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.