Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Inspiration, and Reflections on Spooking

One of the things I like about my horse trainer is that he's always demonstrating possibilities.  He gets my horses to do things that I can't get them to do, as well as things I never considered doing with them.  After his last lesson, I found my old white plastic bag attached to the end of a whip, and thought about how many years I spent trying to desensitize Gabbrielle to it, and not making any permanent progress.  Each time I introduced the plastic bag to her, she was just as terrified as the very first time I did it.  I used the same technique with my other horses, and it was successful with them, but there is just something about Gabbrielle's personality that makes her a tough nut to crack at times when it comes to de-spooking.

Despite all the years I've put in working with her on such matters, my trainer came out and was able to knock a whole bunch of training techniques off my To Do List in just one hour.  P.S. and I had been discussing various activities the horse trainer could do with Gabbrielle, but we were thinking more along the lines of him working on one thing one day, another thing another day, and maybe in a few weeks he can reach a specific goal we have for her after introducing smaller steps to her.  So, one day P.S. was running late for her lesson and I knew she was probably too sore from her sunburn and fall to ride Gabbrielle at the canter, so I suggested that the horse trainer ride Gabbrielle out alone on the trails without a buddy horse and work on her spooky behaviors.  P.S. arrived just as he was getting ready to ride out, so I suggested that she ride a bicycle out into the desert with the trainer if that was okay with him.  She could kill two birds with one stone by helping desensitize Gabbrielle to bicycles and she could observe how the trainer handles her spooks.  I had gotten too much sun and needed to stay indoors.

A part of me was skeptical since I had previously tried to get the trainer to work with Rock and Bombay on their spookiness, and neither horse spooked much while he rode them.  It's kind of hard for me to learn how to handle spooks myself when the horses refuse to spook for the trainer.  I had just kind of given up on that approach and figured I somehow needed to exhibit more self confidence when riding them myself.  I think the fact that I ride the horses out on the trails by myself is a lot more than what most people would feel comfortable doing, so I don't feel scared or expect the worst most of the time.  It's more a matter of that I'm just tired of the spooks.  They tweak my back and neck and cause me pain.

I'd also like to know if there is a way to lessen the amount or intensity of spooking.  Some people believe you can't train the spook out of horses, so you just have to deal with it.  Some say the trick is to teach the horse to "spook in place."  Obviously, I've been struggling with spookiness for years and have tried a lot of techniques that haven't worked.

So, when the horse trainer and P.S. returned from their session and reported that Gabbrielle was spooking a lot, I wasn't sure whether to be glad that the trainer was finally able to demonstrate how he handles spooks (even though I wasn't there to see it), or whether to be worried that Gabbrielle is going to need a lot of work to help her with her spooking habit.  They said she mastered riding past garbage, a dead cactus, and a pipeline.  She was fine with the bicycle -- go figure.  I think that when the horses spook over bicycles, it's more a matter of them spooking at strangers or movement off in the distance.  As long as they know the person riding the bike and see them close up before they see them far away, they are okay with it.

The horse trainer also cantered Gabbrielle along a sandy trail.  Most of the snowbirds are gone, so we've had the trails to ourselves these past few weeks.  She's still not easy to control at the canter in the round pen.  He did say that he had problems stopping her, but he thought it was more a matter of her having fun running out in the open than anything else.  He circled her a few times to slow her down and stop.  He said she was switching leads every time she spooked.  I was amazed that he could ride her at the canter while she was spooking.  She's not the easiest horse to sit.  And he did all of this on a fairly windy afternoon.  He always manages to inspire me to do something different with my horses, push both my boundaries and theirs, and he teaches me through example that more things are possible than I previously thought.

I'll be excited to see how this pans out and if all the work he did with her during that one hour lesson will stick with her.  It would be nice to have a calmer, more confident horse who we can trust to keep a level head.  No more dumping riders because she's scared of some inanimate object.

Oh yeah, and P.S. and I were talking about how we can handle those spook, spin and run moments better, and I suggested that maybe we should just let the horses run off with us before asking for them to stop.  That way they can get away from the scary area.  Of course, I'd rather the horses just stop the second we ask them to stop, but when they are scared, and when we pull on the reins to hold them back from running, they get claustrophobic and panic worse, causing accidents.  It turned out that was the trainer's suggestion too.  He said let them go a few strides before trying to stop them.  I guess it makes the horse feel better that it has enough control to flee, and getting away gives it time to think instead of react.  If you think about it, you'd probably fight pretty hard if you thought your life was threatened and then someone grabbed you and tried to hold you in place.

I often wonder about how much of a horse's personality is nature vs. nurture.  Obviously, my three Arabian horses are more spooky and flighty than our Quarter Horse, so there is a general difference in breeds (that can be overridden by individual personalities), but I also raised my two spookiest Arabs from yearlings.  I brought Gabbrielle home right around the time those creepy neighbors moved in next door to me at the old place, and their constant staring and stalking made me very jumpy, which I'm sure affected Gabbrielle.

I can remember refusing going into her stall to put on or remove her winter blanket as long as those neighbors were hovering around, because without fail they always made some loud noise right when I was bent down working on her belly straps, she'd jump, and I'd get stepped on or kicked.  So, my neighbors were training me not to put myself in vulnerable positions when they were around, and I in turn was training my horse that I was wary of the neighbors, and therefore she should be worried about them too.

It got to the point where each time I walked outside, the first thing Gabbrielle did after looking at me was to look into the yard next door to see how long it took for the neighbors to come out of their house to watch me.  30 to 60 seconds was the usual time frame.

At our new house, each time I walk outside to work with a horse, Gabbrielle looks up the driveway waiting for either P.S., the trainer, or the farrier to show up.  She's a very smart horse.  She notices patterns in human behavior and can form expectations based on them.  Fortunately, she looks forward to seeing P.S., the trainer, and the farrier, so her anticipation and excitement are positive.

I was just thinking the other day about how almost every time I walked around in the horse paddock at the old place, I had to be on guard for spooks and stampedes.  I was knocked down several times when my neighbors scared my horses into me.  It just seemed the horses were on edge all the time, but now at the new place they rarely react to anything when they are in the barn or arena.  The ravens fly right down to them and land on the railing beside their heads, and the horses just greet them and go about their business.  Bunnies appear out of nowhere and shoot between their legs, and the horses act like nothing ever happened.  I can actually wrap my arms around the horses' necks while standing in the middle of a horse huddle, and nothing bad happens.  The horses spend much of their day lying on their sides snoring despite having packs of coyotes and snakes passing through.  They feel comfortable here, and they like the people who I have let into our lives.


Katharine Swan said...

Regarding bikes, I often wonder if it's because they fail to note that it's a person ON a bike until the person does something to clue them in. If P.S. was talking to the trainer or to Gabbrielle, or maybe even just because Gabbrielle saw her get on the bike, it would have taken the spookiness out of it. I've always said hello to people out on the trail to encourage them to say hi back, especially if they are on a bike or pushing a stroller, and I think once they say hi back the horses can relax, knowing it's just another human.

Funniest thing ever was when we came across someone who had their bike UPSIDE DOWN while they changed a flat. (He refused to say hi, too, probably because he was pissed about his flat.) That terrified the horses! Oh, and the time a huge stroller (or was it a golf cart? I don't recall) was parked on the bike path. The horses didn't know what it was and refused to cross the path. I was very proud of Panama for being the first horse willing to cross that day!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Katharine - I think for some horses it is that they don't see that a person is on the bike, but since my horses are also afraid of hikers, I'm leaning more toward them being afraid of strangers who are not with me. They are okay with new people visiting them on their turf, but they are wary of people away from home. Not many people are out on the trails this time of year, but when they come back I plan to ask some of them to pet my horses in addition to talking to them.

Water Girl said...

Hmmmmm, do you talk to your horses out on the trail?
While my current pony is not very spooky, I got in the habit of chit chatting to the horses when my old pony would spook up an down the gallop track. It always seemed to calm her down (at least enough she didn't kill me). I'm not sure if the talking actually helped, but it kept me calmer and in turn made the horse calmer.

That may not be the best idea if you aren't a chatterbox or prefer to ride in silence, however.
Good luck with your ponies!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Water Girl - Yeah, if I'm not talking to another rider, I'm talking to the horse or singing to the horse, but I've had to rein back my reactions when I see something exciting because as soon as I exclaim, "Oh! Look!" because there's a pretty flower or an interesting animal, the horses spook. They even spook when I burp, so I've had to swallow my burps, and just that little quiet "urp" sometimes results in them balking. It's like they're asking, "Was that a cue? What am I supposed to do?"