Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Toning It Down for Effectiveness

I've been mulling over my ground work with Drifter - well, stewing would be a more appropriate description.  I'm disturbed by the resistance/dominance behaviors - balking/rearing/acting out - that have shown up, both in his ridden work and in the ground work.  There's some interesting stuff going on - he's a pretty dominant little horse who's often gotten his way by pushing his handlers/riders around, or intimidating them, particularly on the ground.  This has all been complicated by the EPM episode, where he wasn't able to move comfortably under saddle at the trot and where I gave him the benefit of the doubt if he couldn't/wouldn't move forward - we'd done a lot of work to establish a good work ethic and some of that has been compromised.  And now he's feeling great again - probably better than at any time since I've had him.  I'm pretty certain none of it is physical any more - I always try to rule out physical issues first - his saddle fits well, his teeth are fine, he's had good chiro care - although there may be some memory of physical issues due to the EPM although that's no longer a real problem for him in terms of his ability to move.

He's one of those horses who cares a lot about routine, and things being done "properly" - if you stay inside his comfort zone he is very cooperative and even friendly, but if you ask him to try something new or something he's struggling to understand, he can become frustrated and worried very quickly, particularly if you overdo your aids - he doesn't deal well with pressure.  And he has a strong sense of fairness - if you get big with him when he doesn't understand or thinks it's unfair, he becomes quite upset.  A lot of the work we're doing now is outside of his historical experience and he's uncertain - this is one of the times where he tends to get frustrated or dominant.  He's also very smart - all three of my current riding horses are very smart - which means he's always trying to figure out how things work and what the angles are.

With him, I need to think about whether I'm going about things in the right way and whether there's a more effective way I could work with him.  Obviously, my first priority is to stay safe - he must always respect my personal space, no ifs ands or buts.  We're getting that ironed out with reinforcement of his leading work, and by making sure I always say something if he tries to nip or head butt - this work is going well.

I think a lot of the issues we have with groundwork are due to my ineptitude - he's a sensitive horse who is very responsive to the signals I send him with my body.  In our recent sessions, I've tried to be much more deliberate and clear about what I want - my position vis-a-vis his shoulders and hindquarters is critical, and as Breathe pointed out in a recent comment, the angle of my shoulders is important too - I have to be sure I'm not inadvertently giving him mixed messages as that can lead directly to his frustration with the work.  And if I'm more deliberate and careful about the messages I'm sending, then my aids and direction will not have to be as big, which will go a long way to prevent his frustration.  Generally, if the horse is making big moves, then either your timing isn't right or you're overdoing the aids - this isn't always true and sometimes big stuff does need to happen but the general rule usually applies.

So one of my objectives is to tone things down to be more effective - if my position and timing are better, then I have to do less to influence his behavior and I won't be reacting to things he decides to do out of frustration or confusion.  (I was able to watch a good "tone it down" lesson at the Mark Rashid clinic two years ago - see this post.) We made a small start today - it was quite cold and windy today so we just went to the parking lot for a few minutes.  First, we reinforced his backing out my space using clicker - that went well.  Then we did a little bit of lungeing at the walk, just using the lead line - I use a 10' line - and a dressage whip - I thought he might find this less threatening than a lunge whip and that was so although he clearly understood that it was an aid to forward.  There was no resistance or difficulty in either direction, although I had to stand pretty far back towards his hindquarters to keep him moving forward and not turning in.  I kept my aids very minimal to see how little I could use, and it worked very well. We were both pretty satisfied with this little bit of work and now we need to continue to build on it . . .

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