Friday, February 20, 2015

Arab Time

Whatever evil cold Brian and I caught has proven to be very hard to kick. Last weekend neither one of us made it out to the horses at all. That's practically unheard of.

But finally this week we are both feeling mostly better. We managed a solid ride on Steen and Laredo on Tuesday. Today my student, M, couldn't make it for our Friday lesson, so asked if I would spend some time working with her horse on my own. Also, our barn owner asked if we'd work with one of her horses, who has recently started to get super agitated about certain parts of the arena.

So yesterday Brian and I went out and got two horses that aren't ours, both of them Arabians. Both of them were pretty snorty and stiff coming in.

The horse I was working with, Loretta, is 15, and I think a lot of her world view is fairly established. Although she's not a skittish horse, she's very high strung. Just about everything troubles her. She has trouble paying attention. She doesn't like being touched with a rope. The flag terrifies her. When she's still, she's rigid. When she's not still, she's not very aware of whose space she might be invading. But she's sweet and, of course, none of this is her fault. We don't know much about her life before her current owner got her, except that she came from a rescue organization.

At first I started with sending Loretta in a circle, but her attention was entirely to the outside, and when I asked her to turn and face me, she'd get agitated and try to run off in one direction or the other. Blocking her was getting her agitated enough to be counter-productive. I got to an acceptable stopping point, and switched to some big neck rubs and teaching her to lower her head to a light touch and turning loose with lateral flexion. We did make progress, but I didn't feel it was actually helping all that much with soothing her anxiety.

At one point, I lifted my hand to rub her withers and the sound of my rope brushing against her blanket completely freaked her out. She squirted away from me, so I stuck with her and kept rubbing the blanket until she realized the noise wasn't actually causing her any harm.

I gave her a break, and from there we started to make more steady progress. I returned to exposing her to sounds and sensations that got her a little bothered, but was careful not to push her too hard. I gave her a break every time she made a small change. She started to be more attentive to me.

After we got through her wanting to run away so much, I worked on getting her to move her feet with some softness. Loretta has a hard time giving just one step in response to an ask. She is usually either stuck, or trying to escape with a lot movement. So I tried to give her the time and space to realize she could soften up and move in a way that is more fluid. It took a while, but eventually we started to get some responses that were motivated more by thought than reaction.

About halfway through the session, I introduced the flag. I'd used it on her once before, but pretty minimally. She had trouble tolerating it at first, but after a few minutes of touching her with it she started to get the idea it was no more painful than the rope. I worked on teaching her to hold still when it was touching her, and asking her to move when it was touching her. We made progress on both things.

By the end, finally, Loretta relaxed. At one point it was like a switch flipped. We'd been working on a spot above her back where she found the flag troubling. After trying to run away from it three times, she let out a huge sigh and stopped moving. She dropped her head down to the level of my knees. I set the flag down and petted her face and neck for several minutes. She was happy to just stand there. It was the first time I've seen her let go of feeling like she needed to defend herself from the whole world.

I'm curious to see what happens with Loretta as times goes on. This was the first time I worked with her on my own, and while we did make some progress today, I get the feeling it's going to be a while before the lessons start to carry from one session to the next.

In other news, Steen has taken to calling and coming to the gate every time he sees me. I guess he's feeling a little neglected.

Horseback Hours YTD: 13:10


  1. Loretta sounds a lot like Trekker. He's super sensitive to everything, and has a very hard time standing still. He picks up on things really fast though, so you might be surprised at how much she retains. Of course, sometimes it doesn't seem like it right away, and then it pops up later at the strangest times.

    You probably don't really need any advice from me, but one thing I've noticed with Trekker is that he NEEDS to move. Stopping and standing is not a release for him, like it is for a lot of other horses. Being able to keep moving, even if it's just walking around the arena, with me in charge of direction, is lot more of a reward for him than stopping.

    I've also had a lot of luck with clicker-training (he VERY food motivated). This gives him the freedom to move away as much as he wants (so he doesn't feel trapped), but makes tolerating the scary thing much more rewarding. Obviously, your millage may vary.

    1. Yeah, you're right standing still is not a reward for some horses. Steen is actually that way, if he's upset. He's only very rarely upset by things these days, so I can forget that when it comes to him. But we definitely never try to force a horse to stand if it wants to move. It's entirely counter productive. This is the thing I'm most focused on trying to retrain Loretta's owner on, actually. She's inclined to try to prevent Loretta from moving. I'm trying to teach her to let Loretta go, then find something useful to do with that energy.

      And it's not that I think Loretta is unintelligent or a slow learner, actually. She just has a lot of accumulated experience telling her one thing, and I'm trying to convince her of something else entirely. She's primarily handled by her owner, who has had horses before but is new to any kind of training. The owner is also taking riding lessons from the trainer at our barn, whose style is fairly different from ours. So what I'm wondering is how much of an impact my little bit of time with her is really going to be able to have. I hope it's enough to get her a little more confident and settled about her place in the world. Time will tell, I suppose.

  2. I haven't done much animal training for other people, but I hear that training the owner is like 95% of it most of the time. :)

    I think letting the horse move and then doing something useful with the energy is one of the major challenges of Arabs. That way of thinking seems to run directly counter to how us humans are naturally inclined to want to handle things. I KNOW this, but still forget it sometimes.

    1. Yeah, it's super hard to fully internalize that lesson. It's easy to feel threatened and not in control when a horse is having trouble holding still, which makes most people try even harder to contain the horse's movement.

      And it's definitely true that teaching the human to change is much harder than teaching the horse. And a big part of it just sheer physical coordination. To be ready and able to direct a horse when it moves off unexpectedly takes some practice.


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