Friday, January 6, 2012

The Meaning of Work, Persistance and Letting the Horse Figure Things Out

Lisa had an interesting comment on my goals post - that I used the word "work" a lot in the post and that perhaps I'd lost the meaning of fun with my horses.  I'd say that's a pretty accurate assessment of where I was, although I've got more to say about the meaning of "work" later in this post.  For a long time, I've been going to ride my horses or do things with them with a feeling of being forced (by myself and my sense of duty to my horses), as well as a substantial element of dread - irrational fears of being hurt or even failing my horses by being unable to do what they need.  Pretty icky stuff . . .

So I've been deliberately not working (there's that word again) with my horses until I feel that it's going to be something I want to do - that I can approach without dread.  They're pretty happy eating hay and going to turnout and getting groomed, and there's nothing wrong with that.  But that's not why I'm working (that word again) with a highly reactive and very forward 14 year old Thoroughbred (Dawn), or a spoiled, athletic, mostly untrained 10 year old Quarter Horse (Drifter), or a good-minded but still very young and sometimes spooky 5 year old Quarter Horse (Pie).  I don't have these horses for them to stand around getting older - they're all nice horses and have a lot of potential, and if anything were to happen to me they all have to be well-trained enough to find good new homes.  Also, I have them to continue to improve my horsemanship skills - it's a daily challenge and one that stretches my limits and makes me a better horseperson.  None of these horses are easy, all for different reasons.

So I've been waiting and just letting my feelings be what they are.  Today was such a nice day - it got up to almost 55F, which is unheard of at this time of year - that there was nothing for it but to get out there and do some horse work (sure beats house work!), and I actually wanted to do it for the first time in a long time.  Now, as to the meaning of "work".  I know a lot of people may have negative feelings about that word, or feel that it applies only to paid employment.  I've always thought of work as anything I do intentionally, with focus and thought, with a specific objective.  That certainly applies to what I try to do with my horses - but that doesn't mean that it can't be a source of enjoyment, and yes, even fun.

So I was out there "working" today with Pie and Drifter (Dawn continues to be "resting", as they say in the theatre, since I'm out of shape and two horses was plenty for me today).  In the time we haven't been working, I've been thinking about what I need to do that hasn't been happening.  It's a pretty simple concept but one that's hard to execute in process - being persistent and not stopping until the change you are looking for starts to come through - otherwise the horse never understands what you're trying to accomplish.  I need to work - yes, work - long enough, and thoroughly enough, that we get somewhere and so the horse can feel a sense of deserved accomplishment and take the learning forward.  This is what I mean by getting the job done.  Lately, due to my residual issues from my fall, and my general reluctance to work with the horses, I've been leaving them hanging - not persisting until things start to improve but in fact avoiding things that are hard and only doing little, inconclusive bits of work.  I've been avoiding taking them outside their comfort zones - and doing this was one of my resolutions for the new year.

A long preamble to what was a very good day.  Pie was up first.  My intent was to do a couple of things with him - first, to work on advancing his training to lunge, second to do some walk/trot work where he got to the point of being responsive and attentive at the trot without fussing, any crow hops or other excitement, and third, to take some little excursions (100 yards or less) on the trail while dealing with any herd/barn boundness.  Lungeing is coming along - he'll now circle me in both directions at the walk without turning in, although I'm having to use pretty strong cues with the lunge whip to keep him going (he's clearly not very impressed by the lunge whip).  There's more to do on this, but I was happy with his progress today. The walk/trot work went well - we started in the arena but he wasn't happy with the sloppy footing, so we worked on the grass field behind the barn.  He started out pretty feisty, but we started with trotting in fairly small circles with lots of changes of directions (it's hard for a horse to buck or engage in other serious mischief under these circumstances) and just kept at it until he settled and concentrated - at that point our circles could get larger and we were able to add some straight lines.  Then we did some short forays down the trails away from the barn, using circles and serpentines to slow down his momentum and keep him following my lead.  We were both pretty happy when we were done.

Then Drifter was up.  He was pretty nervous on the cross ties, doing some calling and even pooping out of nervousness.  I did some running my hands gently down the lead line with him and that helped him bring his attention back to me, lower his head and calm him down a bit.  His hoof handling was perfect despite his earlier nervousness, and I am delighted to report that there was not one instance of nipping or mouthiness during our entire session. I tacked him up with a saddle, although I wasn't sure we'd get to riding today.  I had asked my older daughter - who is a very skilled horseperson - to help me out by watching what we were doing, particularly with our ground work, and giving us some coaching.   We started in the arena with my touching him all over with the dressage whip - he seemed unconcerned.

My daughter had me pay special notice to where his attention was, when leading, standing with me or on the lunge - if he got distracted, or wanted to sniff the ground (one of his studdy behaviors) to give a tug - not hard or sharp but intentional - on the lead to tell him "here I am, please pay attention" - this worked very well.

We moved on to lungeing, and various types of excitement ensued. My daughter said that, if I ask him to do something, say walk on the lunge line, and he decides to use a lot more energy that is necessary or than I asked for, by running in circles, bucking, attempting to take off (I managed to keep my feet under me and not get my arms ripped out of their sockets but it was a close thing a couple of times), just to leave him alone and let him figure it out, while rewarding him as soon as he did what I wanted.  Drifter is a very "histrionic" horse - all acting out - and just keeping quiet and being persistant, and waiting for him, gave him the space he needed to work it out.  This highlights an important point for me - although it's important to give the horse your undivided attention and direction, it's also important not to always "give" them the answer without allowing them the space to learn and even try out wrong things - a little like kids, I think.  The only correction he received was on the one occasion he changed direction without my request - I snapped him to a halt and got him going back in the original direction pretty quickly.  I was able to manage my body language pretty well and pointed my dressage whip at his shoulder if he showed signs (the head tilt is the early indicator) of resisting going forward and turning in.  On a couple of occasions, he got fairly annoyed when I caught him trying to turn in before he managed to do it - that provoked some of the exciting behavior.

She also pointed out that, when we were at a point where I was specifically asking him to trot, that he started out giving me a "resistant" trot - sucking back without forward impulsion, cramping his head up (which in him is a sign of balking/resistance), or tail swishing - which is just what he has been doing under saddle.  So part of his learning today was that only a couple of laps of good, forward, willing trot got the reward of my dropping my energy and asking for walk, with a couple of laps of that followed by a halt.  The footing in the arena was pretty deep and after about a half hour he figured out that just going along nicely got him the opportunity to come to a walk (which is what I initially wanted), followed by some quality trot and a halt (he still turns to face me, which is not what I want but hard to correct until we are ground driving) - much easier than careening around.  We did a couple of iterations of this, asking for walk, then trot, then walk again and a halt and then did the same in the other direction, but not as long as he was getting tired - we did get to a point where he had done everything well at least once in the other direction but my daughter said that if we'd kept going he would have started objecting since he was getting pretty tired and we didn't want to go there - we wanted to end at a point where he and we were all satisfied with what we'd done.  I didn't get on and I didn't do rope work with his legs today, but that was fine since he was tired and we'd gotten a lot accomplished.

My daughter says she's increasingly liking the idea of repeatedly presenting the horse with an exercise on successive work sessions to allow the horse to cumulatively learn over these successive sessions - this isn't at all the same as repeated drilling a horse in something it already knows, which I find to be fairly useless - it may reassure the rider/handler but doesn't do a lot for the horse.  So Drifter and I will be doing this lungeing work every session until he's got it down, and then I expect it'll fade out when it's no longer needed.  Due to his lack of training and that he's somewhat "spoiled" by prior handling, he's got a resistant/pissy streak.  A horse like this can't be forced to do things - it's a lot better if he can figure out for himself that doing them the way you're asking is actually easier for him - I guess that's the "make the right thing easy" part that often gets overlooked - if you do that you don't have to spend a lot of time making the wrong thing hard, since the horse takes care of that himself.

I'm delighted to report that both Pie and Drifter seem to have completely recovered from their bout with the EPM organism - both were sound and their gaits were normal and Pie is no longer sensitive to touch or grouchy (our vet/chiro thinks this may have been due to his peripheral nervous system rebuilding connections).  Tomorrow I'm busy all day, but perhaps some more (fun) horse work on Sunday . . .

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