You know how sometimes you are doing something with your horse, and it becomes apparent that there's a hole or deficiency in their training? Or you've got something you need to get done with the horse, and you just get it done, but it's not soft - it's not how it should be? Sometimes these issues just evaporate on their own as the rest of the training, and the development of your relationship with the horse, builds in around it, but sometimes they don't or they're too important to ignore. For me, this is a sign that I need to take a step back and fill in where the deficiency is, and make sure that we get to where we need to be - I have to know what that is first - by breaking it down and working it through until we're there. Skipping over problems and issues can really come back to bite you later.
Red reminded me of this important point yesterday. It's been very muddy outside lately and the horses have been coming in every day with mud caked on their feet and lower legs. So as part of our afternoon routine, I've been taking each horse to the wash stall and hosing off their legs before I ride. Pie and Dawn do this with ease - we lead into the wash stall on a relaxed lead line, they go on crossties, we hose legs, they go back to their stalls - simple, right? In Red's case, not so simple. Now, at our end of the barn, you actually lead through the wash stall to get to the arena and then the turnout pastures - odd arrangement but there you go. So all three horses are very used to walking through the wash stall, including over the metal plate that covers the drain. Red leads through as easily as the others.
But he doesn't like going in the wash stall to have his legs rinsed off. For the past week or so, I've been getting the job done with Red, but it hasn't been soft. He stops and braces, I pull, he stops again, I urge him forwards by twirling the lead at his hindquarters, he goes in but tries to leave, etc., etc. I was getting his legs rinsed every day, but he wasn't happy about it and there was still a lot of bracing on both our parts - he'd offer a brace and then I'd join in and pull - not the answer. Sometimes these things just get better with practice and time, and sometimes they don't. When I first got Red, his reaction to everything was to say no and to brace - and man, can he brace - in fact he used to move into instead of away from pressure. He didn't trailer load, for example - it took the people I bought him from over two hours to get him in the trailer when he came to me - I wasn't there when he was picked up - and the only reason he got on was that he finally decided he was bored with the whole thing and just got on.
We did a lot of give to pressure training when he got to me, and a lot of leading/personal space and trailer loading practice. He was down to about 30 seconds to load - there was still that last shred of resistance - the last time I loaded him, about 9 months ago. (More trailer loading work is on our agenda.) He no longer automatically pushes into pressure, or fusses when he's asked to give to pressure - when I got him he used to do things like bite or even strike when asked to back in hand, for example, or shoulder right into you when leading - this wasn't mean but was just him (dangerously) acting out his anxiety, frustration and "no". That stuff's all long gone, but when he's worried or distracted or gets the idea that there's something he wants to do or resist, the bracing can come back. We found this when he was in training up in Wisconsin last spring - each thing we asked him to do provoked the brace until we worked it through, and then the brace would reappear with the next thing we did, and so on - that's why he ended up spending three months up there. As he gained confidence in himself and us, each bracing session was shorter, and the key was always to offer him a soft solution rather than upping the pressure or bracing against his brace. But the small residue of the bracing impulse, while now mostly absent, is still there in certain cases - the wash stall is a case in point. Interestingly enough, we'd just over the past week pretty much eliminated his tendency to brace on the first upwards walk/trot transition - we've had at least four days in a row with a perfect first transition, which likely means that brace is gone for good, and the solution was the same - offering him a soft way to be and not bracing against his brace. At the wash stall, it was clear that he was just saying no - he's not scared of the wash stall although he may not have liked it much, rather he just didn't want to do it, and it was time to work on this. (I'd work differently with a horse who was scared of something or clearly very anxious, or who didn't understand what was being asked.) The work we did also applies to trailer loading, so it'll have multiple benefits.
Once it became clear that we needed to work on this, I dropped my agenda for the afternoon - I ended up coming back later that evening to ride Red and Pie. I was going to take whatever time it took, right then, to get to a better place with Red and the wash stall - not necessarily all the way there in one session, but better. It wasn't critical that I wash his legs that day - what was critical was to make progress on eliminating this brace.
So we worked on it in three short sessions. After each session, where we'd made some progress, I put him back in his stall for a while to let him chill and process while I did some other chores. We started by my leading him to the wash stall and then asking him to follow me in. Planted feet, offering the brace. As soon as I felt any tension on the line - I didn't pull back as that would have just made me part of the brace - I moved to his left side, keeping my left hand on the lead, showing him where I wanted him to go but not using any pressure, and tapped him repeatedly on the side with the end of the lead about where your leg would go if you were riding. The taps were gentle but insistent - just irritating enough to be something he would want me to stop doing - the point was not to drive him into the wash stall, but rather have him chose to move forwards to cause the irritation to stop. The instant he started to take a step forward, I immediately stopped tapping and praised him. If he moved towards me instead of towards the wash stall, I redirected him with my left hand and kept tapping until he started to step toward the wash stall. Every bit of progress got lots of praise and rubs. If he started to move backwards, I went with him without pulling on him and kept right on tapping his side until he started to move forward again. (That's why I love the 10 foot cotton leads I use - they're long enough to work for this sort of thing and they have a nice large, heavier but soft end that swings or taps well.) After a few forward steps, one at a time, in response to tapping, I'd ask him to lead in again - if there was any resistance we went back to working from his side with the tapping.
(I should note that I would not have been able to do this in this way when I first got him. The worst thing he did yesterday was to swish his tail in irritation a few times during the tapping. In the old days, I could have gotten attempted biting of my hand, barging into me to get away or even striking with a front leg. He's come a very long way. That said, any work on the ground on issues like this, including things like trailer loading, that close in to a horse should be done with extreme care for your safety.)
The first time we did it, I got him halfway in - then I asked him to back out and did it again. Then we got all the way into the wash stall, facing the back. We stood there for a bit with a lot of praise. I had to work with him then to get him to turn around nicely and slowly without trying to back out. As soon as he turned properly rather than trying to back out (we had to go back in the wash stall a number of times to get to this point) I led him right back out and put him away. About 15 minutes later we had another session, with the objective of him turning and standing still on a loose lead at the back of the wash stall, and then standing on a loose lead in the cross tied position (but not on cross ties) for a good long pause before we led out. Lots of praise at each small step of progress. We repeated that a few times. Back to the stall for another break. On the third session, I turned the water on and let it run (no water on him) while he was standing still on a loose lead in the cross-tied position, but still not cross tied. Again lots and lots of praise. We did that a couple of times then called it a day. During all this, the leading in wasn't perfect - there were still moments when I had to move to his side and "load" him with taps, but they were fewer and much shorter. I got some nice sighs near the end, which were a good sign.
Today we'll try more and see where we are - it doesn't matter if his legs get washed today either - but I'll bet things are easier already.