Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Conquering the Gawk and Balk

Because of the sudden increase in population with winter visitors in our part of Arizona, I've been struggling with problems caused by both my dogs and horses gawking and balking.  Taking the dogs outside to do their business requires a lot more time and commitment now, because there are so many distractions.  Same thing with riding my horses.  They are very sensitive to environmental changes.

I got on this jag of watching YouTube videos on the subject and was fascinated with how confident each horse trainer was about his or her philosophy, yet how many of these training methods contradicted one another.

Some horses just gawk, some gawk and balk, some gawk, balk and then spook.  The worst ones spook and bolt without even giving the gawk and balk warning.  So, there are varying levels of reactions horses have when excited or scared by objects.

A rider or handler also needs to differentiate between a horse that is curious, a horse that is excited, and a horse that is scared.  For instance, I've learned that Rock is scared of mostly nothing except maybe the crunch of a carrot between his teeth, so when he gawks and balks, it is out of curiosity and mild excitement.  However, when Bombay gawks and balks, it usually leads to spooking or out of control excitement.  He's a much higher energy horse who worries about everything, and it is difficult to permanently gain his respect.  Even though he is at the bottom of the herd hierarchy, he still will challenge other horses and even people when he gets moody.  Gabbrielle runs the gamut of curiosity, excitement, and getting scared, so she can be hard to read, but overall she aims to please, so we can work with her quirks.  I've only seen Lostine gawk when she alerts on something off in the distance, but once she recognizes it, she loses interest.  Every horse is different.

Then there's the differentiation between leading a horse and riding a horse that is gawking and balking.  Do you handle it the same way whether under saddle or not?  I would think you would need to have some level of consistency between the two.

I've been exposed to the following training methods to get past gawking and balking:

1.  Make the horse approach the object, and if it is something that can be moved away like cattle or a bicycle, have the horse follow it to build up confidence.  Release the pressure to reward when the horse shows signs of relaxation.  Some trainers insist on making the horse touch the object with its nose.

(We can't do that here with the cacti, though.

Gabbrielle is still terrified of bags and buckets even though I feed her out of them twice a day.  I have had to train myself to not walk away with the bag or bucket if she is running away and cowering in the far corner of her stall.  I wait until she approaches and shows signs of relaxation before removing the bags and buckets so that I don't inadvertently train her into believing that running away from them makes them go away.  On the other hand, I've used this method for years and find that it works for some horses, but is just a waste of time to use on others.)

2.  Let the horse move away from the object, but make it trot and turn a lot when away from the object, then release the pressure and let it rest near or facing the object.  Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

(I have seen this method taught quite a bit recently at clinics.  This can be tricky in the desert, because you have to find a spot away from hazards as well as the object to work the horse in.  We have cacti, broken glass, concrete slabs, rock piles, ruts, cliffs, colonies of biting ants, swarms of killer bees, clumps of bushes and trees...  You always see horse trainers modeling it in a nice, clean, open arena.)

3.  Just keep moving where you originally intended to go before the object stopped your horse in its tracks.  Don't look at it, don't let the horse look at it, just kick, kick, kick or whip, whip, whip and pretend it isn't there.

(My experience is that if my horse has already spotted the offending object, it will react to my cues to keep moving by running backwards and crashing into things.  However, if the object is small enough or far enough off in the distance or behind us, I can use diversionary tactics to prevent the horse from seeing it.  Not looking at the object can help since horses do tend to look where we are focusing our energy, but chances are the horse will see it anyway even if you refuse to look at it.)

4.  Acknowledge the object by looking at it, but then assure your horse that the object is nothing to fear and keep the horse moving along.  The philosophy here is that if you don't acknowledge what the horse is alerting on, it gets even more anxious because it thinks you aren't paying attention.  Then it thinks it has to take control of the situation because it's the only one who knows what is going on.

(This actually does work well for my horses, but it takes longer to get to where we are going.)

5.  Constantly keep your horse's mind and body so engaged with various cues, always changing it up so that they don't have time to look for things to gawk and balk at, and if you keep them collected on a tight rein, it is more difficult for them to pop their heads up to look around.

(I've seen rules for group trail rides that list "no schooling your horse on the trail."  Apparently, some people find this annoying?  Maybe their horses get worried when someone breaks out of the single file line and breaks gait?  Also, I've been taught that horses are more apt to relax if ridden on a loose rein, because a tight rein makes them claustrophobic.  Also, my horses have been taught to speed up when you tighten the reins.  If you want to slow down or stop, you have to sit deep and tip their nose to the side with one rein.)

6.  Each time the horse stops paying attention to you and gawks at something, move it off in the opposite direction away from the object of its interest to keep it focused on you.

(With this last one, I'm sure some people will say that by moving the horse away from the object, you are communicating that there is something to fear.  I know that sometimes my horses are fine approaching and passing an object that worries them, but once it is behind them, they scrunch their butts up and run like something is nipping at their heels.

I use the #6 method with my dogs when they strain on their leashes to sniff poop or try to get to a person or dog nearby.  My findings are that it works in pulling the dog away in that instance, but the next thousand times you run into dog poop or another person or dog, you just have to do the same move all over again.  It doesn't seem to settle them down permanently.  However, in the case of horses, pulling them away repeatedly from objects they gawk at helps them to stay focused on you and follow your moves, instead of having the horse drag you all over the place.  But, I don't know if all that yanking and turning has a permanent impact on preventing gawking.

With that thought, I'll add in training philosophy #7...)

7.  Just keep exposing your horse to as much activity and as many objects as possible until it all becomes background noise.

(I separated this one out, because I believe that you have to do something in methods #1 through #6 while doing #7.

Also, #7 holds a strong assumption that all horses settle down after repeated exposure.  Some horses, and I won't name names, never get past those primal instincts of fleeing the scene or fighting their rider or handler to escape the scene, even when it is a scene they've seen a million times.)

Can you add any other training techniques to the list?  What are your thoughts on getting a horse past gawking and balking?  What has worked for you and your horse?


lytha said...

What always gets me in these various techniques - you need a safe space to work - free of cacti/ditches/ArizonanLitter.

So Clinton Anderson, Buck, even my Warwick Schiller and others, seem so lofty when they say they solve spookiness by working the horse in a complicated or exhausting fashion on the trails. What trails do they have, where they can safely do this? Or is it a case of, it's not the trainer's horse, so he doesn't care if it messes up its future by slipping down a crevice? I defer to Karen Chaton when she says the schooling of an endurance horse does not allow it to run out its silliness at a start - that will break it. Exhaustion is not training, it's delaying future training.

I have a feeling we mostly cannot weave our horses around and do fancy work on trails when they are frightened, to cure hyper behavior, as CA said. Or, as Buck said, "I'd just ride that green horse 40 miles to cure him of his fears." Buck - that's not your only horse is it? Cuz you might want to ride him one mile after that 40 someday.

Who said to you that there is no schooling allowed on trails? On whose planet are we not always schooling our horses when we're with them?

Stephanie Ford said...

I've been watching a lot of Warwick Schiller videos, he's more along the lines of #2 on your list. Make the wrong things hard and the right things easy.

Water Girl said...

My mare Rosie was terrible about the whole balk-gawk-spook shenanigans (she was a pretty small quarter pony and was a ranch horse at one point in her life, if that gives you any idea of what her spooks were like. Think fast sideways leaps, spins and sliding stops.) I was taught to:
1. Keep the horse moving.
When you felt the horse slowing down encourage the horse to continue moving by squeezing with your legs (English riders call it "closing your leg").
2. Leg yeild past the scary object.
I believe leg yeilding is mostly an English thing as it requires both collection and bend. It can also be near to impossible on trails as the space tends to be too narrow.
3. Circle to recollect the horse.
Again, really only works in arenas or open fields.
4. Anticipate the spook before it happens.
Watch your horse. Know the tiny little signs that they exhibit before spooking. It can be really subtle. With Rosie, her ears would prick forward, her breath would speed up ever so slightly and I could feel her tense underneath me.
HOWEVER, I was an English rider. With Western saddles there is more leather between you and the horse, so it is harder to feel the horse.

I was also given the whole "just go out and do stuff" advice as well, which I found incredibly unhelpful as the only places the barn I rode at would take their horses were shows. I went to a few and hated every moment of it, so going places with my horse (I only leased her, I didn't own her) was a bust.

With guide dogs-in-training, I've been asked to get the dog's attention back on me (with a tug on the leash or by saying the dog's name) and then giving the dog a job to do i.e a sit, stay, down, etc followed up by lots of praise for doing the right thing. The command "leave it" is used A LOT. Which now that I think about it, would be an awesome command to teach a horse.

Imagine just being able to say "leave it" and the horse would get back to its job. One can dream…

Good luck with both your horse and the dogs I hope you can find a method that works for you.

achieve1dream said...

My response varies on the situation I think... This post got me to thinking about when I used to hand walk Chrome on the roads.. I let him stop when something startled him. So it's actually my fault he does that under saddle. It's really irritating when he acts balky, but now that I think of it, it's preferable to bolting. So my thought and plan is to do this... If he spooks or bolts at something I'm going to do lateral flexion. That gets his attention back on me and doesn't rile him up (I've never liked the work them hard away from it and rest near it, I want my horse calm not worked up). Then I'll ask him to walk off and if he doesn't he'll get smacked because he needs to listen to me when I say go forward. It's not stopping that bothers me, it's him not moving forward when I ask him to. I want to teach him to stop after a bolt, not keep going... so maybe that will prevent bolting? I'm not sure. I prefer a horse that will stop and stand still though so I can get off. A horse that jigs or spins freaks me out because I feel stuck on their back. If he's just gawking or being balky I will just keep him going. That's different from spooking. So if he's scared I'll flex him to get him focused on me again, if he's excited I will make him keep going (need to carry a whip) so he doesn't learn he can do whatever he wants... So I guess I'm still a little scatter brained, but this has clarified a few things in my mind. Thank you for sharing it!!

Oh I almost forgot, what I've been doing up until now has depended on the circumstances. When he bolted, I stopped him and made him stand. When he gets excited about other horses I force him to keep going. When he spots something scary I let him stop and look and then if possible ask him to approach it. So yeah not much consistency there I guess LOL!!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I totally forgot about lateral flexation. My second to last trainer had me using that in different ways... to get the horse's attention back on me, to slow the horse down, to soften. She also was a supporter of waiting for your horse to focus his attention on something other than you, and then make him go in the opposite direction of whatever he's focused on.

achieve1dream said...

I've never tried it on the trail to stop the gawking, but I'm willing to try it because it helped me a LOT with the barn sourness in the pasture. :)