Nov 12, 2012

Little By Little

 So I wrote about how we taught B to stand, in the arena, first facing the barn but waiting; next facing somewhat away from the barn and waiting; and lastly facing totally away from the barn, and waiting. We would often would get off in the ring, stand there, do some in hand work, and then take a walk. Anything to break his response patterns. This was so hard for him. He would first shake his head, then stamp, then it would escalate in to a spin or two or a zipping backwards or what have you. We didn’t particularly punish, we just went back to Point A. And waited. He had to stay absolutely in place. He could not take one step out of where we put him. If he did, he was put back. It took a long time, but he got it. I liked the Myler combination bit for these months; it gave us some control if we needed it, but it was so mild when we didn’t. I think the loose ring aspect is good for horses who have been ridden badly, and the little bit of nose pressure if needed helps take away the defensiveness of a wrecked mouth. Bryan, like many OTTBs I have had, had a very low palate and sharp bars. I think the shape of the Myler, with its little protective roller thing in the middle, is much more comfortable for a mouth like that. Regular snaffles can really poke the soft palate; I never use them any more. 

We used the same approach to leading and the gates. On the ground I used a chain over his nose. He was so blank, I really felt that he needed to feel *something*, even if it was discomfort, at first. I would not do this with every horse, but with B, it seemed worth it and frankly the only way. I also *always* carried a stick when I worked with him, regardless, every single time.  I used it to mark his limit in front, to move him over in the haunch, to back him up, or to hit him in the cannons if he struck. I wrote before that B was never aggressive per se, but he would get so frustrated when his panic and drag you routines were disrupted that sometimes he would strike. I never ‘punished’ him. It was strike for strike, with a ‘no!’ or a ‘quit!’ and a smack on the cannon bone.

Our walks might look like this. Bryan, as we would leave the barn aisle, would start prancing and speeding up. My first response would be to immediately go to turn on the forehand in hand. Switch lead to left hand, carry left hand a little high so he isn’t just circling me; tap with stick on haunch or inside leg cannon bone since I was after the step under.  He had to *step under*, and cross step with his front end. Not just circling.  I would also stick my finger in the corner of his mouth so he would have to chew. This is good for lost horses on every level; physiologically, there is a relaxation response involved (Drs Clayton and Heuschmann have chronicled this and Richard Maxwell explains it well also) and as a strengthening exercise is it wonderfully effective. I just considered it spontaneous in hand work. We would go first to the left, and then to the right, and we would finish in the opposite direction in which we started, and then back up. Then we would go to the original direction and try again. If he became agitated or sped up or tried to step past me, we would repeat. I did not care how long it would take me or how dumb I might have looked or what any one at the barn thought about it. Well, I lie. I did feel self conscious and I did know that I was sometimes making a spectacle of myself. But I blushed and carried on.

All of this helped. It helped a lot. But I think that exterior things can only have so much value, and that while you have to work on the behaviour for sure,  you also have to dig, and keep digging, for the causes of the distress that is behind the behaviour. A frantic horse is a horse in pain. Just because you don’t see it, can’t find it, or don’ believe it, doesn’t mean its not there. It could be foot pain, ulcers, neck pain, a head ache, back pain, anything. So while we worked on B’s behaviour, we kept working on his body. 


  1. So much good stuff here and great advice.

    I'm also a fan of stick-the-finger-in-the-mouth, and sometimes use it to quicken the mind-mouth connection when I'm introducing flexions or re-teaching flexions with proper mobilization of the jaw.

    Oh, and I also sometimes make a spectacle of myself. I can look silly, I'm sure...until the horses I'm training make me look good. I bet the same's true for you!

    1. Katie, thank you! Yes, its crazy isnt it, how that finger in the corner of the mouth can make the whole body relax, the back lift, the jaw soften. I found out about it so long ago I cant even remember...what it reading the old Racinet books? Lots of people write and talk about it now, and more and more people are understanding the mouth and jaw in relationship to the mind and body (which are one and the same in essence) of the horse. I thinik Gerd Heuschmann, these days, is the one making things the most clear.
      The only thing that bothers me somoe times about looking goofy is that things can be misconstrued. I am sure that when Bryan struck out and I whacked him on the cannon bone, that some one could have recoiled and started the 'beating' whisper campaign.But as you say, the proof is in the horses >;-> B clearly changed and improved and became so reliable and wonderful and handsome over time. And I was in a barn where people trusted and knew me so I didnt have to worry about it. But there were times I felt pretty self conscious >;->