Saturday, January 26, 2013

Backing up

Still super cold today which means the horses are only out for half a day (read: full of themselves) and it is too icy to let Charlie run around in the outdoor to release energy. I did turn him out a bit in one of the larger square paddocks this afternoon to see if he wanted to stretch his legs a bit before getting to work; after trotting very carefully around for a lap or two and throwing a haphazard tiny buck-kick he decided this was no fun. Since I knew I couldn't push him too far today mentally (he was still pretty high) we worked a lot on getting to know each other more through "hanging out", grooming, and doing "games" in the aisle. Charlie made some good progress learning that he only gets to go where he wants to go (ie out the barn door or into his stall) if I say it's ok and he is polite. If he rushes or runs into me or loses focus we back up or circle and go the other direction and start again. We did a lot of stop and go, back up and go forward, up and down the barn aisle, and in and out the barn and stall doors.

Although it is hard for him, he is understanding the whole "stop or go back with a small hand gesture" idea now and will stand for small spans of time (albeit impatiently) until I ask him to walk forward or I come back to him. My two proudest moments were (1) Charlie backing halfway down the aisle without a fuss on a loose lead and then (2) backing in and out of his stall several times with my only cue being given from several feet away at the end of the rope. At the time I didn't think we were doing much of anything today really but looking back I am beginning to appreciate the small steps of progress. :)

Oh, in other news, my oversize browband came in from SmartPak and fits great!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Old man winter

Winter is definitely here! Its been cold the past few days but today was supposed to be the worst (feels like -7!), and of course its my day to trek out to the barn to work off some of my board. At least I have a wonderful boyfriend who is willing to lend a hand :)

Charlie was less than excited about being forced to work, having had the last week off, but who can blame him. I think my biggest hurdle right now is going to be finding a way to release his energy safely and efficiently so that we have a brain to work with and our sessions can be more effective. We did a lot today on the lunge and in the rope halter, worked through several tantrums, and ended on a not too bad note. It was no glowing representation of Charlie's capabilities by any means, but we at least ended back near where we started last Sunday when M started working with him. I'm hoping, after today's workout, tomorrow we will be in a better starting place and can make more progress.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Back to Basics

The past week has been a pretty rough one for me (for personal reasons) but my rope halter arrived and so I did go introduce it to Charlie and do some basic groundwork. Honestly, it was nice just to be around him, even if I wasn't feeling up to doing much else.

Anyway, boy do I love that rope halter! After just one session I noticed a huge difference in Charlie's respect for my personal space (plus I think he realizes that when he resists it doesn't feel so good). Yesterday we had a very good lunging/groundwork session. I focused on keeping him walking at my shoulder and not ahead of me, stopping when and where I wanted him to, and not moving his feet when I told him to stand. It's tough because he is a very soft horse but he tends to have no response to light requests and too much of a response to anything more.

Our biggest success, I think, was in Charlie's waiting skills. We started small with me taking one step back from him and asking him to stand and wait for a few seconds until I returned. This was hard for him, he really wants to follow you and stay at your side. After gradually increasing the time and distance, by the end I was able to walk away from Charlie for periods of up to 30 seconds or so and he would stay. Every time he lifted a foot to move or took a step I would calmly back him up and reset his feet back where they were. Baby steps. 
Mom, I'm not so sure about this thing
I also worked a lot on getting Charlie to relax and lower his head by applying soft pressure either on the halter or directly to his poll with my hand until he gave a little, then released. My thought is if I can get Charlie to go down instead of up in response to pressure (and consequently stop and think before he reacts) then maybe we can get this rearing thing under control and more adequately handle "scary" situations. He did try rearing twice yesterday: when I asked him to change direction or back up and he was slow to react (and, I think, anticipated a reaction from me). I stayed calm, did not make a big deal of the issue, and moved him on right away back into what we were doing before (backing, turning, stopping). By the end of our session Charlie was responding calmly to a combination of verbal and body language cues and doing transitions and turns on the lunge on command and with no complaint. Plus, when he stopped, I was able to keep him from turning and running right to me in the center of the circle which is a big accomplishment. I no longer needed a whip to keep him out of my space or to direct his energy.

Working on lowering his head

Today was a HUGE day for Charlie :) My friend Maddy, who is very good with natural horsemanship and ground training, came to give me a hand and offer some pointers. I started Charlie out on the lunge and then gave him to Maddy to play with. We made so much progress! Since I really worked him yesterday he had a brain today and was definitely respecting the rope halter. Plus, it was nice having Maddy there with her expertise to quickly and appropriately correct Charlie and good for me to have someone to watch who is in her element. By the end of the session Charlie was staying well out of her space, backing up when she asked, moving out of her way in both directions and standing still until she said it was ok to move. He was a perfect calm boy, the closest to what I had seen when I first met him. He had some minor "moments" but they mostly stemmed from an overreaction when he got slightly confused and there was no rearing. I realized watching her I actually can be more direct and specific when I ask him something so I'll work on that. I have the knowledge, now I need the practice. We're going to work specifically on using the rope as an extension of my body/energy, pointing it at his feet if I want them to move back or waving it to request more space, and directing my energy at the feet I want to move. Also, I am going to focus on getting Charlie to back up smoothly. First bending and lowering his head, then shifting his weight, then shuffling back on a couple of feet and finally picking up his feet in an even tempo, all with very slight pressure on the halter so I can transition this into when I ride him.

Here are two videos of Maddie working with Charlie, the second one is after about 15-20 minutes of work. I think you can really see the progress they made.

I really think last weekend was the extreme end of Charlie's spectrum, after all he had never been like that before, and today renewed my belief that I have a truly great horse in there :) 

On a last little side note, I did want to add in a conformation shot since it's been about one month since Charlie first came to me. I think he's filling out nicely and is very shiny (and his feet continue to look good too). My handsome boy :)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

An explosion of obstinance

Throw away any progress I had claimed in my last post. Yesterday Charlie was a completely disrespectful jerk and (lucky me) Kate had come to visit and got to see the whole thing in it's by-far-the-worst-he's-ever-been glory. I apologize in advance for the really long post but I want to document where we currently are so that (hopefully) I'll be able to look back on this in a few months and say "look how far we've come!"....

As there were a lot of people at the barn yesterday and it was a nice sunny day, I thought we would try the outdoor ring to let Charlie stretch his legs and get out some energy and then practice some more in-hand work. By the time we reached the gate he was jigging and anxious to go (the horse trotting in the adjoining paddock didn't help). No biggie, I was patient, trying not to make a big deal out of things but also keep an assertive attitude, asking him to stop and wait several times before proceeding. Once we reached the gate he tried to push me out of the way so I gave a sharp tug back on the halter, which he responded to by popping backwards with his head sky high. I made him back up several steps then walk forward again and wait a respectful distance away while I swung it open.

Halfway through the gate Charlie decided it was time to take off and he nearly pulled me off my feet. Unacceptable. Determined not to let him take advantage like that, I tugged the already taut lead back hard as soon as I felt him going, planted my feet and said "no!"...that just set off a full blown explosion. He not only reared, he was striking out at me! All I could think was how much I wanted to beat the crap out of him as now he was rearing in pure defiance and attitude; I had done nothing but ask him to stand next to me and walk quietly. Beating him, however, was not an option so the next best thing I could think of was to try to stay calm, apply strong downward pressure, try to keep my feet planted, and say "NO!" when he was up, then as soon as he started coming down release the pressure and quickly move on to something else in an attempt to redirect the energy into something I wanted to do. Rearing is not something I have experience in dealing with (in fact my trainer used to tell me "A horse that rears is dangerous and not worth your time")....well now I've got a Rearer so I'm going to have to learn how to deal with it.

Unfortunately I couldn't stop and Google how to best respond to this kind of situation while in the midst of dealing with it. One thing I was certain of was that there was NO WAY was I letting Charlie loose until he gave in and offered me something respectable. However, I felt like I was in a catch 22: keep him moving forward to prevent the rearing and deal with a horse trotting around me like a maniac or apply halter pressure and body language to slow him down and face another pissed off defiant rearing episode where one or both of us could get seriously hurt.

I realize now, after looking back on the video clips, that I could probably have been more assertive, but everything is easier to see in hindsight. At the time, I was using all my strength to keep Charlie from completely blowing me off and getting loose and doing my best to interrupt his train of thought and redirect it. After what felt like forever I could at least walk him in a straight line (this was most likely aided by the removal of the playful horse in the paddock at the end of the ring). We proceeded to march all over the ring, stopping and starting every few steps, circling in both directions, backing up, forcing him to move away from me, and (most difficult of all) stand and wait when I asked. That's all I wanted. Every time Charlie started to pick up the pace or fight me we would stop or turn. I wouldn't let him back down to the other end of the ring by the gate unless he walked nicely. (On a positive note, he was completely unfazed by the deer in the woods next to the ring. Go figure.)

We had several more rearing episodes, always in response to a repeated request for him to stop after he ignored previously soft requests. I again tried to exert strong pressure and a firm command when he went up and then release and move right on when he came down. One time, though, I caught him early before he could go all the way up and he flew backwards instead (which I guess is better than rearing) but it caught me off guard and pulled the lead right to the end so I just let go. I was sure he'd trip himself or snap the halter or do any combination of other horrible things but at this point I didn't really care.

Amazingly, it was at this craziest of moments that I saw a glimmer of sanity in my horse. Although he took off like a bat out of hell, bucking and kicking like an idiot, when he realized the lead was dangling and getting tangled in his feet he came to my end of the ring, trotted and then stopped 20 feet from me. I was able to walk up to him, untangle the lead from his legs, and unclip it without any issues. I wanted to reward him for stopping and letting me approach, not force him to then come with me, so I let him go again. I figured that at this point it was probably better for both of us anyway if he ran out some of that extra energy. He still had plenty left and it at least made for some awesome pictures (thanks Dan and Kate!):

I'm a Thoroughbred, watch me run!

Here's a short video:

Charlie continued to gallop around some more, but when I decided to approach him he let me walk up without running or turning away and put his head down so I could rub his forehead. He allowed me to grab the halter too, but I did not clip on the lead right away - I wanted him to know I could approach and leave at will and he wasn't always going to be caught. We did this approach/pet/retreat thing a few more times and then when I finally did clip on the lead and ask him to come with me I had a different horse. He still wasn't a perfect angel but we were able to actually do some of the ground exercises I had set out to do, finishing out the last 15 minutes on a positive note. Maybe he just needed to let out some steam first?

Finally walking respectfully

We survived!

I wish I knew more about Charlie's past. The little I do know is that his previous mom was a tough disciplinarian, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it makes me wonder if he really understood what he was being disciplined for or if he was just responding out of fear/confusion. She obviously got in his face when he was bad or he wouldn't fling his head in the air at any provocation and I can only assume that he's been conditioned into thinking I am going to do the same thing so, in his mistrustful and unschooled state, he feels he has no option but to rear and strike out. Plus he's not getting good turn out or work right now so the extra energy doesn't help. The good news is that I have a great support network of friends and family. While I was initially very frustrated with the whole situation, I've come around and know that ground training can and will reverse these bad behaviors. It will be a struggle I hadn't been anticipating, but hopefully it will make both of us stronger and closer in the end.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Baby Steps

Today I started to see the first glimmers of a change in Charlie. While it hasn't been easy to forgo riding, I've been sticking to my guns and focusing on basic manners from the ground. However, for the most part our sessions have gone like this: Stop. Stop. STOP. Start. Stop. No, really, STOP! Wait. Wait some more. Keep waiting. Start (don't run me over!). Back up. Repeat.....

Today though, right from the beginning, Charlie stopped every time I stopped and, lo and behold, backed up when I asked him to back up! Granted, he really doesn't like moving backward but whereas two days ago he wouldn't back up unless I very strongly asked - and even then it would be with his head sky high - today he took a step back after just a mild cluck and a suggestion with the lead. We're getting somewhere!

Since he seemed to not be having attitude issues today, I put on his bridle so I could evaluate his response to bit and poll pressure while he was in a god mood. It went pretty well, and he did lower his head and bend for me, but I'm not completely convinced that his bridle isn't pinching him a tiny bit (he seems to be right on the edge between a full and oversize). Even though he wasn't doing any of the head flinging he was before, he did tense up when I put pressure on the reins and wasn't as relaxed as he was in his halter. I'm going to have his teeth floated in a couple of weeks to rule that out and get a larger bridle to try as well.

My third and final goal for today's session was learning to wait at the mounting block. We probably spent a good ten minutes just standing there on a loose rein while I moved all around him, put the mounting block on all sides, hopped up and down on it, leaned over his back and patted him everywhere I could reach. He did fantastic and didn't budge. I even jumped on him bareback at the end without major incident and did a quick lap around the ring before we ended our session for the day.

I have ordered a rope halter to help with his ground training and it should be here in the next week. Kate and I had such good success using one with Lucy and I really can't quite get through to Charlie like I want to with the plain leather halter. However, I'm definitely happy with the way things went today. Baby steps :)

A bonding moment