather starts to get really stinky about this time of year, with below freezing temperatures (bad news for the arena footing), lots of high winds and nasty precipitation. I consider myself lucky to get any rides in at all in December, and January and February are often complete losses. Ask me again why I live in this part of the country . . .

  11. Laura - you're right, that's the real trick with him - distinguishing confusion from resistance/dominance. It's even harder than it sounds since when he's confused, he tends to resort to behaviors which have intimidated his handlers in the past, thus reinforcing his idea that he should be dominant. So the two things run together in a way. He's also not an easy horse to always read since he's not super sensitive - like Dawn - but also not more stolid like Pie - he's capable of being sensitive and responsive but also of blowing right through aids and signals.

    I'm hoping that if I can be very soft and precise with my aids, that he'll understand that it's OK to be confused and take the time to figure things out (Dawn needed this too because otherwise she would be stressed by being able to be immediately right) and that his job is to do this, not to just check out and act up if he doesn't understand or finds something difficult to do. I need to find ways for him to succeed and reinforce his successes, but also make sure he doesn't challenge me in a way that's inappropriate - I don't mind him trying out things that are wrong or asking questions, but attempts to dominate or intimidate are not acceptable.

    He's a challenging one for sure . . .

  12. I have no interesting or useful comments, but thought I'd mention that my mare behaves very similar to Drifter. She's always happy to do what she understands, but new situations are not her forte and she likes to aggressively evade.

    Best of luck with your challenging boy!

  13. Drifter's personality sounds SO much like Laz. They test, question, ask and react-all in about one second! I know you will figure this out in the best way for Drifter. I'm sure he will SHOW you when things start really clicking. I also agree with LONG pauses to allow the process to sink in. Is he a licker/head shaker/snorting out, kind of horse? Laz would show this behavior when things started to make sense. I had to back up our work, about a year ago, about 10 steps to rebuild our foundation from the ground. I look forward to reading more about this with Drifter. I know he'll make great progress with you :)

  14. Good going. Learning to be effective in the groundwork does take a lot of practice. You need to know where to stand and how to use the aids.

    I've been doing it for years and have even had lessons from dressage masters and still...every now and of my horses gets away with something.

    You have to learn by doing, and going slowly is a good idea.


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.