Last week, I wrote about the new horse’s lovely manners. Specifically, I stated:
Yesterday and today (I can’t guarantee tomorrow, but I have a good feeling about it), the new horse demonstrated lovely manners.
Let’s talk about the tomorrow part. That was the part that hadn’t arrived yet at the time I wrote my blog post.
I did have a good feeling about tomorrow, which is now several yesterdays ago. Good feelings are good to have, of course, but they don’t determine the outcome of anything. Nor do negative feelings, all New Age beliefs aside. Things happen. We don’t control them. We can influence them, but we are only one, small influence in a greater cosmos full of other influences, large and small. If that were not the case, who’s to say that Bob in Wichita, if he’s really concentrating on a certain outcome, isn’t the one determining your tomorrow?
All that aside, the new horse had a small relapse (actually, he had two sequential relapses) in the lovely manners department.
My Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend hadn’t yet had his rotator cuff surgery, so he was helping me. We discussed the plan in a few words, as we do when we’re training. I would take the new horse and he would take my retired Thoroughbred. Even though they were late going out, it would be straight out to the paddock, no grass.
Why is this all such a big deal? It wouldn’t be, but for the fact that it’s important to me that horses be well-trained on the ground, and the new horse needs some remedial work. There was a handler at his last barn who was a softy for a big, handsome horse, and let the Big Handsome graze on his way in and out to the paddock. I couldn’t persuade the handler to do otherwise, nor could the barn owner, and he was unapologetic for his insubordination. That’s what love will do for you.
And that’s why hand-grazing (or as we refer to it here on the farm, in code, “HG”) is such a big issue for this horse. Perhaps we shouldn’t have picked that day to ask for the new horse’s best, but if you never ask, you’ll never get it.
It was no surprise that the new horse dove for grass. I expected it, and corrected him when he did it. I’m still clicker training so every time he does something right, he gets rewarded. And then he balked at the gate. I waited. He backed up. I went with him. It continued. It escalated. So I let him back up and simply redirected his body so he was backing up right through the gate into the paddock. He looked surprised to find himself inside, but as Colonel Carde says, we must be more intelligent than the horses.
We had another challenging day after that, but today, he was better behaved than ever. He put his head down willingly to be haltered and unhaltered. He backed away from the gate and stood there while I took the other horse out. He calmed down when I asked him to, after my Thoroughbred had a bug-related breakdown that was contagious.
He’s looking to me now as his leader, resting his head against me when things become difficult. He’s finding out that he’s happier and life is more pleasant when he has lovely manners. Under saddle, there’s no resistance. He’s a sponge. But on the ground it’s a different story. They’re both places to work, and it’s not unusual to find a horse far superior in one area than another.
I never expect a straight upward trajectory in training. It’s impossible for people and impossible for horses. But the trend is positive and the achievements greater with each passing week. Tonight he came in without giving the grass a second look. We’ll put the days together, and the tiny triumphs of today will be replaced by new triumphs and the relapses of yesterday soon forgotten.
I’m curious your thoughts on personal space and groundwork with horses. Specifically, my allowing my horse in my personal space more than any other horse I’ve had.
My horse is a very sensitive, very hot OTTB who I’ve mentioned in other comments. He is also fairly insecure and never had “his person” before I bought him. I spent quite a bit of time when I bought him teaching him that it was ok to let me pet him, talk to him, scratch behind his ears, etc. Now he loves it! He’s 16.3 and I’m 5’1, and he has learned to walk on the lead with his head low so his poll is around my shoulder height.
He has also learned to always walk with his head to the side and slightly in front of my shoulder where he can still see me well but I can control shoulder as well as head. In fact, when he was boarded there was a huge fire across the street from us when he was in the closest turnout and he was absolutely terrified – dancing sideways, huge eyes, head up so he could see – but he kept his head positioned exactly where he should with no pulling on me even as his back end fishtailed so he could look at the flames shooting up across the street and various emergency personnel.
However, I now allow him to cuddle. When I go into his stall, or don’t have him tied, he puts his nose around my knee and comes close to me. Not quite touching, but about there, waiting for me to pet him, put an arm around his neck, whatever. He closes his eyes and once I initiate the contact gently pushes into me. To me, he’s still being respectful – he is not allowed to push me and knows this, and basically “asks” for the contact. The fact that this horse who is always alert and looking out for danger closes his eyes and even voluntarily puts himself so his eyes are covered is a positive. Some people, though, think I’m a fool and this is bad behavior to allow. Given he still walks properly, doesn’t shove into me, and respects my authority I tend to disagree. I’m curious your thoughts on the matter. And yes, he has heard a loud crash at a neighbor’s or something and spooked while in that position- and very clearly moved away from me as he spooked, again respecting my space and that I look like a tiny ant next to him.
You’ve done a wonderful job training your horse on the ground. It doesn’t get much better than this. You’ve taught your horse to have confidence, to turn to you without being on top of you, to be alert, to handle scary situations without panicking, and to be able to give and receive affection appropriately. Clearly, your horse is respectful but he’s also polite — and these are two distinctly different attributes.
As you may know from reading other posts, I’m exactly your height and deal with large and athletic horses all the time. Smaller horsemen have different challenges than the Heather Blitzs and Buck Brannamans of the world. We can’t reach as high, so we have to teach our horses to be polite enough to help us out with their bodies, so we can better care for them and work with them.
This is a great topic. As usual, I have many thoughts on the topic of personal space and could go on and on. Which is exactly what I intend to do, in a blog post.
I think relapses are par for the course. Horses know that most humans are inconsistent so they’ll test you to see if yesterday’s rules still apply today. They are also creatures of habit and really, really want to stick to those habits.
Net- your horse sounds wonderful and if horses can love humans it sounds like yours loves you.
That’s such a wonderful (and often overlooked) explanation of the context in which horses test — our continuous inconsistencies.
They test you all the time. Not to be spiteful, but I guess they test each other all the time as well. Keep up all the good work!