Yesterday I groomed Percy and practiced with the bit. Today, we ventured Out. Our farm can be a scary place because of all the non-horse activity that goes on. While the horses become accustomed to things they see daily, the horse corner is at the back of the farm and the adventure begins when you leave that area. The barn, the run-in sheds, the paddocks and the round pen are all close together and are surrounded by pastures and fields in which they see the livestock and machinery. But to get to the larger arena, we have to travel around the livestock barn, through the barnyard (not visible from the horse barn) and out into the front field. This requires passing many a frightening sight.
First on the right is the sheep "race"...a cluster of blue panels that hold a group of sheep and funnel them into a chute where they can be vaccinated or even into a contraption that flips them so their feet can be trimmed. The horses almost like it better when there is activity going on here- when it's quiet they are suspicious! Then we proceed to where farm machinery is parked on the left and at the same time on the right is the livestock barn with some loose metal roofing that flaps noisily in the wind. If you make it past that, the real excitement begins: the barnyard. You just never know what you will find. Immediately on the right is the barn door, immediately on the left is the shop. The wild card in all this melee is my husband. He does not have 1st or 2nd gear. He gets out of bed in 3rd gear in the morning and shifts up from there. He is likely to pop out of one of these buildings at any moment- if you don't know him, you would assume by the way he comes out that the building is on fire. Add to that, he doesn't believe in going anywhere empty handed, so he may be preceded by a huge roll of black plastic pipe. Or one of our favorites- he carries 50 gallon black water tanks on his head, thereby becoming a large water tank with legs (always a favorite with the horses). There may be a livestock trailer with various forms of livestock parked there as well, vocalizing loudly or banging the sides.
So you get the idea that venturing out with the babies is, well, an adventure. So recently I have tried to come up with a plan that uses more tools than just head down to keep things calm and under control. First, I took one of the larger mats and put it in the drive right next to the sheep race. Beyond that, I put the large orange traffic cone in the middle of the drive at the top of the rise going down to where the machinery is parked. Mother Nature provided some deep luscious grass right next to the truck and livestock trailer (empty today). Back closer to the barn, I put the mounting block.
Percy walks happily to the paddock gate with me but then begins to LOOK. He has been out here before, has practiced getting on the trailer out here, but his body language said, "you just never know....". I like to them to look around but also like them to remember that I am on the other end of the rope. I pulled up my lesson with Ande and Alex of "hyper-clicking" to keep their attention. I clicked for every tentative step forward. Every one. After a few steps we'd practice head down. He was very good about leaving his nose in the dirt until I clicked.
Next Alex lesson that I pulled up was rewarding them for difficult behavior with something they like and so I had planted the mat right there for him to go to. The mat is a secure and safe place, so he marched right onto it and stood like a statue (well, a statue that wiggled from flies). If he had not been so fond of the mat, I would have been risking "poisoning" the mat by putting it in a scary place. But I felt I had enough good experiences under his belt that it would work the other way, and the mat would calm him in a scary place. After being clicked several times for standing, I asked him to put his head to the ground while still on the mat- more calming behaviors. Then we walked off again.
I did this last week as well and last week, I turned around and we went back to safer zones after our first trip to the mat. But today, I thought he was staying cool so we continued on. Clicks for stepping bravely forward with me, stopping now and then to put the nose in the dirt. And that brought us to the cone! So he got to touch the cone a bunch of times for clicks and treats- another thing he loves to do and is rewarding for him. Here too, last week, I had let him turn around and go back to the mat after this but today we continued on down the little hill toward the stock trailer and the grass. Once we got to the grass, I let him put his head down and graze- a calming and rewarding behavior all by itself.
Here, the Jack Russells made it interesting. I forgot to mention that there is a stack of giant straw bales behind the shop, covered with black plastic. It can be scary in the wind but today was still. Straw stacks mean mice and rats, however. And Jack Russells love to hunt mice and rats. So under the black plastic they went. I stood with Percy for about 15 minutes while he grazed and the Russells rustled and popped out of the plastic here and there, and then were quiet and then sneezed, and then got in a fierce argument....it was not dull. Percy spooked several times and once did a very good imitation of his mummy. I'm not sure how they do it but at one second they are next to you and the next second they are 10 feet away. They don't hit the end of the line. They just kind of levitate to the side. I couldn't blame him. The darn dogs were startling. But it was good for him to go back to grazing each time and get less and less concerned with the rustling.
Finally the dogs scared all the vermin deep into the pile and came out, panting happily and I decided we'd all head back to the barn before my husband came home and started anything new..... Oh, but when we got back to the paddock, we did a quick mounting block lesson. Alexandra Kurland has a whole session on teaching a horse to stand for mounting and that is another piece of preparing Percy to be ridden. As well as self bridling- clicker trained horses bring themselves to the mounting block to be ridden. So I climbed up on the block and worked a bit with Percy positioning himself just exactly where I wanted him. I patted and rubbed all over his back and reached over and patted his far side for several clicks and treats. Last week I actually jumped up on him- just lay over him like a sack a couple times. He was very, very good and I was very, very happy.