Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Slow Week

I didn't get to do much in the way of horse work this week.  When the weather was good, I was working, when I was off, it was raining.  So, for this weeks blog post, I have a reflective piece over on my travel blog .  Hop on over there and have a look if you like!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A String of Horses

I’ve been working with several horses lately. I’m always intrigued by the different personalities and abilities of each animal. But first, I have the news that Tex; the hard to catch Kentucky mountain horse has a new home. A lady came by the farm, looking for a new horse, and Tex caught her eye. She was fully aware that he was hard to catch, and that he might freak out if she touched his rump while mounting. But Tex’s smooth mountain horse gait, and rock solid trail horse performance won the day. She was riding on the road in front of the farm when a loud hot rod full of teenagers roared past, well over the speed limit. The lady got nervous, but Tex never broke his stride. Tex was her horse before they ever got back to the hitching rail.

Apache is a new horse in the line up. I believe he will stay a while. I gave him an evaluation ride, and found that he is a push button trail horse. He knows his job, and does it smoothly and seamlessly. Nexie is a 14-year-old standardbred, retired from harness racing. She has been off of the track for about 6 years now. Her previous owner took her in and cared for her, but never put a saddle on her. She said she did sit on her bareback a time or two. The boss put a saddle on her and longed her around a bit and Nexie seemed to take it all in stride. I worked with her the other day. The saddle didn’t bother her at all. I pulled on the stirrups to put some weight on them, to see how she would react. She stood calmly for it. I tried to step up, but found she wouldn’t stand still. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t being contrary or trying to avoid being mounted. I got the feeling that she’s just never been trained that she is supposed to stand still during this operation. I asked the boss to come over to hold her. I climbed halfway up and draped myself over the saddle. Nexie seemed puzzled, but not nervous, so I swung all the way over and got settled in. The boss let go, and when Nexie tried to walk off, I put some pressure on the reins, and gave the command “whoa”. After some hesitation, she complied. We stood there a moment, then I put some pressure on her sides, and we moved off at a walk. We maneuvered through some turns and I noticed that she readily turns left, but seemed to resist right turns. She didn’t seem jittery at all, so I took her to the rail and gave the command to speed up. Nexie flew around the arena with no hint that she’d never had a rider. Even though she was traveling rather fast, the arena was too small for her to open up to full speed. Later, I spoke with a friend who has years of experience with racing. She confirmed my suspicions that not standing to be mounted, and the reluctance to turn to the right are vestiges of Nexie’s racing career. Another one is a pinto walking horse named Rebel. He is nearly 5 years old, but has never been trained beyond wearing a saddle and tooling around a farm with kids. That experience has made him a gentle and willing horse. In the arena, I quickly found that he does not understand the cues for turns. I used several cues simultaneously to get him to understand what I wanted. If I wanted him to turn right for instance, I first touched his neck with the left rein, then gently pulled on the right rein. If he still didn’t get it, I touched his left shoulder with my foot. That usually did the trick. After about 30 or 40 minutes, Rebel was negotiating turns around barrels and poles set up in the arena. We weren’t setting any records for precision, but he was catching on to the cues.

Apache will move right into the rental / lease program at Beaver Hollow Farm .  Nexie and Rebel will get more saddle time to work out their minor issues. I’m just enjoying the challenge of figuring out how to work with each horse as it comes along.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A New Wrinkle (Tex part 4)

I worked a bit with Tex again. He is a Kentucky mountain horse who rides well, but is hard to catch. I’ve been working with him on that problem. You can read about our progresss here and here .

The situation had changed a bit this time. Tex had slipped into the main pasture with the other geldings while some other horses were being moved. There was only so much I could do to control his movements in this much larger field. We had to work largely on trust. It wasn’t such a problem getting to Tex. The problem was the other horses. Since Tex is the new guy in the herd, all the other horses were picking on him. It’s just something they do to establish a pecking order within the herd. Whenever I got Tex’s attention and started to move toward him, other horses would approach me, and Tex would back off. A few times, more aggressive horses would chase him away. Eventually, I got him separated from the bunch. When he tried to rejoin the group, I simply walked at an angle that he could see would intercept him. That turned him back. When other horses tried to approach, I chased them off with the lead rope. After doing that a few times, everyone understood that Tex and I had our own business to attend to.

Once we had some space to ourselves, we got to work. Tex had retreated to a small stand of trees by the fence. I approached him as I had in the previous sessions, sort of zigzagging my way towards him. I gave him plenty of space. When he got nervous and moved off, I just stayed between him and the other horses. He never made a break for the wide-open field. He just returned to the little stand of trees. We did that a couple of times before I could get close enough to touch him. When I did get beside him, I slowly raised my hands, keeping them close to my body. I allowed him to touch my shoulder and hands with his nose without attempting to catch him. I wanted him to see that he could do that without consequence. About that time, one of his companion horses from the other field approached from the other side of the fence. The other horse casually reached across the wire and started scratching Tex’s withers. Apparently, having two friends at once was a little more than Tex wanted to deal with. He walked off. I gently shooed the other horse away, then, circled around and got Tex back into position. This time, once he let me touch him, I gently clipped the lead rope to his halter and we walked to the hitching rail. While I was grooming him, the boss told me that he had found out some more of Tex’s background, and that they had accidentally found his “hot button”.

It seems that, sometime in his past, Tex has been beaten. I had suspected as much. Tex performs so well under saddle, yet he is tense and “jumpy” while you’re on the ground. That would explain why he flinched at my touch early on. I have gained a bit of his trust since we started. He doesn’t flinch, and it doesn’t take as long to catch him as before. Another rider had found his “hot button”. Fortunately she was in the arena at the time. Tex had been ridden, with nothing unusual happening. Then, this rider just happened to touch his rump with her right boot as she was mounting. In the bosses’ words, Tex “came unglued”. He didn’t say whether or not the rider was thrown. But, thankfully, she wasn’t hurt.

With that knowledge, changed my approach. I needed a way to convince Tex to stand still if someone drags their foot over his rump, or pokes him with a foot while mounting. I didn’t see the incident, so I don’t know how much pressure on his rump it takes to set him off. I started with a slight amount and began working my way up.

After he was tacked up, I took off my hat and began rubbing him with it. I started at his shoulder and worked up to his head. Then I worked back to his rump, being careful to stay out of range of a cow kick. Tex was tense, as usual, but he stood still on a loose rein. Next, I went over him with my hands. I rubbed him, scratched him, and gently poked him with my fingertips. Again, he stood still, but tense. He did flinch when I poked him in the hollow of his hip. That gave me an idea of where his sensitive spot might be. We went into the arena and I climbed on board, being careful not to touch his rump. I put him through his paces, and then we stopped in the center.

I did the same thing from the saddle with my hat and hands as I had done from the ground. I had to remind myself to keep a relaxed seat. I wanted to be ready if he “came unglued”, but I didn’t want to communicate to him that I was worried. I use a rather small, light, synthetic western style saddle. The big “cowboy easy chairs” keep me too far away from the horse’s back. The small saddle makes it easier for me to read the horse’s movements. The opposite is also true. The horse can read my intentions through the saddle.

This is the best pic I have of my little saddle.  (This is not Tex.  I don't have any good shots of him yet.)
 But Tex stood still with the reins draped loosely over the saddle horn. And he didn’t flinch when I poked near his hip this time. Next, I slowly went halfway through the motions of dismounting. As I did, I drug my leg across his rump. I was standing in the left stirrup, in a vulnerable position. My plan was to kick out of the stirrup and get away from him if he started bucking. He didn’t. He stood there on a loose rein. Then I reversed the procedure. I slowly drug my leg across his rump as I swung back into the saddle. When I was younger, I would have just done it without thinking it through. Now, I make sure I have an “exit strategy”. In this case, I would kick out of the stirrup and get away if he acted too badly before my leg was halfway across. More than halfway, I would try to get a seat and ride it out. If I couldn’t get a seat, I would use the emergency dismount. Having a plan helped me stay relaxed and not communicate any nervousness to the horse.

I repeated the drill two or three more times with the same result. Tex stood still on a loose rein. Next I tried bumping my right knee into the hollow of his hip as I mounted. Still, there was no reaction from him. During all of this, I was careful not to poke him with my foot. I’ll save that for the next session. I ended this one with lots of praise and neck scratching. We’ll see how things progress next time.

Friday, June 14, 2013


The derecho (dry land hurricane) knocked out our power yesterday.   I'll post the usual weekend update as soon as it comes back up.   There's more coming about Tex, the Kentucky mountain horse!   I'm using the portable I-gizmo at the library right now.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Slow Dance (Tex pt. 3)

I can’t help but think that it must be boring to watch some of these training sessions. But down in the dirt, even though there’s little physical action, the interaction between horse and human seems intense.

I just spent about an hour with Tex. He is a smooth riding, and trail wise Kentucky mountain horse who is rather hard to catch. I didn’t ride, and we didn’t go anywhere, just around and around in the corral. My idea was not to catch him, but to get him to trust me enough not to bolt away from me. Tex and a companion horse were in the turn out pen behind the barn. The gate to the adjoining corral was open, so they could have access to hay and water. I wanted Tex alone, so I pushed him into the corral. He knew something was up, and tried to get back into the turnout pen, but I closed the gate on him. We started just like before. I just slowly worked my way toward him, zigzagging back and forth, and not going directly toward him. I call it “sneaking up on them sideways”. I describe the reasoning behind this technique here .  Just like before, he bolted when I was close enough to touch him. Again, I swung the lead rope to make him move around the fence line. I pushed him for several laps around. I didn’t push hard, just enough to keep him moving. After a while, I swung the rope forward of him and got him to stop. Then, we started the process over again. At first he was snorting and shifting his feet. I got close to him again, and he bolted a second time. So I pushed him around the corral again. We went through this process about four times. Each time I could stand closer to him and for a bit longer. His snorts lessened and became a hard blow from his nostrils. I kept my hands to my sides, but after the second round he began reaching his nose toward me. We weren’t close enough to touch yet. He’d just put his nose out, then blow when he took it back. On the third round, he wasn’t blowing so hard when he reached out his nose. Eventually, he touched me on the shoulder with his nose. I continued working my way closer to him. Whenever I was close to him, I whistled softly and spoke in a low conversational tone. I also began bringing my hands up about chest high. I kept them close to my body, not reaching out. The movement made him nervous, and he took a few steps away. I turned my back on him and began walking away. Instead of making a run for it, Tex followed me. I went to the hayrack and held a handful out toward him. He tentatively took a few stalks from me and quickly got his head out of my reach. I tried working my way back to him, but he moved off again.

Round four took a long time. After pushing him around the corral, I began working my way towards him again. Tex had decided that he didn’t like me getting beside him. He maneuvered himself to where he could face me. Instead of stepping away from me sideways, like before, he stepped backwards. We danced back and forth like this for a while. I had been keeping his body parallel to the fence. This backwards movement just kept us moving along the fence line. I changed tactics. I backed up a couple of steps toward the center of the corral. Tex shifted to face me. He was now perpendicular to the fence. I worked toward him again, and step by step, he moved back until his rump was at the fence. I had made sure we were on a straight stretch of fence and not in a corner. I did not want him to feel hemmed in. I worked my way closer, this time staying in front of him to keep his rump to the fence. I don’t like standing directly in front of a horse. Tex had never offered to hurt me, but I was making him do something he didn’t want to. We stayed on the straight section of the fence so he had plenty of room to move away to either side if he wanted. I also had the lead rope I could swing at him if he panicked and charged at me. I stood at sort of an angle, not facing him directly, and sidled to within arms reach. I moved my hands about waist high and wiggled my fingers to attract his curiosity. Tex reached out with his nose and touched my shoulder again. His breathing was normal, no more snorting or hard blowing. I inched closer and held out my hand to him, palm down. He reached out his nose and touched it. I brought my hand back to my waist, and moved closer. I was so close that he couldn’t move his head without touching me or lifting it over my shoulder. He did that a couple of times. I was worried. If he got antsy and shook his head, he could give me a really big thump. I slowly raised my hands to chest level, keeping them close to my body. Tex reached out and touched my hand. He stayed there and let me stroke his nose with the back of my hand. I praised him softly, and slowly moved my hand to his neck. He let me scratch him under his mane. I stroked his neck down to his chest and moved my hand to his withers. I stayed there a good while, scratching his withers and speaking softly. Only a couple of days earlier, this horse was flinching at my touch, so I was pretty happy at this. Next, I moved my hand up his neck to his head. Before, if my hand got anywhere near his head or his halter, he took off. I scratched behind his ears, and around his face. I made sure I touched and moved his halter several times, but made no attempt to hold it. Tex, calmly stood there and took it all in.

I wanted to finish up with this success, so I turned around and started walking away. I was pleased that Tex followed along with me. Just for fun, I meandered around to see if he would stay with me. He did! We wandered over to the gate so I could open it back up. I was a bit worried that he would bolt through before I got it fully open, but he stayed with me as I swung it fully open and tied it in place. We walked into the turnout pen, and stopped. We stood there a while before he took a tentative step away. I stepped away from him, and he calmly walked back to his companion.

It was a long, slow dance, and likely not much to look at from the sidelines. But, it was a huge improvement from the last couple of sessions.