Thursday, November 13, 2008

It's finally coming together, I think!

I think yall have realized that I am not, in fact, a great horse whisperer. But I'm not totally hopeless either, and I'm pretty good about eventually synthesizing everything I learn into a workable whole.

I felt very calm today, so I went to ride Dixie. In general I don't try to do anything with her unless I'm calm, because she's so jump-out-of-her-skin spooky. I'm trying to teach her that humans aren't always trying to scare her. She "performs" just fine freaked out of her mind, but that's not what I want from her. I want an unscared yet lively horse, and I think maybe I'm getting there with her.

Training any mammal is fundamentally the same. (I have never tried to get a reptile or invert to do anything for me, but I have an internet friend who says she's clicker-trained her turtles to do basic tricks. I don't doubt it... but I have no firsthand knowledge either!) You need to learn to "speak" the animal's body language, and you need to break down what you're trying to accomplish, and you need to reward by release of pressure when the animal tries. Right?

I understand horse body language pretty well. So I broke down what I wanted, rewarded the try, and kept at it over and over til I'd gotten on and off of Quiet Calm Dixie five times. GO US!

I got Dixie and her tack in the round pen and let her eat her handful of sweet feed in peace. I got her saddled and bridled, then thought about lunging her first. She didn't really "need" it though - she moved her butt away from the swinging rope but kept her face turned toward me, watching me, very alert. So we skipped the "hey you better pay attention to me cause I can make you move your feet!" part and moved right along.

I started with just expecting Dixie to stand quietly while I stood by the stirrup. She circled nervously for a very long time - several minutes straight - before she paused for just a second and I said "Good" and immediately moved away. The second time also took a while, but after that, she was cool to let me stand by the stirrup for longer and longer periods.

Then I moved on to picking up the reins and putting my other hand on her butt. We did a lot of reps of that, rewarding the quiet moments by taking the pressure off. I took a break and watched Cersei dig up another of those fiendish tree branches. Dixie stood very quietly watching me watch Cersei - she didn't wander off or start nibbling the grass in the round pen.

Next I tried standing at the stirrup, hands on, with a knee thumping the stirrup. She did not approve, at all, and it took quite a while for her to chill out about that. I gave her another little break, then tried sticking a toe in the stirrup. Once I got her relaxed about that (DO NOT poke the horse in the ribs with your boot, Funder!) I was able to get on an alert but calm horse.

I started off just barely sitting in the saddle, not even steering, just letting her walk off some of that residual nervousness. When she'd stop I'd rub her neck and wait for that big SIIIIGH-head drop, then I'd get off. Every time I got back on I'd give her a little more pressure - actually using my thighs to hold on, then a tiny bit of rein contact, then a bit of leg to steer. Before I got on the third time, I opened the round pen and we did our last three rides around the field.

I am very happy with her!

After I untacked her, I hung out and watched Cersei play for another 30 minutes or so. Dixie followed me around and let me touch her all over. That makes me feel like I'm doing the right thing, however slowly I'm going about it. Yeah, yeah, she was hoping for more food, but in the past she's begged yet refused to let me touch her flanks!


  1. Sounds great, Funder. Raven learns very well with the same approaches, but she was better than Dixie from the get-go. Biggest problem with Raven is that she's a wench who got her own way for too long, not that she is particularly mistrustful or fearful of people. And where are your pictures of this successful day?

  2. You know, I almost went for the camera a couple of times, but I didn't want to break up the flow of things.

    She is FILTHY from rolling in the mud, but she looked absolutely beautiful to me. Standing untied, totally calmly, ears up, watching me :3

  3. Just dropping by to say hi and thanks for the comment on my blog! I am so glad Daun is introducing us to other awesome blogs. I look forward to reading more of yours. :)

  4. disclaimer: i'm not the biggest fan of a lot of natural horsemanship. but having said that, it sounds like you have a wonderfully sensible and sympathetic philosophy to your training. i'd probably be a bigger fan if everyone took your smart approach! i especially love your patience and your focus on calmness; it takes a special kind of person to work with the truly sensitive/spooky ones! i'm glad you had such a great day and wish you lots of future success :-)

    ps - i'd love to see turtle tricks, though i can't imagine what on earth they might be :-)

  5. jme - I'm not much of a NH fan either. Can we please skip the silly rope and stick nonsense and get to the riding and we'll sort it out from up there? But Dixie's been a huge challenge for me.

    I don't know if you've read her backstory (or for that matter, how much I've told here!) but she started out as a padded show horse.

    They're "trained" a lot like TBs. Starting at 18 months, zero ground work, just somebody holding the horse's head while the rider leaps up into a comfortable and natural chair seat. The rider cranks the horse's head back into "collection", spurs the horse to go forward as fast as possible along the rail, and either seesaws the reins or just whacks the horse if it breaks gait.

    That's why she's so spooked under saddle. And that's why I'm taking it so very slow to try to get her to calmly stand for me to calmly mount her. I don't have (and don't want!) someone to hold her head, and she's the tallest horse I own, and dear god it's a long scramble to get up.


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