Thursday, July 2, 2009

Baby's First Steps!

I am so happy! I am sooooooooo happy! Gabbrielle took her first steps under saddle on her own. It felt as good as when each of my human babies took their first steps on their own as toddlers. In fact, I have a picture of my daughter right when she took her first steps on her own. I was taking a picture of her sitting in a child's rocking chair, and she hopped down and reached out to touch the camera, taking several steps toward me. Of course, she fell down right after I snapped off the shot, but everything moved so fast in her development after that.

I wasn't as fortunate to happen to have a camera in my hands when my son took his first steps, but I did get this picture of him trying out his grandmother's stair stepper...

By the way, today is my son's 16th birthday! Happy birthday, Happy Boy! (That's what we called him when he was a baby. It's not too hard to figure out why when you look at all the pictures in his baby album. I've never seen a kid who smiled so much. Even to this day he is a very content, easy-going person. I love having him in my company.)

But I digress.

I've been riding Gabbrielle in the saddle, but always with someone leading from the ground. I found that the verbal cues of "walk", "trot", and "canter" that work so well on the lunge line didn't translate to the saddle. I could say "walk", squeeze with my legs, kick, tap with the riding crop all I wanted, but Gabbrielle would not move forward without someone on the ground telling her what to do.

So, today while I was getting ready to work with Gabbrielle, my daughter offered to help. I declined, because I wanted to work with her without anyone around on the ground, and see if she had no choice but to listen to me in the saddle. I reinforced all the verbal cues from the ground, then mounted and repeated them from the saddle. They are the same words. The only difference is that they are coming from above her instead of next to her. As usual, she stood stock still. She even cocked a hind leg and seemed to fall asleep while I was waving my legs at her sides, tapping her with the riding crop, clucking my tongue and saying "walk" over and over until I was out of breath. I was doing all the work while Gabbrielle was chilling.

I remembered reading the advice of pulling your horse's head around to get it off balance so that it has no choice but to take a step. Then you can reward it with a generous release of pressure and a lot of praise. I pulled Gabbrielle's head around and she happily poked her own ribcage with her nose, but didn't get off balance or take a step. Dang that Clinton Anderson! All those flexation exercises made my horse into a gymnast, so I couldn't get her off balance.

Then I thought about how Gabbrielle is a pro at backing up from the ground. I wondered if she would do that with me in the saddle. I pulled steadily back on the reins shifted my weight, squeezed my legs, and clucked my tongue, and she took a step back. I stopped all my actions, petted and praised her. We did this a few more times until she backed into the fence. I thought, "Well, she's got nowhere to go but forward now."

I used forward cues, but she still wouldn't move forward. So, there we were stuck with her read pinned to a fence, and I was thinking, "How many months is it going to take to get this horse to step forward? Is this going to turn into a never-ending process like desensitization and trailer training?"

I dismounted and repeated forward cues from the ground, then tried to mount again. This time Gabbrielle insisted on facing me. Each time I walked to her side to mount, she swung her hind end away and faced me. Trainers are always telling people to hold the reins tight when they mount so that the horse can't move forward. Well, guess what happens when I hold the reins tight? My horse backs up. They also say to hold the inside rein tighter so that if the horse moves, it will swing its hind end away from you instead of into you. However, my horses naturally swing their hind ends away from me in order to evade mounting, so I don't want to encourage that.

Getting them to hold still for the mount is a very delicate process. I have to hold the reins semi-slack so that they don't back up, and then tap them on the rump with the riding crop if they do back up to push them forward again. If they move away from my mounting block, I don't want to have to keep repositioning the mounting block to where they move. I want them to reposition their bodies next to the mounting block wherever I have it set up. It's one of those things I am stubborn about, and it takes a lot of time and patience. I'm sure my neighbors think I'm nuts to spend 20 minutes moving my horses here and there before finally getting into the saddle. However, I believe this type of training will pay off in the long run.

Once Gabbrielle did hold still, I rewarded her by not mounting, but by petting and praising. Then when she least expected it, I hopped on painlessly. I think it's the horse's anxiety over being mounted that is worse than the actual mounting. This time I cued her for forward movement, and she took a few steps back. I released, petted, and praised. Backing up was not what I wanted, but taking steps was. I figured we could work out the direction later.

The next time she stepped backwards, I pulled the left rein and she walked sideways. Wow! She got a really enthusiastic celebration for that maneuver. She then let out this big sigh and simply started walking forward. Just like that! I really didn't even do anything. She just came to the realization that I wanted her feet moving, but forward, not backward.

I can see that our next struggle will be preventing her from putting her head down to the ground. While she was walking, she kept trying to sniff the ground like she was looking for a place to roll. I had to pull hard on the reins to keep her head up. Then, of course, she'd stop walking. The trick will be to keep her moving forward with her head at an appropriate level. Right now I'm just giving her rein to get forward movement as opposed to backward movement, unless I think I may be at risk of being rolled on. Then I take my chances with stalling her, which just gives us more practice with the forward movement cues.

Happy 16th birthday again to the new driver in the family, and congratulations to Gabbrielle for being our newest vehicle.


monstersmama said...

Oh, what am I going to do when my son turns 16! Thats a scary thought because he has grown up so much already! However Gabbrielle is so gorgeous! I am sure once she gets its she will make a terrific mount!

Good luck!

TCavanaugh said...

Happy Birthday to your son! Great job getting Gabbrielle to step forward. There is no such thing as spending too much time or having too many patience when training your horse to stand still and wait where you want them to be mounted. Ignore the neighbors if they act like you are's what I do! :)

Kate said...

Yeah for you and yeah for Gabbrielle! Now that's she's figured out what you want, it should be much more smooth sailing. I've found getting the horse to move the front feet to the side often breaks an impasse. Have I ever told you how beautiful Gabbrielle is? - she's so pretty!

fernvalley01 said...

Happy birthday to your son , and congrats to you ,proud Momma!

manker said...

happy bday... bittersweet sixteen :)


KD said...

Yay for baby steps !

Paint Girl said...

Happy 16th Birthday to your son! Those baby pictures are adorable!
Congrats on getting Gabbrielle to move forward! I think you are doing everything right. You are being patient with her. She'll figure it out. Before you know it, you'll be walking, trotting and cantering!

Lulu said...

Way to stick with it!!! You did great and now Gabrielle is starting to understand what you want!! Woohoooooo!!!!

Once Upon an Equine said...

Hurray for Gabrielle, and good job to you for your patience and persistence. Isn't it fun when they finally "get it" and start progressing from there. Love those dapples Gabrielle is showing. And what cute baby pics. Congratulations on raising a 16 year old who is happy and a pleasure to be around. That takes patience and persistence too.

Alex said...

hip hip horray! Way to go, Im glad you stuck to is, and worked through her confusion. shes such a smart cookie-

Shirley said...

Happy Birthday to your son! Sounds like you're doing a good job on your pretty mare; you're keeping her mind relaxed which is nice with the young ones.

Katharine Swan said...

Happy birthday to your son! Happy Boy, indeed. Look at that adorable smile!

Congratulations on your progress with Gabbrielle, and good for you for sticking with it!

HorseOfCourse said...

Congratulations NuzzMuzz, both on the big step with Gabbrielle, and with your son!
I just laughed when I saw the middle picture when Gabbrielle was scratching her butt...flexible indeed! Will be fun when you start to work her.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

How did I miss this post? gah!

Happy Belated birthday to your son. He sure as cute as a baby. My twins will be 13 next year. They are growing so fast now. And tall! And their feet are bigger than mine! How did THAT happen...and when?
Crazy how our babies grow up in front of us, but it still catches us by surprise.

Sounds like things are coming along nicely with Gabbrielle. :)