Oct. 2004 -- Small successes

October 12, 2004

After last night's display I was pretty cautious around the horses this morning. I carried the dressage whip, but I didn't do more than use it as an arm extension -- no waving or swinging it. (I wouldn't use it as a weapon.) I'm happy about that, because I don't want them to be afraid of the whip, plus I really hate that kind of technique, even if it is to keep me safe.

This afternoon I did a training session with each horse. I managed to get them to go one at a time into the barn, where I could put up the stall guard and work with them individually. It was an improvement to working with them in the paddock, especially since it enabled me to work with Quincy. But it wasn't perfect. They were all interested in the stalls, because dinner is served there, and the other horses stood at the stall guard and peered in. Intimidating for horses who don't get along.

I really want to get the old "riding ring" in front of the house fully fenced. It's out of sight of the paddock, which will give the horses a chance to work without the others interfering. I really feel like the horses need an opportunity to do something individual with me every day -- something special just for them.

Blue's session started with a haltering refresher. I thought I might need to start over since it had been several days, but he jumped right in. It didn't take long before I could slide the nose loop all the way into place. He was letting me do it, but his ears weren't forward. So I stayed at that criteria and just watched his ears. I didn't get both ears forward, but I got a few clicks with one ear forward. Unfortunately his head was up at the same time.

As I was working around him, I realized he's still pretty ancy about me working around him. He really needs lots of desensitization work -- what horse people call "sacking out." I'm going to e-mail Alex and find out if I should do some of the other behaviors first... maybe standing on a mat and lowering his head. I find myself not so much in a hurry as in needing to do a million things at once.

Guin was next. We worked on targeting, which she did well, but she eventually got distracted by the thought of alfalfa in one of the stalls. Rather than bribe her to come back, I ended the session.

It took some work to get everyone out of the way, and Quincy in, but I finally did so. I love this mare when I have a chance to be with her away from the others. She's just so sweet. She's food obsessed though. That's good for training -- or it will be when she develops some emotional control. We did some targeting. She is picking up the targeting concept just fine, but she was distracted by the treats in my pockets.

October 13, 2004

This was an awesome day!

I had a terrific haltering session with Blue this morning. First I worked on the opposite side for a few minutes. It was similar to the first session or two on the left -- he kept backing up, and he wasn't comfortable with me petting him or working on that side. When I switched back to the left, he was much more relaxed.

I tossed the lead over his neck and concentrated on wiggling the nose loop all the way up into place. His head would go up a bit as I did that, but I wouldn't click until he lowered it again. I even started tossing the back strap over his poll and holding the halter completely "on" (but not buckled). By the end of the session, he was lowering his head within a couple of seconds after I did this.

This lesson is really important to me. I firmly believe that "catching" a horse is unacceptable. I want a horse to seek me out whenever I come to his paddock or field. He should be eager to be haltered because being haltered means great things are going to happen. It pleases me that Blue meets me at the gate and doesn't try to leave when I get his halter. This is a fun game, and it will precede all the training games in the future. I want it to have a good association!

After an amazing session this evening, I am both majorly bummed and thrillingly elated. I'm elated because I got Blue completely haltered AND well on the way to a free-shaped heads down. I'm bummed because I was hoping to have Jay take pictures of the session, but it was too dark by the time he got home, so we missed recording the momentous occasion!

I had asked Jay to come home before dark so we could take some pictures of a clicker session. I generally put the horses in their stalls for dinner anyway, so I decided that was the perfect setup for getting the horses in the paddock one at a time. As it got later and later, I realized that Jay wasn't going to make it home in time. I was going to just turn the horses out as usual, but I decided I might as well take advantage of the situation to get a haltering session in with Blue.

When I first opened Blue's stall, he was more interested in checking out the other horses' stalls than in leaving the barn. Rather than using the whip to guide him out, I stood in the doorway and offered the halter as a target. He touched it immediately. Click, treat. I took a step back. He reached way out, loathe to leave the barn and its promise of hay and grain. But he touched it. Click, treat. I took another step back, and he came out.

It occurred to me that although we had done some targeting before beginning the halter work, we hadn't built up to following the target. So for fun, I started increasing my distance from Blue. Time after time, he walked over to touch the halter. (He looked really surprised when I turned and ran from him though.)

Then I turned back to haltering. He had really processed what we'd done earlier and offered a lot more head down as I worked. It didn't take me long to build up to putting the halter completely on. I put it on and took it off a couple of times, and then put it on and buckled it. Then I left it buckled. I was just going to leave it on for a few seconds and then take it off, but he started offering head down. And offering it again. And again. It was awesome!! This little horse who a week ago put his ears back and walked away if he saw a halter, chased me around a paddock, pushed his nose into the halter, and then stood still with his head down.

Never doubt it: clicker training can work miracles!

October 14, 2004

I decided to try to video tape a session with Blue today before the rain came back. I set the camera up on a tripod in the driveway, assuming (correctly) that I would be able to halter my brilliant horse and bring him outside. I wanted to work on "stand on a mat." In lieu of a doormat, I put down folded towel.

Blue was eating a pile of fresh hay when I went out with his halter. I held it up. He thought about it, and then left his hay to come touch it. I used a series of touches to get him away from Guin and Quincy, who were still eating. Then, in about five clicks, I went through the haltering sequence and had him completely haltered.

We walked to and through the gate with no problem, but as soon as he was outside, he suddenly realized, "I'M OUTSIDE!" Since he hadn't let me halter him before, he hadn't toured the property yet. We walked around a bit, and I let him see and smell his surroundings. He blew a little and was very alert at first, but settled quickly.

We walked to the driveway, and I started working on "stand on your mat." I figured out pretty quickly that the folded towel wasn't going to work. It got wrapped around his hooves too easily and kicked out of place. I also don't think he even noticed he was standing on it. So I gave that up, tossed it out of the way, and decided to work on backing up.

There are several ways to teach backing up, and it's good to have multiple cues. I decided to use the one I saw this weekend that would eventually be used when on his back. I basically did the "Tai Chi wall" with my hands. (I hope that was right!) I didn't use a lot of pressure -- just a bit more than contact. When he stepped back, I released, clicked, and treated.

In the beginning it took him several seconds to respond, but as the session continued, he got lighter and lighter. I found I had to switch to the opposite lesson -- standing still while I moved around him -- to keep him from assuming that I wanted him to back up every time I stood beside him. He, of course, figured it out pretty quick.

We called it quits then, and headed back to the paddock. Quincy stood at the gate calling out to him. When we got close, she arched her neck, squealed, and pawed at the gate. "Hey, handsome -- you've been outside. Come tell Mama all about it!" Too funny. I shooed her away, and he went in without incident.

I took the video camera in and reviewed the footage. We weren't completely in the frame the whole time, and you can't hear a thing. But it will work as a record for me. If I have time, I'll make a clip and post it. Of course, if it's short enough to be easily accessed, it's not going to be long enough to show much. Sigh.

I haven't forgotten the other horses, by the way. I've just been making so much with Blue, that I've been spending all my time with him. In my defense, he's also the youngest with the most to learn and will have the most expected from him in the future. Realistically, we could probably just hop on Guin and Quincy without doing much training, and they'd be fine for trail riding. I wouldn't do that with Blue, even though he has trail experience.

October 17, 2004

Haven't worked much with the horses in the past couple of days -- the weather has been awful. I must say it's not really a lot of fun to clean the paddock and do routine chores in the pouring rain. Oh, and I've come to the conclusion that wood pellets are FAR superior to wood shavings as stall bedding. Soooo much easier to clean out.

I like weekends because Jay is home to help me. It's more fun to do the routine stuff when there's someone there with you. Tonight we haltered each horse and took him/her into the barn for some grooming and individual time.

I bought a leave-in conditioner and detangler and finally tackled the tangles in Quincy's mane. The stuff is awesome, but I did have to do some cutting. Really, she needs to have her mane pulled. Anyone want to come do it for me? Please? Pretty please? I hate pulling manes. I need to do Blue's as well, before it gets to be too long.

Thank goodness I don't have to do Guin's. Her mane is long, thick, and beyond gorgeous (especially after a good brushing with that conditioner), and I'm not about to shorten or thin it. I may choose to braid it, though, to keep from getting tangled and broken. Hmmmm. I wonder if I can put those cute plastic little-girl barrettes on it to secure each braid?

The horses loved the individual attention. It was fun for me and Jay too. Although the two girls got some "free" treats from Jay, Blue is the only one who had a training session. He's not especially comfortable being handled on his right side, so I clicked and treated for head down while Jay groomed that side.

It's supposed to rain all week. Hopefully that won't keep me from getting a few training sessions in. I want to work on backing Blue in his stall. I backed him using the same cue I used on Thursday, and he responded quickly and lightly. God, I love this horse. He's really smart.

I pulled out Alexandra Kurland's "Step by Step" book and reviewed the section on foundation lessons. I think I'll stick with the book's outline. I kind of bounced around a bit on Thursday, and it felt disorganized. The targeting is going really well. I'll do more with it when I get some cones. I've started backing and head down. When I get those nailed I'll progress to standing on a mat and "The Grownups are Talking."

I'll work with the other horses more as well. I think this work will be really good for Quincy especially. As we progress, I will be able to teach her to carry her body in a rounded, balanced position, which will make it stronger and healthier.

Alex sent me the neatest e-mail on this very subject. She reminded me of a story Jamie Shaw (Tai Chi for the Equestrian) told about his study of martial arts. He studied for many, many years very seriously. He developed technically wonderful forms, but his body was injured and suffering. Then he went to study with a new master. He was devastated when this tiny woman proclaimed his forms "empty." He worked with her for five years and discovered an inner depth he had previously never experienced -- and at the same time he healed his chronically injured body.

This is what can happen with this work with the horses. We can do the exercises and get the behaviors and be successful. Or we can concentrate on the subtle details and discover the layer underneath and attain far, far more. For a horse with physical or emotional problems, this can be the difference between success and failure.

Aspire to excellence.

October 18, 2004

Busy horse day. The vet came out this morning to give Blue his West Nile booster, float Quincy's teeth, and do Guin's pre-purchase exam. The West Nile booster was the only easy part.

Guin flew through her pre-purchase exam until Dr. Pickering got to her left hind hoof. She wasn't limping, even at the trot, but when he tapped on the sole, she was sensitive. He dug in and found a sore. He carved away a pretty generous amount of the frog, but was unable to get deep enough to get to the source of the problem. He said it could be thrush, could be an abcess, or could be something more serious. So he stopped the prepurchase, wrapped the hoof, and instructed us to soak it for 20 minutes daily in hot water and epsom salts. We'll recheck in a week.

If it clears up, he'll continue with the pre-purchase. If not, he'll have to talk with me and Guin's owner about what to do next. It might be something that can be cleared up pretty easily. Or it might be something serious that would really call the sale to a halt. So pray for our sweet Guin girl, so her foot will heal, and she'll be ours soon. It's a good sign that even after all his carving and wrapping, she wasn't lame at all.

Quincy did fine with her tooth floating. Better than Guin, actually, who was really freaked by the sound of the electric lathe. I must admit, I didn't care for it either. And that head gear -- how medieval looking! The vet said she has a "wave mouth." That means some teeth are longer than others, so her bite isn't even. That means she has trouble grinding her food. He did a partial correction today, and in six months, he'll do more. Hopefully, we'll get her right, so she can get the most out of her food.

When Jay got home, I asked him to help me soak Quincy's foot. I positioned him at her head with the treat pouch. I worked with her hind end and held the clicker. I don't know whether she has had to do this in the past or if she is simply laid back, but after the first "What the heck?" moment, she was fine. Awesome, in fact.

She mugged the heck out of Jay, however, so after we got her secure in the bucket, we switched places. I started working on "The Grownups are Talking," clicking and reinforcing her when she looked straight ahead or a bit away. Toward the end I switched to clicking her for heads down.

She reminded me of Bri's from Alex's clinic -- busy, busy, busy. I hadn't noticed just how busy she was, but once it occurred to me, I realized she really is busy all the time. She will really benefit from "The Grouwnups are Talking" and standing on a mat.

Blue felt so left out while we were working with Guin. He's the super star! He stood at the front of the barn and peered in, hoping some treats might come his way. He got one or two -- we're such softies -- but he didn't have a formal session. The only training he got today was before the vet came. I gave him a quick haltering session, and then worked just a tiny bit on backing in the stall. A very tiny bit -- we haven't started corners yet. I'm still trying to decide how I want to elicit the backing behavior.


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