Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thoughts on Making a Plan

Part of the reason why I am so baffled over Rock's sudden change in behavior is probably because I don't understand his breed.  Having three Arabian horses, I see plenty of similarities in the way they think and act.  I can almost predict what they are going to do and how they will think in various situations.  Rock is almost a completely different animal.  He's like an elephant:  Slow moving and sweet, but capable of some scary stuff should something in his brain shift in an instant.

I wanted to explore a few of the points brought up in comments.  First, is the topic of how I ride.  I've had plenty of equitation lessons throughout my life, but the majority have been in round pens and arenas by instructors who primarily prepped riders for horse shows.  I've never been interested in competition, but just wanted to be able to manage my horses on the trails.  I remember doing so well riding correctly at all the paces in the round pen, and then when my instructor asked me to ride Bombay out of the round pen, across a yard, and into an arena, the horse flipped out.  Leaving the round pen was too much stress for him.  He was sure he was going to die.

When I told the instructor that this was proof that none of what he was teaching me would help me on the trails, he said the key is to constantly keep him collected and on the bit so that he is too constrained and controlled to look for things to spook at.  He said I had to keep riding actively and never be a passenger.  I thought, "Well, that's no fun."

Then when I moved to Arizona and got a trainer who rode with me on the trails, I found that she was big on riding on a loose rein as long as the horse is doing what you ask.  The idea was that you ride actively and then when the horse does what you ask, you leave it alone and enjoy the ride.  So, that's why in my pictures and videos you see me resting my hands on the saddle horn or my thighs.  I film when I'm not riding actively, because the horse is doing what he's supposed to do.  I'm thinking I have taken my horses to two extremes, and I probably should be riding somewhere in the middle, being a more active rider more often, at the very least just to keep the horse focused on me.

I do let my horses look around as long as they aren't gawking excessively.  I want the ride to be interesting for them too, and I rely on their keen sight, hearing, and smell to let me know what's going on around us.  Remember ManTracker?  He let his horses carry their heads high and point at things they sensed.  My horses are better watch dogs than my dogs.

In the case of the video where I got thrown, Rock's behavior of looking off to the left and to the right told me that he smelled something that was probably on the other side of the hill, and was most likely another horse.  His reaction seemed to me more interested than scared.  But perhaps I need to go back to tight reins, rein massaging and leg pumping to prevent the horses from looking around.  On the other hand, sometimes if you have your horse collected so tight that he can't do anything but stare at the ground in front of him, when something does pop out of the bushes, his spook is even bigger because he wasn't allowed to search for whatever was making that smell or that movement, and it literally does take him by surprise.  Clinton says we make our horses claustrophobic by always riding them with tight reins.  I'll just try different approaches in the way I ride him and figure out what works best, I guess.

Regarding his bit, he doesn't have one for a reason.  His tongue is nearly severed in half.  It was that way when I got him.  That's why I moved him to the side pull bridle, and he is actually more responsive without the bit.  I suspect the bit, though a gentle, high quality jointed snaffle, was causing him pain and making him more resistant.

When we first got him, he was dead, but not broke.  We couldn't get him to go faster than a plod, we couldn't get him to back up or side pass so that we could simply close a gate, and we couldn't steer him.  My husband said that after I worked with him a few times, the horse improved a lot.  My husband could name a dozen things that Rock had problems with that I corrected.  So, when I say that he was calm and confident, that doesn't mean he was well trained.  It just means that he appeared to have the right demeanor for a trail horse.

Because he never spooked at anything, I never pointed out objects to him that I expected to scare him.  In fact, I remember riding Rock alongside a busy road and not bothering to even tip his head to the side so he could see traffic coming up from behind him, because I knew there was no need.  It's possible I tested him when I first got him to see if he would spook at the same things my other horses spook at on the trails, but all that would have entailed is riding him past them and observing the reaction.  If there was no reaction, which there wasn't, I certainly wouldn't have wasted my time and energy pointing the horse at and circling the object.

With the other horses, my trainer taught me to make the horse face the object and circle closer and closer to it after the horse spooks at the object, but the need has not arisen to do that with Rock.  So, the idea that I taught this particular horse to spook is not plausible.  Also, because he was such a relaxed, easygoing horse, I was a relaxed, easygoing rider, so there was nothing in my body language telling him he should be scared.  But, of course, now that he's thrown two people, I'm sure I won't be in that frame of mind anymore.

Despite how I was trained, I would just assume we keep walking down the trail after a spook than to point the horse at the object and circle until it focuses on me and relaxes.  I've taken pictures of other riders doing that with my horses, but when I am riding, I usually just say, "No!" after a spook and continue on.  I'm kind of lazy about "working the horse" on the trails, because my expectation of trail riding is that it should be relaxing for both the horse and rider.  I had one instructor who wanted me to whip my horse every time he spooked, but I found all that did was have him throw in a buck after he spooked and make him more tense.

I do tend to talk about the obstacles or problems we encounter on trail rides in my blog posts, because I am a suspense writer.  I know that there needs to be drama to keep people reading, but I think that might give others the impression that I'm nervously looking here and there, jumping at everything, saying, "What's that?" and scaring my horses.  When we trail ride, my friends and I usually get excited when we see hares and coyotes, because we are happy to see them, but we aren't trying to point out the wild animals to the horses as if warning them that they need to watch out for such wily creatures.  We're just enjoying the scenery.  But I admit that when a horse slams on its brakes and refuses to move forward, I usually say something like, "What is it?  Is it a bunny?  Is it a coyote?  Is it a hiker?" and then I act happy because we are going to see our friend, and the horses unlock their legs and move on.

I did ride with a couple of bloggers and was nervous as hell, because that was back when Bombay was high as a kite, jigging all the way to Christmas, and he even tried to buck me off when I attempted to slow him down.  But since then my horses and I have had a lot of training, and things are much better.  The horses and I are still not at a point where we can ride anywhere at anytime with anyone.  We have our comfort zones and are expanding them slowly.  I tend to avoid trainers and trail buddies who push me to get my horses to go too far out of their comfort zones too fast.  It's just too risky, and why mess with a good thing?  I'm trying to be a responsible rider in the sense that I have a responsibility to my family to stay in one piece and not be a burden on them by getting myself hospitalized.

Regarding ponying Rock, that will take some work.  I doubt any of my horses would allow him to be beside them or near their hind ends because of his mischievous way of sneaking up on horses and biting them.  He had stopped that behavior for a while, but it has started up again.  He has also started nipping at people again too, so there's something going on with him that's causing him to be ornery.  I think Rock could be the horse I am riding while ponying another horse, but the other horses would be too worried about what he is doing back there if I were riding them and leading Rock.  Rock has experience being ridden alone and with three other horses so far.  Before I owned him, he rode out with other horses all the time.

I checked his eyes and he is responsive to sight from all angles.  I shined light in them and discovered that he has little crescent moons of blue on the outside edge of his brown irises.  That is called sectoral heterochromia, and it can be hereditary or caused by injury, but considering how symmetrical the blue moons are, I think it is hereditary.  His dam or sire was probably a Paint, because I see half and half brown and blue eyes in Paint horses most often.  I'll have the vet look at him next time she comes around, but I don't see anything that should be causing a sight problem.

I did some groundwork with him, and literally could not find anything that needed correcting on that day.  He followed all of my cues in the round pen.  I only had to work on getting him not to slow down until I say slow down from the lope, but that's typical with most horses.  I did the plastic bag sack out technique, making a racket by shaking it all around his head and body, then rubbing him with it, even on the ears, and he just stood there with a hoof cocked.  I threw a rope all around his body and legs.  Same thing.  No response.  I've never seen him spook in the barn or arena.  He now understands what I'm asking of him, and he's obedient.

The problems were summarized well in Sunny's comment:  The biting, eating on the trail, being slow as a form of resistance, moving off from the mount, wandering aimlessly, and being distracted.  They are all things I've been working on, but since I tend to make corrections until the behavior stops, and then leave the horse alone, he tends to start those behaviors back up right away.  I should be taking preventative measures, such as turning his head away from bushes as we approach them and insisting that he walk straight and keep his head down.  I'm definitely guilty of going easy on the guy, because he's such a lovable squishball.

I have had riding with a crop or bat on the brain for a while now.  My last instructor forbade me from using one, so with Rock I have been slapping his neck or rump with the saddle strings when he has buried himself in a bush and refused to stop eating and start walking.  When he knows I mean business during ground work, he takes off running and bucking, though.  That's been my main hesitation about using one.  I've seen how he blows up on the ground when I crack a whip at him.  He is learning that I never actually smack him with the long whip, so he's settling down and viewing it more as a form of communication now, and not a form of punishment.

Anyway, I don't know if I have a plan yet, because I'm still not clear on what the problem is exactly.  I know there are things I can do to build a stronger relationship with him to make him more respectful of his riders.  I'd like him to get him to a point where he understands that losing a rider is unacceptable, and he needs to contain himself, whether it be a legitimate spook out of fear or him just misbehaving.  For a while there, I thought someone had trained him to stop as soon as the rider losers her balance, because any time I leaned to the side or rocked the saddle upright, he'd stop moving his feet and wait for me to sit still.

Rock is an enigma, because on one hand he is a very willing horse, while on the other hand he prefers to call the shots.  For instance, he enjoys trail riding but wants to choose the route.  Or he likes to play games, but changes the rules of the game mid-stream.

I do think helping him to accept the role of being submissive would do him wonders.  One approach my trainer taught me is that each time the horse chooses to do one thing, make it do the opposite.  I might try that with him, but I do think there is a risk of making the horse dislike activities he previously enjoyed by opposing him all the time.

I've got a number of other things, both expected and unexpected, competing for my attention at the moment, so I may not be able to concentrate on Rock's training right now, but whenever it happens I'll update everyone on his progress.


Jennifer said...

In my lesson Saturday, my instructor said, "Every ride, you're either training the horse, or untraining the horse." We are never "just a passenger". You can't "not actively ride", just like you can't quit riding a bicicyle, or quit driving a car.

Jessica @ The Georgia Horse said...

There are so many ways and views on training. Which is the best for you and your situation? Only you know what's best for you and your horse. Everyone else only knows bits and parts of your riding relationship.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Jennifer - Then in that case, I would say I am training the horse by leaving it alone when it is doing what I ask.

But your instructor is right, because I was watching videos of me riding and even when I thought I was just sitting there, I was constantly making adjustments with my hands. I do a lot less with my legs, but probably should do more.

Jessica - That is true. I like to brainstorm every once in a while though, because people bring up topics I forgot about or ideas that are new to me.

Venom said...

I'll speak only to my personal experience in this regard...

I've always found a new horse & I needed an adjustment period -- to be clear, I'm speaking of the time AFTER the honeymoon phase (when it seems that the horse can do no wrong), when he has begun to feel comfortable & at home and less inclined to be on his best behaviour!

Of all the horses I've ever had, I've been lucky enough to have bought 3 horses that already had extensive training. Their training encompassed all aspects of ranch 7 cow work, one had been shown in halter classes as well as under saddle, and all 3 had hundreds of miles down the road, on the trails, & some mountain work.

After that initial period was when that horse & I would have the opportunity to really begin to understand each other. These well trained horses had many skills that I wouldn't use much, if at all, but they had them just the same. These skill sets came in very handy when my husband & I tried our hands @ team penning & sorting.

My point (muddled, sorry) is just that it took time, with 2 of them in particular it took near a year, for us to be 'in sync'. In speaking to a friend who previously owned 2 of them (siblings), I realized I had been cueing for a behaviour in a different manner than they had been trained - when I changed my cue I got the behaviour I was looking for in a heartbeat. It was like turning on a lightbulb! It was easier with those 2 because I could talk to their breeder; not as easy with horses who come with litle history of course, but a lot of trial & error tempered with patience has always unlocked the minds of both the horse & me too.

I realize that you have little to no history for Rock, and you don't have a source to go to for shortcuts with him. All I'm saying is that I believe Rock is likely to good horse you thought he was to begin with, but your honeymoon phase is over and now you have the opportunity to really know him and get the best out of him that he can give.

Don't give up on Rock. Or on yourself.

Kate said...

you could try doing the sack out stuff out on the trail and then he might understand that bogeys happen anywhere but arent going to eat him alive. Another thing you could try is a curb chain under his bitless bridle. Without a bit he has you at a leverage disadvantage, so maybe that would help keep him from eating on trail. I hope you find a method that works for you, he sounds like a great guy

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Venom - Thanks. That's a positive twist on the matter.

Kate - I never even thought about that. Brilliant!

BrownEyed Cowgirl said...

Sorry...I got nuthin. Unfortunately, I know exactly what Rock's problem is and it's frustrating for someone like me when I know how easily a horse could be fixed...

I do like Venom's analogy...the honeymoon's over. :-(

achieve1dream said...

I know I'm way behind again (getting caught up, sorry for not commenting like I normally do) and the problem is already solved, but I have one idea I haven't seen mentioned yet.

Do you think riding him at home before the trail ride might help? You could work on walking, trotting, serpentines, backing, flexing, etc. to get him focused, responsive and submissive, then take him out on the trail as his reward where he can relax. After the warm up he should be more alert and responsive so the out of nowhere spooks should disappear. This is just a guess and a suggestion. I've never had a horse like Rock so I have no actual experience with this. Good luck!