Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Something Clicked in Me

I actually got some time this morning alone in my round pen with my horses.  I lunged them in all their fat glory (and mine too), and did some flexibility and movement exercises.  Bombay's only weakness was that it takes a lot of pushing to get him up into the lope, but he was much better than in the past.  Lostine's only weakness was flexibility, which is expected at her age. 

As soon as I began working with Gabbrielle I kept my eyes open, because it never fails that people do stupid things to spook her when I'm trying to train her.  Of course, these things never happened when I'm with my older, more experienced, calmer horses.  They only happen when I'm with my green, spooky horse.  Because Gabbrielle picks up on my every thought and emotion, she began looking around nervously too.

I spotted a white van crawling along the highway and knew it could only be one of two things:  A kidnapper or the telephone book delivery person.  I was betting on the second one.  The van skipped my road and I let out a sigh of relief.  A short time later there was a loud bang while I was lunging Gabbrielle.  She bolted and ran right at me while looking over her shoulder.  I jumped out of the way and looked over to see the white van driving past and a telephone book on my driveway.  As a gut reaction, I yelled out a not-very-nice name at them.  They braked, but then drove off.  They were probably unsure if the slur was directed at them or my horse.

When I collected my thoughts and got past the anger of once again nearly being knocked off my feet by a stampeding horse, I told myself that it is not the telephone book delivery person's fault.  He is just doing his job.  It's my responsibility to teach Gabbrielle to spook in place.  The problem is that every horse training book I've read advises you to do that, but offers no specifics on HOW to do it. 

So, as I lunged Gabbrielle some more I thought about my behavior when Gabbrielle is spooking at me.  It's like she's trying to stay with her herd and practically jumping in my lap in the process.  I tend to inhale audibly, jump and yell, which of course, spooks her more and convinces her that there really is something to be scared of.  There really is something for ME to be scared of, because I have a thousand-pound horse running at me, but there's nothing for her to fear.

Then it hit me.  I need to inhale audibly, jump and scream BEFORE she stampedes.  I did it, and she quickly looked away from me and spooked into me.  This time I was prepared and got out of the way.  When she settled into lunging again, I repeated my behavior.  This time she looked away from me and stopped.  The third time, she stopped and just looked at me.  I did this in each direction at the walk, the trot and the canter.

Then I came up with new ways to act scared.  Years ago a saddle slid underneath the belly of Bombay.  He went into a bucking frenzy, I panicked because I thought he was going to destroy my saddle and hurt himself, so I ran at him waving my hands and yelling whoa.  Of course, that just made him more frenzied.  Every time I witness a horse get loose in a show ring, I see people running at the horse waving their arms and yelling whoa.  All that does is protect the person from being trampled, but has no effect in calming or stopping the horse.

So, I did that to Gabbrielle in each direction at each pace.  The first time, she took off running, but every time after that, she caught on and just stopped and looked at me.  After a while, I had her undivided attention because she wanted to see what stupid thing I was going to do next. 

I just finished reading a book in which the writer talks about how one trainer advises that you do the exact same thing the exact same way in the exact same order every time you work with a horse, so that it can feel comfortable knowing what is coming next.  Routine is what keeps us safe.  However, another trainer recommends the opposite, which is to keep the horse guessing, so that it is so focused on us that nothing else matters.  My equitation instructor once said that I need to make my horse fear me more than anything in the environment, and then it will stop spooking.  I disagree with that.  I'm not trying to make my horse fear me, because my horse is my partner.  I'm trying to make my horse focus on me and listen to me.

Soon I was throwing down my lunge whip and running away screaming.  That one threw Gabbrielle for a loop.  Her reaction was to run with me.  I decided to accept that behavior, because I would hope my horse would stay with me in a dangerous situation out in the wilderness, and it is horse instinct to stay with the herd.  As long as she's not knocking me over the process of running with me, I'm fine with that.

The last work I did was while leading her.  I'm a very clumsy person, so I pretended to trip and stumble several times while leading her, making sure to pound the ground with my feet the way stampeding horses pound the ground with their hooves.  At first, she startled and ran.  Then she just stopped and watched me until I got my coordination back.  I think this is a good exercise for anyone to do with their horse.  Years ago when my son was very little, he was leading Bombay around the paddock.  He began running while Bombay trotted with him.  Suddenly, my son tripped and fell, rolling right into the path of Bombay's hooves.  I freaked watching this disaster unfold in slow motion before my eyes.  Fortunately, Bombay skidded to a halt and then gently sniffed my son while he got up and brushed himself off. 

Horses don't want to trample people or things.  They try to at least jump them if they can't stop in time, but first they have to SEE them, and they have to be in their right mind.  A horse's mind leaves him when he's scared.  Gabbrielle's problem is that she looks over her should while stampeding, so she doesn't see what she's about to trample, which is usually me.  So, I think with these exercises, I taught Gabbrielle to look at me first before reacting, and since I do so many silly things, it is better to just stop and watch me than to panic and run.

I saw the movie "Buck" the other day and came to the realization today that I have three pretty good horses considering how little time I've been able to put in with them this year.  I haven't hired that other trainer who will come to my home yet, because of several nagging reasons.  One is that she brings her two toddlers with her, and my property just isn't safe for children.  Right now we've got rusty nails sticking up out of all those boards my husband pulled off the fence lying on the ground (outside the paddock away from the horses, but where people can walk.)  We've got wasp nests and black widows all over the place.  I really don't want to have to babysit while my horse is being trained.  I'd rather train her myself. 

The other reason is that the trainer told me all the things she does to teach horses to spook in place and desensitize them, and they are all things I've already done with my horses and most of the time all it did was teach the horse not to be afraid of a giant tarp or a plastic bag, which has no effect in teaching a horse to spook in place when a little animal runs out of the brush out on the trails.  Also, it makes no sense in paying this trainer to do what I've already done.

I think this method of me spooking first, and desensitizing the horses to that is way more effective.  That way when a squirrel or bunny jumps in front of us and I inhale audibly as a natural human reaction to surprise, my horse can just roll its eyes and say to me, "Relax.  It's just a furry a creature."

This method is a heck of a lot easier than trying to train yourself not to react when something scares you.  I don't know about you, but I'm a more habitual creature and dumber than my horses, so it's easier to train them not to react.


Reddunappy said...

Sounds like a good break though for you!
I went into downtown Portland, Or. with some friends to see Buck. I really enjoyed it! We were lucky that he was actually there!!!! He signed both of my books by him and I shook his hand! He has huge! warm hands! LOL
There are really good lessons in the movie.

Katharine Swan said...

Desensitizing Gabbrielle to your reactions was a great idea! I've done something similar with Panama -- I've made a game out of "spooking" myself when I'm leading or grooming him, and seeing if I can catch him unawares, and he responds much the same as Gabbrielle -- just looks at me after a while, like, "What next?"

I'd also recommend making yourself BIG when she spooks and runs right at you. I agree with you, when they're scared they're not looking at what's in their way -- unless you MAKE them. When I turn Panama out and he runs around like crazy, sometimes he'll run right at me. I just throw my arms out and wave them, and it works every time -- Panama sees me, behaves surprised that I'm there, and veers around me.

By the way, my trainer says the same thing -- that he should be more scared of me than whatever it is that spooked him. I agree with you that I don't want him to be afraid of me, so I take it to mean that he should be more worried about disappointing me than whatever spooked him. Panama is the kind of horse who wants to please, so usually if I growl at him when he does something dumb, he kind of goes, "Oh, yeah..." and goes back to work.

Allison said...

First, lucky you for getting to see Buck!! It has not been in my area!

My horse was spooky when I first got her, for many reasons. I became an absolute klutz around her, on purpose (mostly). I dropped grooming brushes, tripped, jumped off mounting blocks, and just did some really crazy, silly things. At first, everything scared her, but now, not much bothers her and I have only had her a few months.

And I totally agree with being a partner with your horse, not something it fears. My horse can think I am crazy as can be, but as long as she can still be my partner, I am okay with being crazy.

fernvalley01 said...

Interesting post and insights, sounds like you got in some good work.That trainer sounds like a trainwreck!

Cut-N-Jump said...

If you are paying the trainer to work with your horse, then she can pay a sitter for the kids. Plain and simple. Then everyone can focus on their job and things get done as they should.

I agree with the person advising routine, but also the one saying change it up. Routines are nice for some horses, but if they start anticipating and going through the motions on their own- they aren't listening to you. Problems usually follow.

As far as spooking and the horse being more afraid of you than the object- I think they mean make yourself the herd boss. The horse will look to the herd boss to see if there is really a reason to spook. Sounds like you are doing this already and well on your way to solving the problem yourself.

achieve1dream said...

What a great idea! I never thought about trying all of those things. I don't think I ever realized exactly how spooky Gabrielle is. I'm glad your new method is helping her focus more on you. :) Keep up the great work with your pretty girl.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

Interesting post. Horses need to respect people above all else. Sounds like progress.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Allison - I just wanted to let you know that Buck is out on DVD now.