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.

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