This was one of those days that makes people quit training their horses. That being said, it’s exactly the type of day that people who work with their horses need to know that they’re NOT alone and bad days do NOT mean that you’ve failed. Bad days are like conditioning days for your patience.
Think of patience as a muscle; you have to exercise and sometimes strain that muscle a bit in order for it to get stronger.
Today, the lesson with the horses was just as much a lesson for ME as it was for them; some days are just like that. Despite how it sounds (or felt), these are probably the best days you’ll ever have, the ones richest with rewards and experience in the end.
The issue wasn’t with Pony Sue – it was with a mare I was going to ride before Pony Sue. In fact, I never even swung a leg over before the work began. I simply wanted this mare to walk up to the back of a trailer to be tied. Pretty simple. Only, in her mind she had decided that I was leading her to the very precipice of the earth right smack-dab on the edge of the pit to Hades.
She balked about 5 feet away from where I wanted her to stop. So instead of sitting there and playing tug-o-war with her, a losing proposition with 1200 pounds of hormonal paint mare, I went to her hip and made her move forward, around me, and back towards the trailer…
…where she balked again. (Sigh.)
This is the point in my training where I know, had anyone been watching, they would have seen me look longingly back at the house – and the comfort of my couch – and the lovely icy drink sitting waiting for me – wishing I had stayed there, or could quit. And it’s exactly the point at which if you quit, the horse knows that they can push you around. So it was time to work.
Directing your horse to move: horses don’t have E.S.P., thank heavens or Kat (the mare) would have read some pretty ugly thoughts in my head this afternoon. In order to expect clear actions from them that we want, we have to give them clear instructions. After all it’s not fair to tell them to “go right” when our whole body is saying “go backwards”.
Any motion > no motion. There are times when ANY motion beats no motion. If a horse balks, sometimes getting them to go in the another direction is useful in that it unfreezes their feet and mind.
Helmets are useful for groundwork. Sometimes when a horse might be dangerous, or is really excited, go ahead and put that helmet on. Your head is important – protect it.
In this case, to get the mare to walk to a spot of my choice in a civilized manner.
One traditional halter, which in this case was the wrong tool. A rope halter with two knots on the nose would have been a best choice.
One 14 foot long very heavy lead rope with a popper on the end.
One “carrot stick” with the string detached then attached.
Tool I should have had: one helmet.
So – at the point where Kat balked, I knew I had my work cut out for me. The goal was to make her circle away from and towards the trailer. Once at the trailer after a few circles, I was going to have her stop at the trailer so that point would be her point of rest. That way she would be more likely to want to be AT the trailer rather than away from it – because “trailer = rest”.
Unfortunately, we had problems with circling because I have not been training this mare yet. That changes today – she has unwittingly been placed on the training schedule.
When I wanted her to go towards the trailer, she would balk when even turned towards it.
Helpful hint: think out of the box. Sometimes what you think is the cause of misbehavior is not the true cause. Rule out all possible causes before settling on one. You might be surprised.
Most people would have thought that the mare did not want to go to the trailer because of the trailer itself. At first, I suspected as much. However, I then realized that she didn’t want to go towards the trailer because that meant going away from her buddies.
To test my theory (and give myself more room to work), I took Kat to do circles in a larger area near where I was already. Sure enough, any movement going away from her buddies was slow, if it happened at all. Going in a circle BACK towards her buddies resulted in her nearly running me over.
Sometimes uncovering one problem means you end up uncovering two – or more. Stick with one lesson at a time so you don’t overwhelm your horse – and yourself.
So – I had opened up the proverbial Pandora’s Box of horse issues. Yay me!! (note: that last cheer is meant to be said with all the sarcasm I can muster.) But in the mean time, the real issue was one: disrespect. By running over her, she was disrespecting my personal space and endangering me. By not moving away from her buddies, she was showing me disrespect as well.
Knowing that she was going to start to slow down when going away from her buddies, I readied myself but didn’t correct her before she made her mistake. I’d let her start to slow, and the instant she did I cued her to move forward. This worked a couple of times, and of course JUST as I was getting ready to stop her for her release of pressure – she decides to try to run off.
Sometimes,a horse’s seemingly different issues can be labeled as general disrespect. That being said – we should make sure that the issue is not our own leadership.
Now we have a horse who is:
- Disrespecting me by not moving where I want despite clear signals previously obeyed.
- Disrespecting me by crowding me in favor of her buddies.
- Disrespecting me by trying to run off.
I need to lose weight, but I am not 1200 pounds – so I could not overpower this mare. I was able to stop her, but it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t correct. I did get her turned towards me. The problem is that I haven’t been training this mare, so I didn’t have the luxury of being able to start from the beginning. Today’s work was to just get out of the situation on a good note that favored me and relaxed her.
After training, look back at your session and constructively consider where you can improve your skills.
Ideally – I think I should have stopped once I got ANY good behavior and gone totally back to square one and started the real lesson of manners with her; however, I am human, and I didn’t. Learn from my mistakes. That being said, I did end up on a good note as you will soon see.
But there were some BAD notes before – the type of notes that I think it is important to hear and learn from for all of us.
In trying to get the mare to move forward, she took a swipe at my head with her hoof – very knowingly having looked right at me, ear pointed toward me, kicked at my head. So I did what all good cowgirls did:
Freaked out, got distracted, and dropped the rope.
OK that’s not what they do – but I did it. It happens. It was painful because she yanked my arm, I wasn’t concentrating, and it happens.
When things don’t happen the way they should, remember – you are human and so are all the fancy clinicians. Dust off your britches and don’t beat yourself up. Try again.
I asked Chris to get Kat who had run merrily off to her buddies…. Kat 1, Nat 0. While he did, I walked to get more equipment and rethink things.
First, I got a halter that had more pressure on pressure points – particularly that of the nose and poll. Second, I put the string on the carrot stick (to give me some distance from those back feet). Third, I needed to take a breath and put back on my shield and armor of NBD (No Big Deal) so that when she tried it again – and having not corrected her I *knew* she was going to try it again and worse – I could do the three-second-rule in full force. I didn’t fret about it ahead of time, just readied myself for the inevitable and put on my big-girl-britches so that when it happened again I’d act, not REact, correctly.
I caught up with Chris and Kat, put on the new equipment, and walked purposefully back to the work area. Once again I showed Kat where to go – making a HUGE point to make it as obvious as a 10-foot-tall neon sign – to show her I wanted her to walk forward. I asked her, she obliged, until it was time to move away from her buddies. So I gave her a tiny cue, a larger cue, and then a big cue – and she gave me a big kick at my head.
THIS time, I was armed for the three second rule and I instituted it. I did not hit her face, I didn’t injure her, and I did not let myself get really angry inside lest I lose control. But I did go after her like a mountain lion and made her move move move and MOVE away from me and she did not like it one little bit.
Funny how that works.
My method was to use the string on the stick to pop her, not lash and slash her, definitely hard enough to where she got the message, while wiggling the rope side to side aggressively enough to where it put pressure on her nose so that she had to move away from it. The stick energy towards her hind end moved her hind end away from me to prevent kicking and tell the hind end that I don’t accept kicking. The wiggling and action to get the front end away from me, for her, was to keep her off of me so she didn’t crowd me and to make the impression that I was going to kill her. My body energy was all forward, all tiger, all predator about to pounce, and all directed right towards her.
I went for four seconds. This was a big offense. When i was done, I simply stopped in my tracks and she looked at me like I was a different person. Because I was upset – yes this is an upsetting occurrence – I talked to her and told her “You will never kick at me again – you will never go *there* again.” Really it made me feel better – less apt to lose control. She knew I was serious, but I was done attacking.
After the three-second-rule, remember to go back to NBD – for the horse and for yourself.
After my break – oh yeah, HER break I mean – I turned around and stood with a leg cocked and reached back to her outstretched nose and brushed it gently when she sniffed me.
Then we walked off.
I asked her to walk up – away from her buddies – and stopped her after four steps and told her how good she was. Then six steps. From that point on, she walked up on a slack lead, a pleasant (but attentive this time) attitude. No more sullen expression. We walked around, did some turns, did a serpentine, a few stops, and then stopped.
Next, I used the stick with the string on in a desensitizing way (because I had done this with her before successfully) by popping the ground, and throwing the string of the stick towards her casually allowing it to land on her back, legs, etc. She didn’t move, so I patted her.
Helpful hint: always end with something the horse previously knew how to do and did well or – better yet – with something new done well. Always end on a good note
Then she got a good rubdown of the neck and I took her halter off.
Do you want to guess what happened next?
She followed me around.
I walked around. For about five more minutes Kat followed me voluntarily with absolutely no lead rope or halter, away from her buddies, ears up, a relaxed neck, and a pleasant eye. She knew she was off the lead. I petted her and finally released her completely. She spent the rest of the afternoon walking up to me and closing her eyes.
This stuff works. Just remember – it’s not always easy, and not always where we want to be at any given time. But I knew if I put in the time while the issue was hot, at the end I’d have a horse that “got it” and was happy again to be around me. Big lesson ending in a lot more respect than it started.
The moral: remember what I said about not thinking about obstacles as bad, but as opportunities? I didn’t choose to work this mare today, but her issue became a lesson that deepened our relationship – for good.