Sunday, January 18, 2015

Refresher course

Friday was sunny and a fairly warm 30 degrees so I headed out to the barn to hang with Charlie. I actually had just read a good article from Horse Illustrated regarding non-riding winter conditioning exercises. It reminded me of stretches and other things I could do with Charlie and was just the incentive I needed to start getting back in the game. Gave me something to focus on. 

My goal for the day was to do a refresher of the basics, remind Charlie about personal space (which he seems to have forgotten now that he's been living the good life in the pasture with other guys), and take him for a successful, quiet hand walk away from the other horses. Build up both his confidence and mine, as well as ours for each other.

Nice mud-ice ring
The ring was still a frozen mud mess, so I decided to work with Charlie in the field. The other two horses are both old, non-reactive guys so I figured this would give Charlie both a calming influence and a distraction; if I could get him focusing on me instead of them, that would be a big accomplishment for us both. 

We started with several stretches: nose to chest, nose to knees, nose between hocks, then bending around to the shoulder, girth, and hip on each side. Then 30 steps backward (Charlie is really good at this, backing on just a voice command until I say stop). From there we progressed to walking in hand, focusing on him stopping when I said "whoa" (not a step or two later) and staying out of my personal space. Initially he was very pushy. I had to remind him several times with a firm second "whoa" - and had to constantly flick the end of the leap rope to remind him to stay out of my space - but it came back to him eventually. 

Back to school

He was definitely distracted by the other horses in the beginning. Anytime I'd ask him to stop or turn away from them he would grunt and spin away, threatening to rear. I've learned there is a very fine line with Charlie between firmly redirecting him when he is misbehaving and telling him too strongly to stop, which makes him think you are attacking him and results in his "go-to" backup-pull-rear behavior. Since he is especially reactive to face tension, the worst thing I can do is to let him feel any tension on the lead rope when he acts up. So, during this lesson I really focused on pointing the lead rope away from my body, releasing any tension on it, directing my energy at his hip, and redirecting him forward into the open space every time he acted up rather than choking up on the lead. It worked! After five or ten minutes, and several repetitions, he started licking and chewing and calming down.

The main part of our exercise came next: walking over raised ground poles. I don't have ground poles, but I do have logs! First I sent Charlie across the shorter two, encouraging him through the "chute" formed by the longer logs while I remained on the outside. Several times in one direction, then several times the other way. Then we switched so I was on his opposite side. 

Better than ground poles
Once he could do that calmly, I progressed to asking him across the two larger logs. They span a ditch so this required more concentration, and the first few times he got pretty frustrated, flipping his head in the air and grunting as he clipped a toe, or didn't place his feet quite right, or tried to jump it and flailed. Again, I ignored any tantrum and didn't apply any tension to the lead. I just redirected him back to do the exercise again, allowing him to rest and receive praise if he did it calmly, and he got the idea that I wasn't going to freak out on him or yank on his face if he messed up. 

Learning to move in, out, and around the "box"
We ended with a walk around the entire perimeter of the field and the outdoor ring, away from the other horses. It was really encouraging for me to see the different horse I had at the end of the lessen versus the beginning. He wasn't perfect, but it was a definite step back toward where we were, and gave me some solid confidence to do it again. I plan on doing a few more sessions just like this one before we attempt a hand walk around the property and down the driveway (where he flipped out before). And then we'll ride, once the weather cooperates of course.

I think the logs exercise was particularly helpful, and I'm excited to do more work with them and other natural obstacles around the property in the future. I think Charlie liked it too. Something different.


  1. Always good to do.something a little different with them sometimes. Sounds like you made some progress!

  2. It's a step! Warm weather is right around the corner.

  3. This time of year is perfect for going back to basics.