Sunday, February 8, 2009

How to get them to want to work for/with you

This came up briefly a few posts ago, Funder had made a comment after Lakota didn't want to go back to the barn, something to the effect of "It must be so nice to have a horse that wants to work with you". Well, Lakota sure didn't come that way!

Some of you may remember, but likely most don't, that when I bought Lakota 6 years ago, she was inherently a nice horse, but she was also largely unhandled and/or mishandled.

Back in 2003, she was a 7 year old broodmare being bred to her half brother. When I sent some emails to the seller (and I am not badmouthing anyone here, this is a learning exercise) I asked many questions since I couldn't visit her myself to meet her.

Some of the questions were:

How are her feet/hooves? The answer was "We have lifted Lakota's feet and she does fine. She has never needed to have them trimmed, she self-trims"

When asked how much training she has had, the answer was: "Yes, she keeps a halter on, and leads well, has been trailered, has not been handled a lot but you can't tell she is a very sweet."

In reading between the lines later on, the answers were more like: "We thought we should trying working with her feet, but never got around to it" and "We keep a halter on her at all times becuase otherwise you can't get one on her without an act of Congress, but she isn't mean about it".

So the horse that got off the trailer back in April of 2003 was scared to death, having never been away from her sire, dam or siblings at the age of 7. She was trailered once, when she was bought by the person I bought her from, they bought an entire family/herd.

I mistakenly took her halter off her in the paddock as I always keep my horses without a halter unless they are uncatchable, and then they wear a breakaway. Well, I can't remember how long it took, but it was week sbefore I got halter on her, that I left on (breakaway). She didn't know how to hold her feet up to be trimmed, either. She is deathly afraid of the dewormer tube, and her eyes pop out of her head and she rips her head away if you even think about looking at her left ear. Don't try to approach her right side either or she's gone.

So how did this horse end up being the one that doesn't want to go back to the barn?

Well, it has been 6 years ;-) But she's been like this for awhile now. I had to go back to square one with everything I learned. Lakota has taught me SO much. She was not this way because she was resistant, or "bad". She was truly just scared, and unsure, and very, very sensitive, and had no life experiences to draw from.

I found that sending her off when she did the wrong thing, was a very bad thing, and created a horse that snorted and went on alert whenever she saw me. I had to sort of sneak in the back door, not let her realize that she was learning something and make it seem like she had figured it out all on her own.

So I hung a halter next to her grain bucket. It was a larger, oversized halter with a breakaway poll. After a few weeks of that, I held the halter while I delivered the grain. Then I progressed to touching her with it. Then we moved on to having her touch it before she could get her bucket of grain. Then I asked her to let me slip it on her nose, and then I took it right back off and let her eat. She didn't get to have her grain at all until she let me do these things. Then we progressed to her wearing the halter while she ate. Then she was tied and she stood tied while she ate her grain. Eating grain while being caught turned being caught into a positive thing, without getting anyones emotions up.

When this worked so well with her, I started thinking more and more about clicker training. I had heard of it, but everyone I knew poo-poohed it as "bribery". But using food as a reward worked so well in getting her caught.

So halter on/off everyday with grain worked really well. And when I caught her to groom her was no problem, either. But if I had to catch her for the vet or farrier, suddenly she was uncatchable again. It took me a little while to realize why that was. It was my emotions, and my intent. When I was feeding or grooming, I had no agenda. It didn't matter if she didn't get caught, so it was no big deal. But my thoughts were that the farrier or vet didn't have time to wait for me to try to catch a horse, so I was purposeful in my mannerisms, and that scared her. The snorty, avoiding horse was back again.

Then I realized that if I approached her, and chatted while giving her a scritch on the withers, or a rub on the neck before haltering her, she was completely fine with being caught. My girl needs a little bit of foreplay before she'll give herself up to you ;-) She can still be this way to this day, although it is not nearly as often, and its always when I'm in some sort of rush, or very distracted. She's a great barometer for my mental outlook at any particular time.

I also rarely catch my horses. Seems counter productive, doesn't it? They still get haltered/tied for eating grain (I don't have stalls yet), and they readily drop their noses into their halters and stand very quietly and relaxed to be haltered. But for hoof cleaning, grooming, hoof trimming, blanketing/unblanketing, and even temperature-taking, they don't get haltered or tied. I carry my goodies on out to the paddock, and do what I need to do with them loose. The first few times I do this with any new horse, they usually walk away. After I am persistent and follow them around, finally they sigh, and just munch some hay. With them not being caught, they have the freedom to leave, so they don't feel trapped. Knowing that if at any time I do something that upsets them and they can leave, they are less inclined to be worried and want to leave. As a matter of fact, when I head out the door with my trimming tools, or an armload of blankets, I often have horses lined up waiting their turn.

Other times, when I'm feeling kinda low-energy, or I don't have much time to spend with them, I'll head out to the paddock and do nothing. I may putter around fixing something, or I bring a book and sit in my little video chair I keep in the barn, leaning against a tree, and read. Sometimes I'll even sit down and fall asleep in the sun. I always have at least one horse who comes to stand guard over me, and most times they take turns. I trust them to not step on me, and they don't.

There have been times when I head out with the intent of riding, or some task I want to work on. And perhaps the horse I want to work with is having a nice doze in the sun and doesn't seem interested. Many times I'll decide to sit with them and doze myself instead. Or choose a different horse. I usually have volunteers, or horses arguing over who gets to be first, or next. Sometimes they are way up on the hill enjoying a play time. Sometimes I'll go up and get one, but many times I won't, and leave them to their games. Sometimes they'll come down and be keen to go do something. But if they really are not interested in playing together, then I don't push it. I learned that if the horse wasn't interested that day, then we usually did NOT have a good time at all. Either a spooky horse, or a grumpy resistant horse, or many times it is them reading me, and knowing that I am really not in the right place to work with them that day. I respect that, and we are more of a partnership than a dictatorship.

Then I started playing around with clicker training. I found that using this method taught ME to be more precise in my timing. And it also was far more interesting for the horse, and they were more keen to try. And I can tell that it certainly is not all about the treats. I have had horses take the treat from my hand and spit it back out again if they didn't want it. I've had horses refuse to take the treat, and instead offer the behavior again, because it was fun for them. It is engaging, they become a willing participant in the game. They offer just that much more to the game. I use clicker to train something new, but once its become old hat, the click/treat fades for that old task as we move on to something new to teach.

Lakota loves the "touch the goblin" game. As a mare that had basically nothing outside her paddock until she was 7 years old, new things were pretty darned scary. She is a "stop/snort/stare" kinda girl. Now when she sees something scary, she stops/snorts, then looks at me very expectantly asking if its safe. When I tell her it is, she appraoches cautiously and touches the scary thing, and then looks at me saying "See? I touched it, can I have my treat now?" Then she'll thorougly investigate the new thing, touching it all over in many ways, sometimes progressing to playing with it if I allow her.

When teaching a new move, or teaching to stand still for mounting, that precise instantaneous timing showing exactly what you want, helps her to get it so much better. She says "AHHH, so THAT is what you wanted! I can do that!" Many times she'll offer better and better each time. Without using clicker, and using only pressure/release, Lakota tends to get dull. " I really don't have a clue what you want, so I'm not even going to try really hard, this is boring and it sucks, can I go have my hay now?"

Lakota started off as a very inverted moving horse. She is 25% TWH which I think influenced her movement conformationally, and at 7 years old of boodmare/paddock living, her movement patterns were pretty commited to muscle memory. We also do some roundpen work, using Dan Sumerel's methods which are very quiet, without running the horse around, tiring them out, or waiting for submission. You look for acknowledgment, not submission.

Anyway, my point was, during this I noticed that Lakota moved very inverted, hollow back, ewe-neck, all strung out. As the roundpen relationship work evolved, I started clicking her for moving less inverted, progressing on to carrying herself. Now she gives me the most gorgoues, collected trots you have ever seen. And she is so proud of herself, that she now offers them to me all the time, then as I'm giggling about how cute she is, she'll stop and look at me with her ears perked up and forward, both eyes on me, so proud of herself, saying "See? Look what I can do!!"

While we have not progressed to any kind of advanced or even mid-range manuevers, which is mostly due to my lack of knowledge, ability and time, we are muddling along at our own pace, but we are both happy, and I have a horse that is excited to head out of the paddock away from her buddies, one who was so herdbound that she screamed for her herdmates and turned to jelly. I have a mare that puts on the breaks and refuses to go back to the barn while her buddies in the paddock are hollering for her, rather than one that puts on the breaks refusing to leave.


Funder said...

What a good post!

I remember the story about Lakota's adoption, from one of the yahoo groups I'm sure - the answers from the seller are such a red flag in retrospect!

I think clicker training has taught me more about training than it's taught my animals about being trained. I know it's made me faster on the release in "regular" training, and I know that's a great thing. I'm slowly learning how to think like a clicker trainer, like when I was shaping Cersei to look to the left and started thinking of neat things to do with a left turn. And it's so much fun for every animal I've done it with! Such a wonderful technique.

I'm pretty jealous of you people who have backyard horses. I try to spend a good deal of time just hanging out, watching my horses interact, being part of the herd. It'd be easier if I lived with them, but surely that'll come in time.

I hope in three more years I'll have such a rich relationship with my horses. It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and hard to look back and see how far we've come together, but I (usually) think we're making progress!

windingwinds said...

Lakota is so lucky to have you Michelle. I really like that quote you have about not intending to be where you are at, but somehow you ended up at the right place. It's soo true. :-)

Michelle said...

Oh yes, boarding is a totally different animal, isn't it? If I had to board, I honestly don't know if I would have horses. I just can't see myself getting out there all the time, and having those little snippets of time to spend with them when life gets busy.

I had mentioned over on Grey Horse Matters that I haven't ridden in 5 months. Back in September, when my husband lost his job, he had time to finish the barn we were building. My job, unfortunately, is painting. So now all of a sudden, the rush was on to get the boards painted so they could be put up while he had the time. So I spent 6 weeks painting on my days off. 18 gallons of paint, all brushed by hand onto rough sawn pine. I'm still having the massage therapist work on the after effects of that!

After the painting during my free time, the holidays came, and all my spare time was spent shopping, baking, cooking. Then the kids were home and I just cant ride with them around, I can't focus on my horse properly, I'm too distracted and then Lakota gets really upset and spooky when I'm not focused. Then the weather got bad, wicked freezing temps, ice storms, snow, more single digit highs. Now the weather is gorgeous, but of course its all melting, and there is ice, and MUD. Oh, what I wouldn't give for an indoor and trails off the property!

So at the very least, I get my horse fix in my daily caring for them. We actually do some little things here and there in the daily process of feeding/mucking.

things like "move your left foot here, sidepass (while I get the poop that was under your feet), head up/down,"don't rip your head out of the halter and bolt off when I release you" "keep your focus on me please, until I'm finished with you", ear touching, playing with their mouths, temperature taking, taking the dewormer tube. All sorts of little things that I can fit into 5 minutes her or there.

Without that ability, I don't know if I would do it, which is sad to say.

And keeping the perspective is so important! I learned a year or so ago then when I get really down about a setback, or it seems like we aren't progressing on something, I take a step back and look back at what it WAS like, and how far we've come. I keep (or kept) a journal of our sessions together (I lost it in a hard drive crash, unfortunately) and then I get renewed when I remember how far we've come!