I wanted to have some clear facts with which to proceed and so I sorted through my thoughts and came up with the following. I called them Percy's balloons because I was afraid that after staying awake thinking about this for an hour and a half, I'd forget it all as soon as I fell asleep again, the thoughts floating off like Winnie-the-Pooh to the honey tree. I used my phone in the dark, so as not to wake my roommate Sarah, and jotted down these thoughts:
- Knowing Percy's mother, she does not hit the end of a rope even when explosive. Neither does she run into you. Percy seems to be as body aware as she is but I am not yet sure he is as careful as she is.
- If allowed rope freedom, Percy has never gotten away or even tried to pull away from me. He is polite even when excited.
- If you try to restrain him, he will fight. He's been that way since he was a foal. A combination of my respect for his athletic abilities and respect for his nature has prevented me from trying to force him to accept restraint. Through clicker training, I have been able to train him to accept various kinds of restraint, from a halter to hoof trimming to a firm grip on his head to examine his teeth.
- Clicker work calms him, as it had done the previous day. Leaving him alone to settle down does not. When my husband had to repair the sheep barn roof last winter and was climbing up and down a ladder and walking around on the roof, Percy watched in horror. I left him, assuming he'd get over it, but when I returned hours later, he was still staring, giraffe like. Another time I had tied a tarp to the round pen on a windy day and his initial reaction was the same but we approached it together, one step at a time, only advancing when his head was below his withers and for a click and treat of each step. The closer we got, the calmer he became. He'd done lots with tarps previously but never when they were flapping and snapping in the wind. But all that work with the tarp was at liberty- I was not forcing him to approach, I was reinforcing when he did and he was free to leave at any time.
I had hoped that work like this would make him more trusting, exposing him to more things in life and he'd continue to stay with me in scary situations. But then there was the ostrich potential. So I had questions- should I do more tai chi wall work with him so it became a comforting thing rather than a forced control? Should I have "put him to work" to distract him from the chicken rather than facing it?
When Alex arrived the next morning, she found me cleaning Percy's stall. Now that she has her own barn and home base, she seemed to be like the rest of us, enjoying a morning mucking. She picked up a fork and cleaned Kizzy's stall while I shared Percy's balloons. At the end, she was even more convinced he needed hugging.
During the morning discussion, she explained an exercise she had developed at another clinic earlier in the season. This was for a mare who did not want her girth area approached (and she was quite adamant about keeping people away). She adapted the exercise with Percy thusly: we set up two lawn chairs as large cones. Alex stood on one side and I on the other side. We were probably about 20 feet apart- each 10 feet from the invisible line drawn between the chairs (with the mare, who was an event horse, the chairs had been jump standards and they built up a jump for her to go over each way). We each had a target stick. I think we began by having me "send" Percy to Alex who was holding out her target stick. He needed to investigate the chairs a bit first (not minding when he knocked one over) but then went and touched her target for a c/t. Alex then took firm hold of his halter, wrapped her left arm over his nose where the noseband of his halter went and gave him a squeeze. The moment he relaxed a tiny bit, she clicked and released. She repeated this process several times, turning him in a small half circle after a few so that he was headed back toward me and hugged him some more. Then using her left hand on his halter and right at his shoulder, she gently sent him back to me so I could do the same.
Over that session and another one the next day, we made progress from Percy's nose, to his head, his poll, his neck, his withers and finally his girth area. I feel conflicted writing this because I don't want it to sound as though we were physically restraining him while he fought to get away. There were times he resisted but we certainly couldn't hug a 1200 pound horse to us when he didn't want it.
Alex did state that we should take hold of his halter and not allow him to leave. This was about him learning that pressure was ok and it was also not optional. In his past, I had gone just to the point of contact with him, waited for a release from him and then released myself. This was about going to the point of contact and pulling him to us, c/ting when he relaxed to the contact. It wasn't a surrender, it was a relaxing. I could feel it when he relaxed into my arms and I could see the expression in his eyes soften when he relaxed to Alex's hugs.
Now, Alex being Alex, there were many other things going on at the same time below the surface. These weren't just random hugs. These were progressive flexions. She was precise in how we held his head and neck, where our arms, and then hips, were placed so that we supported correct body mechanics. He was not to wrap down and around but maintain a more correct alignment. She felt a kink in his neck when she got halfway down. I did not feel it but did feel him make a big step toward relaxation after she sent him back to me the next time. Once we got to his chest and wither, she showed me how she used her hip at his shoulder in a lifting position, rather than pulling down on his withers- it reminded me of the way a chiropractor uses their body to manipulate a patient. I need to review my anatomy.
Caroline asked if a chiropractor or massage therapist would be helpful in that kink. Alex was firm in saying that professionals can be very helpful but also that we can do a lot for our horses ourselves with the exercises we use. This rang true for me because a daily morning yoga ritual keeps me putting one foot in front of the other each day without pain and vertigo. We know our horses bodies- daily careful grooming ingrains the feel of their legs in our brains so that we sense the slightest heat or swelling- why not carry that over to the rest of the body? Grooming him at home yesterday, I changed the feel of my currying with the grooming mitt so that I was feeling muscles and looking for potential tight spots, rather than just massaging the skin.
I seem to have a very snuggly horse now. I have previously worked on getting him to relax and lower his head when I comb his forelock- yesterday he voluntarily buried his head in my chest and with a wing and prayer, I wrapped his head in my arms, squished his ears and hugged tight- he didn't move a muscle. When I was picking out his run-in, he came over and instead of begging to play games (backing away, pricking his ears, trying to steal the pitchfork), he just wrapped his neck around me in a hug.