Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Construction Zone

One of my favorite things about Clicker Training and teaching Alexandra Kurland's foundation lessons is the ability to talk a horse away from the edge. I distinctly remember the first time I realized I had that capability and the relief that flooded through me as I approached a hysterical yearling, knowing that I didn't have to be bigger and more hysterical than he was in order to get through to him.

This morning I had reason to be grateful again (and there have been many instances in between!). I have recently changed the horses' schedule so that the young ones are out in their dirt paddock all night, go out on grass for several hours early in the morning, and then spend the hot, buggy part of the day in their stalls. The past couple days have been rainy and when I've gone out in the morning, three little faces look out at me from the run-in, willing to go out in the rain to eat grass, but not overexcited. This morning, however, was a bright morning with sun streaming through the lifting fog- and a brisk 40 degrees. They knew the new routine and were very excited about going out to a grassy paddock. I usually take Ande out first, since the grass keeps him content while he waits for the younger ones, and then I take Percy and Rumer out together so neither of them gets left alone.

Today we had the added interest of having to go through a bit of a construction zone to get to their grass paddock. I have one of those fabric covered hoop buildings as a run-in shed which proved to not be as wonderful as I thought. It held up well to the winds and snows, but not to equine inhabitants. Thankfully, I didn't need it last winter and my dear husband is now trying to shore it up for a new horse arriving next week. So the large plastic covering is off and lying to one side. Because that paddock hasn't been used all spring, the grass is waist deep and you don't see the plastic until you get fairly close. To get to the next paddock, you have to go between the plastic and the skeleton of the shed...a narrow path just barely wide enough for two horses and a person. Inside the shed, eight deep holes have been dug for support posts for walls and the support posts not yet in concrete emerge at crazy angles. Yellow shovels, blue handled rakes, a wheelbarrow, white buckets and jugs all hide in the grass surrounding the skeleton shed. In addition, that paddock has a spring which keeps one area we walk through quite damp. With the recent rains and the tractor going up with supplies, there are deep tractor tracks full of water to cross. The area is perfect setup for conditioning young horses to surprising things!

Ande navigated this maze admirably. His neck was arched as he peered through the grass and blew at all the new things that appeared but he picked his way carefully and politely. I held out
my fist to target a couple times just to keep him focused on me but that was all it took. When I returned to the barn for the other two, they were in high spirits. They love to get each other going and they were racing around their dirt paddock having a grand time. Rumer was doing her Fritz imitation (of Fritz and the Beautiful Horses, by Jan Brett), galloping her little pony gallop and kicking up her heels with glee. Percy varied between his mummy's TB gallop (which he could only do about two strides of before running out of room) and his father's impressive warmblood trot. But he's still growing and when he came screeching up to halt in front of me, his head was way up in the air and his eyes and nostrils were wide open.

So, time for a little calm down cue! Rumer was dancing around me and Percy was tense as stone. I had their halters but before even putting them on, I needed Rumer to stand still and Percy to bring his head down to where I could reach it. I placed my hand on Rumer's poll and she backed away. I stayed with her and the little pony light bulb went off as she dropped her head a couple inches. Click! That click snapped Percy out of his racehorse reverie and he dropped his head to say "me too! I can play, I can play". I took turns between the two of them as they have experience being worked together. One at a time, the heads went down lower and lower until both noses were in the dirt and they would leave them there for a few seconds.

At that point I held out the halters and had them each put their noses in them- this was a
volunteer task. I wasn't about to wrestle anybody into a halter and blow the cooperative attitudes. Percy still has enough colt in him that anything touching the crest of his neck can be an invitation to play fight and even the halter on his poll brings his energy level back up. He tries SO hard to put his head down in these situations but it's as if there is a bungee cord pulling his head up that he has to strain against when he puts it down. The slightest wobble and the head shoots back up again. Keeping myself as quiet as I could, I reached up to just rest my fingertips on his poll, and he'd struggle to lower it a bit for a CT. Thankfully, Rumer had recovered her pony self by this time and was perfectly calm but wanted to be played with also so I had to keep her busy behind me as Percy and I worked through his gene pool of anxiety. I had to keep an eye on her for the "no unrequested forward" as she'd creep up to get my attention and I would have to calmly back her away and be consistent about it. Two at once is not easy but we all had lots of experience with it. The thing was, we were all getting calmer as time went by, as opposed to more wound up which frequently happens when making horses wait for something they want.

Once Percy could put his nose to the dirt again with his halter on, I decided we were ready for the construction zone. Before we reached the exciting part, I clicked once when they were both at my side and walking calmly. ("Games still on guys- don't forget I'm here") Both ponies had their eyes on all the equipment ahead when the tractor rut puddles appeared at their feet. There were clicks for putting their heads down to look at the water, and then clicks for steps toward it. This eliminated the desire to back away or leap over it. Instead, they were reinforced for putting their feet in it a little at a time. In a matter of seconds, we were over that hurdle. They know they get reinforced for approaching scary things so they didn't hesitate to march up to the thick of things. Percy's neck was arched like a swan as he looked at all the new things while Rumer just kept her head up high and tight. Before entering the narrow way between plastic and skeleton-shed-full-of-holes, I stopped for some more head down practice. I was between these two and did not want to get squished as the one on the right jumped left and the one on the left jumped right. I gave them plenty of time to look and plenty of reinforcement for heads down and calm. Then we tiptoed forward. Because they were calm, they did not scoot through, but walked with polite manners, if not total relaxation. Once through there, it was only another 15 feet to the gate where I could let them loose to graze in belly deep grass- the biggest reinforcer of all!

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