Saturday, July 14, 2012

Still Life (Hawk pt 5)

When you mention training horses to most folks, they seem to picture some type of wild rodeo scene.  The truth of it is more mundane.  There's lots of repetition of simple tasks and concepts.  A couple of years ago, I took a saddle that needed some repair to an old fellow who lives near me.  He is from the mountains of Tennessee.  I knew I'd like him when I drove onto his place.  He had no fence separating his yard from his pasture.  We struck a deal on the saddle, then stood around talking horses.  His basic philosophy on horse training is "Do it 'til it don't matter".  Standing still while being mounted, for example. 

This past week, I concentrated on that one thing with Hawk.  My game plan was to work with him in the arena until he got it right once, then stop and put him away.  That way, he'd only have one thing to think about until I worked him again.  Of course, his owner is riding him frequently also.  She is having much better success by being firm and assertive with him.  On Monday, after I fetched him up, I stopped partway to the hitching rail to talk with the owner of the farm.  I leaned on the fence and got comfortable, and we talked for about 5 minutes.  When I first met Hawk, he had no respect for a person on the ground.  If a person was between him and whatever he wanted to do, he would simply walk over them.  After a month or so of work, he's gotten out of that habit.  But, he still hasn't grasped the concept that "whoa" means stop right here, right now, and don't move an inch until I say so.  I gave Hawk the command, then leaned on the fence.  When he got bored and took a step, I repeated the command.  If he continued, I gave the lead rope a quick tug.  When he tried to move off, I would place him back where he was and repeat "whoa".  If needed, I'd add a tug on the lead rope.  Occasionally, I'd have to snap the lead rope sharply to make my point. That point being, that no matter what the human is doing, he is expected to stand quietly. 

I tacked him up, and took him into the arena.  Things went, more or less, as normal with him.  He moved around some, when I first mounted.  Then I did the "up and down" drill.  The second time I mounted him, he stood perfectly still.  I gave him a lot of praise and neck scratching.  Then, I put him away. 

A couple days later, I worked with him again.  Several people had gone for an evening trail ride, so the farm was quiet, without a lot of distractions.  This time, I tacked him up and took him to the center of the arena.  Instead of mounting, I gave the command, "whoa", stepped in front of him and held the reins up where he could see them, and dropped them on the ground.  I use a pair of really long split reins, so there was quite a bit of rein on the ground.  The idea there, is that, if he moved, he would eventually step on a rein, and correct himself.  I stepped away, and began playing with some pebbles on the ground.  He stood perfectly still.  I moved farther away, and moved some poles around.  Hawk didn't move.  I walked up to him, and fiddled with the saddle, then moved away.  Still, no movement from him.  I walked farther away, and leaned on the fence.  Nothing.  I went back and put the off side rein over his neck, and moved away again.  This time, I went all the way to the end, and moved some barrels around.  Still there.  I worked my way back to him and draped the on side rein over his neck, then moved away again.  We played this game for about 10 minutes or more.  Then, I stepped up to him to mount.  The reins were draped loosely over his neck, with absolutely no contact on his mouth.    I took a chance, and grabbed a handful of mane without taking up the reins, then stepped into the stirrup.  Hawk stood perfectly still!  I was all over his neck and withers, scratching, patting, and telling him what a good fellow he was.  Then I dismounted, and put him away.

On Friday, I went back, thinking to try the same thing with the addition of a mounting block.  It was Friday, the weather was perfect, and about 10 people were saddling up for a ride, including Hawks owner.  I saddled up a promising 3 year old to tag along and see how Hawk behaved for his owner.  I wanted to cheer and do cartwheels when Hawk stood perfectly still while she climbed up without a mounting block!  We had an enjoyable ride, with a little coaching on rein handling, and collection.  We're really happy with all the progress, but plan to keep working at it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Continuing Education of Hawk (pt 4)

Had a few more sessions with Hawk and his owner.  Hawk simply needs regular workouts that engage his mind, and force him to pay attention to the person on the ground.  Once I'm in the saddle, or, for that matter, have one foot in the stirrup, he does fine.  He stops all his evasive tactics as soon as my foot is in the stirrup.  So, when I'm most vulnerable, with one foot up and one down, he is as still and safe as a horse gets.  My major problem with him is getting him to stand still before that point.  He is a fairly tall horse, roughly 16 hands high.  I am a smallish fellow, and with age, not as nimble as I once was. 

His first tactic with me was to move his shoulder into me.  I countered that by keeping light contact on the off side rein.  That worked for the first couple of sessions.  After the first little contest, we would have no problems mounting and dismounting for the rest of the day.  During later sessions, he changed tactics.  When he realized that I could physically prevent him from crowding me, he started moving away from me.  There's no way I can prevent that with signals from the reins.  He simply needs to stand stock still on the command of "whoa".  I think he knew it once before, as evidenced by his standing still once I get my foot in the stirrup.  But, after years of getting away with fidgeting and moving around, he's "forgotten" it.  To "remember" it again, he needs to be put into a situation where he can get it right, and be rewarded for it. 

To counter his moving away, I placed him against the fence.  Hawk countered by moving forward.  I put him in the corner of the fence.  He moved backwards.  I backed him into the corner.  He moved forward, and added swinging his rump toward me.  At last, I got him still long enough to get a foot in the stirrup.  We took a couple turns around the arena to wind down from all that. 

Back in the center of the arena, I dismounted and remounted several times without taking my foot out of the on side stirrup.  Of course, he stood still, and I praised him for it with much scratching of his withers and neck.  Next, I dismounted completely.  Hawk started moving again, once I tried to remount.  Normally, after I've mounted once, he stands still for the rest of the day.  This time, I think he was too worked up from the first go round.  He was however, less fidgety, and I was able to take advantage of a slight pause and get mounted.  I praised him a bit for that.  We did the "up and down" drill again.  Again, he stood perfectly still for it.  More praise and neck scratching, then a couple more laps around the arena.  We did the "up and down" , then a full dismount and remount with similar results. We finished up with a couple circuits around the farm. 

Now, I'm still spry enough to dance around with Hawk.  His owner is not.  She is shorter than me, and not particularly athletic.  Mounting her tall horse from the ground requires all her effort.  There's no way she can manage to climb up, and,at the same time, work the reins to keep the horse lined up.  She'll either lose her balance and fall, or jerk the horse's mouth unintentionally, causing even more problems.  Her usual method is to have someone hold the horse, while she uses a mounting block. 

My first goal is to get rid of the horse holder.  I want Hawk to stand perfectly still, on a loose rein, while she uses a mounting block.  My second, and more difficult, goal, is for her to be able to mount without the holder or the block.