Monday, August 5, 2013

Just Point and Praise

I didn't want to jinx myself, so I haven't said anything up until now, but the horses seem to have finally worked out their differences and figured out how to play without hurting themselves or each other.  I originally guessed it would take about two weeks to integrate a new horse into the herd, but the personalities were so different, and there was the added complexity of my alpha mare stepping down from her throne due to age constraints, so it took more like two months to get them functioning as a group.

That means I haven't had to treat any wounds for a while, which is a huge relief.  It's a wonder I didn't go insane running around with that equine first aid kit throughout the day.  Scrappy also made his final transition from wet food to dry food, which cuts the dogs' feeding time down to about 10 seconds from about 10 minutes twice a day.  Having to dole out all of his medications and wet food on top of Midge's medications and the horses' wound care was just plain mind numbing.  Too much to happen all at the same time.

The other big hurdle we finally cleared this morning was getting the feeding routine back to the way it was 15 months ago before we moved.  I used to be able to open each stall one at a time, and the horse that belonged in that stall walked right in and waited patiently for me to deliver its feed.  More recently, things have been haphazard between the horses not agreeing upon which stall is theirs and playing little games like blocking the horse that should go into the stall from being able to get into the stall.  Trying to get the right horse into the right stall at the new place has been kind of like doing Jenga puzzle.  I had to be careful not to touch any hay before separating the horses and locking them in their stalls.

At first I had to take an extra 15 minutes to halter each horse and carry a whip to clear a path to the stall.  If I didn't carry a whip, there would be kicking, biting, chasing, and outright refusals because some horses would not approach other horses, even when I was leading them to their stall.  Then I cut it down to just carrying a lead rope.  I used the lead rope as both a guide when looped around the neck and a whip.

I put each horse in a specific stall so that they would learn that is their assigned space.  But Lostine's stall appeared to be the most popular since it was closest to the hay barn, and because I can easily carry what the wagon can't to the feed bin in her stall without having to go through two gates, her feed bin always got filled first.  So, I found that all the horses would stand in Lostine's stall and get into tussles as I tried pulling them out one at a time to relocate them.

Then they went through this phase in which Rock would take over Lostine's stall, Gabbrielle and Bombay would work as a team blocking the entrance of Rock's stall, and Lostine would try to bust out the main gate to get to the hay barn each time I had to move through the gate.  I think I got so irritated with their stubborn ways that I forgot about the best tool in my horse training box:  Praise.

So, I'd push through the main gate and use the lead rope to back Lostine up.  As she stepped back, I praised her.  Then I used the lead rope to chase Gabbrielle and Bombay away from Rock's stall, and praised them for clearing a path.  I found that once the path to Rock's stall was cleared, he happily came to me with just a beckoning of the index finger and followed me into his stall.  I could then close him in with praise.  That freed up Lostine's stall, and she quickly ran into hers.  I closed her in with praise too.

But Gabbrielle and Bombay continued to be stubborn, standing in the barn aisle refusing to go into their stalls without me physically putting the rope around their necks.  You have to take what you can get, so I led them with the rope to each of their stalls and praised them the whole way, closing them in.  I then tried my best to feed everyone quickly so that they would associate going into their stalls with a food reward.

Anyway, this morning was the first time I didn't need to use the rope at all.  I just pointed and praised, and each horse did what I've been asking it, guiding it, or forcing it to do for what feels like an eternity now.  Everyone was calm and working together like a well oiled machine.  It felt like the good old days.  I'm going to keep working at it, because my ultimate goal is for the horses to see me walk out of the house, and have them all standing in their assigned stalls on their own by the time I get down to the barn.

I want to avoid making any major changes for a while since it has been taking the animals ridiculously long to adjust.  Some changes we can't avoid, such as changes in the weather, but at least we can try to settle our routines.  The animals have been through a lot between moving, illnesses, injuries, surgeries, new vets, new farrier, new dentist, new trainer with new techniques, new weather patterns and temperatures, new barns, new trails, new wildlife, a new herd mate, emergency construction projects, and changes in feeding schedules.  I think most are changes for the better, but I also know that the struggles I've been having are directly or indirectly related to the dogs' and horses' reactions to stress triggered by these changes.  I think we all deserve a break from worrying about what is coming next for a while.

1 comment:

Paige Farrar said...

I wish my horses had taken only a couple of months to be completely integrated! My horses got along fine after a few weeks but it took them quite a bit longer to get completely used to the new routine, and to really figure out where they stand in the herd.
One of my horses is like a little boy. He plays hard and enjoys bugging the other horses. He will pick up anything and chase one of the other horses around with it, including lunge whips which I found pretty funny. At times I did wish that he would just calm down, but now the two other horses know that he is just plain ornery. And they play right back.