Monday, August 16, 2010

Welcome Cassandra

Cassandra was delivered about a month ago.  She's a foster for Bluebonnet Equine Humane SocietyShe's an approximately eight year old, Thoroughbred mare.  She came to the rescue from a bad neglect case over a year ago.  There were 58 horses, and she was out with a bunch of mares on pasture with no food.  She was very thin, and she was very pushy.  When it came time to load her, she did not want to go in the trailer and kept rearing.  Finally, volunteers used panels to create a make-shift squeeze shoot and get her in.  

A few weeks later, it was time for her to move to her first foster home, but she refused to get in the trailer.  She would rear and flip up whenever anyone tried, and it took hours to get her loaded.  At her foster home, she was no better.  Anytime she didn't want to do anything, she went up in the air.  She didn't like going forward, getting vaccinations, leaving her friends, leading, standing tied, or just about anything else anyone asked her to do.

Once she had gained weight and was healthy, she could really throw her weight around and it was time for her to go to a trainer.  She spent three months with him, and the majority of the time was spent working on her ground manners.

After training, she had a few months with a foster home and then moved here.  She needed consistent handling and some riding time, and so that's what I was prepared to give her.  I don't like rearing horses, though.  It is the one thing that really scares me and I wasn't sure how I would like having Cassandra around.

After meeting Cassie, though, I've really come to like her.  She hasn't reared once while here, and I think the trainer who spent three months with her did a fantastic job.  She now leads, loads and stands tied.  She knows how to longe and carry a saddle and bridle.  She'll work on a longe line in side reins.  

She was only ridden a handful of times, so she's very green.  She wants to please, though, and tries to figure out what you want.  The first time I rode her, she did not steer well at all nor stop well, but she listened to me and tried to give me what she thought I wanted, and that was a huge step in the right direction.

I think Cassie's earlier behavior issues mainly stem from a lack of trust in people.  It was clear she hadn't been handled much at all, and I would bet that the handling she got wasn't consistent.  And she probably got mixed cues from her handler, which left her confused.  She likely figured out that she could rear and be left alone.

Now she's learned some important lessons.  She's learned to move into pressure rather than rear.  That makes leading, loading and tying so much easier.  Sometimes she's a little balky when leading, and she can crowd you.  However, we're working on those issues.

She's also learned that we humans aren't going to put her in a bad place.  When we ask her to do something, we give good direction and praise her for her effort.  This mare likes people and likes to please, and she respond well to praise. 

She's going to make someone a nice horse. She's a really strong, well-built mare - she could be an excellent hunter, jumper, eventer or fox-hunter.  I'm going to keep working with her and posting her updates. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sabine Moves On - and Cassandra moves in!

Sabine's been with me since February of this year, and she's come so far.  I can now walk up to her, pet her, halter her and doing anything (aside from riding her) that I do with my own horses.  I'm really proud of her progress.  Now it is time for her to move on.  She's going to become the foster horse for a new member of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society.   She's now safe to handle and can continue to work on her ground manners until she finds an adopter willing to train her.

She's going to leave either Thursday or Friday morning.  And I have to admit I'm sad to see her go. I know her new foster home will enjoy  her, and I'm proud of what we've accomplished.  I like Sabine, though, and so it'll be a bitter-sweet morning when she leaves.

But when she leaves, a new one will arrive to take her place.  Cassandra is an approx. 8 year old, huge Thoroughbred mare.  She's going to look like a giant next to my little Arabs.  When she came to BEHS, she had the tendency to rear if you asked her to do anything she didn't like.  And she didn't like much!  She spent nearly three months at a trainer's place to get her over rearing.  He put a few rides on her, and she'll come here for more time under saddle.  I'll be posting updates as I work with her. 

For her first week, I plan to just brush up her ground manners:  work on leading, longing, carrying the saddle and bridle, etc.  If she does well with all that, we'll move back into the saddle after a week or so.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sabine Becomes A "Normal" Horse

Sabine came to BEHS not at all halter broke.  She wasn't scared of people, but she really had no use for them.  Since arriving at my place in February, she's learned to lead, be caught, be haltered, have her feet trimmed, stand for fly spray and baths and grooming, and wear a saddle and bridle.  Although I don't tie her hard and fast (I just wrap the rope around a pole), she hasn't set back or even pulled back in months.  Occasionally you can startle her - but she just jumps, moves away from you and quickly settles down.  No one would ever know she was once an unhandled and uneducated horse.  She really is a normal horse now!

She's also carrying a saddle and bridle.  The bit bothered her at first - she licked and chewed.  But now she wears it with no problems.  She's had a western saddle and english saddle on, and neither bother her.  She's got the basic idea of longing down, and she's doing well.

Tonight, I groomed her, picked up all four feet, fly sprayed her and saddled her - all like a normal horse.  She's even moving over when I put pressure on her side when she's standing at the tie rail.  We went out to the round pen and longed at a walk and trot - no problems.  She's not crazy about cantering on the longe, but we're working on it.

She did so well with everything that I added a new thing today:  I put my foot in the stirrup and hopped up and down.  She put her ears back, but otherwise she didn't even move. I did this on her left side and right side.  Then I got a bucket, stood up on it, and leaned over her back. I patted the saddle, wiggled it around and put a little weight on her back.  No response.

This mare is doing so well - it really is time for her to be adopted and get trained to ride. She's ready for someone who knows what they're doing to continue the work I started. I am SO proud of her!

Sabine meets the Saddle

Once Sabine had learned her other lessons (leading, picking up her feet, giving to pressure, being groomed, being fly sprayed, being hosed off), her next task was to learn about the saddle.

By this point, Sabine really knew my routine. I pulled out the saddle pad and started waiving it around.  She just stood there and looked at me.  I tossed it over her back, and she moved a little but quickly settled down.  She did so well with that lesson, that the next day I repeated it.  And when she stood quietly, I also added a saddle. I used a lightweight English saddle as I really just wanted to get her used to something on her back and to the feel of a girth. She did so well that I took her out for a longing lesson.

When I first tried to longe her (without the saddle), she had no idea what I wanted.  But she pretty quickly picked up on the idea of going in circles and stopping when asked.  The saddle didn't phase her one bit. I also added a bridle, and that made her think.  She chewed on the bit and it took a few sessions before she accepted it.  But she did accept it all.

Feet and Fly Spray

Sabine also needed to learn to lift her feet and have them held for the farrier, and she needed to learn to stand for the farrier.  She was "learning to learn" - that's a phenomena where animals (and humans) learn each task faster, because they've learned how learning works.  In Sabine's case, she was learning I wasn't going to hurt her.  And if she stood still and relaxed, I would stop bugging her more quickly.  Because she was learning more quickly, I worked on these two tasks in the same session.

For her feet, I decided to use a philosophy I had learned at a recent clinic.  That was that each thing you do with a horse should be "just the next thing".  That means that you prepare them with your previous lessons, and then each new lesson is just an extension of the previous ones.  It also means that you approach the new lesson with the idea that it is no big thing - you are just doing "the next thing".  And your confidence projects to your horse.

This worked well for teaching Sabine to pick up her feet.  I had already taught her to let me rub her anywhere.  So I started rubbing her neck, then rubbed her shoulder and then her leg.  When I got to her pastern, I learned into her a bit, and picked up her foot.  The second she took it off the ground, I let go.  I worked on both front feet until she was picking them up with minimal pressure.  This took a few sessions.  But once she got that and was consistently picking up her foot, I moved to the next lesson.  I then asked her to hold her foot up for five seconds.  In the beginning, she moved around and I just held onto her foot until she stood quietly.  Before long, she was holding each front up for 5 seconds. I then increased the length of time by 5 seconds each session until she was holding them up for 30+ seconds and standing still.

Once she knew how to hold up both front feet, I started picking them out and then running my hands all over them, mimicking a rasp, then slapping with them with my hand to mimic a shoe going on, etc.  When she was good with the front feet, I repeated the lessons with the back feet.

During the same training sessions with the feet, I worked on fly spray.  In the beginning, I used water in a bottle so I wouldn't waste fly spray.  I started by spraying it around her, not at her.  If she moved off, I stayed with her and kept spraying until she stood still and relaxed.  Once she did well with that, I started spraying her - starting at her front legs and shoulder.  Again, this took multiple sessions, but once she got it, I started using actual fly spray.

And throughout all these sessions, I reminded Sabine of her lessons in giving to pressure. I asked her to back, lower her head (in response to poll pressure), and flex to the left or right.

I taught her to stand for being hosed off in the same way - hosing slowly, stopping when she relaxed, and keeping with her when she moved around.  She accomplished that lesson in just one day.

Sabine Meets the Rope

After Sabine was leading well and letting me rub and brush on her, I realized I needed to desensitize her to a rope moving around.  When I would go to catch her, she would jump and run off if the rope touched her.  This wasn't going to work.

So I started by having her in a halter and lead and I had another soft cotton rope in my hand.  At first, I twirled the rope in the air.  Again, if Sabine needed to move she could, but I kept her going in a circle around me. I only stopped twirling the rope when she stood still and relaxed.  Within one 10 minute session, I could walk all around her twirling the rope. 

Next, I rubbed her with the rope.  She took that well - it wasn't much different than my hand, the curry or brush.  But she did not like it when I started tossing the rope at her.  Again, if she moved, I stayed with her.  It took several sessions before she would stand quietly while I threw the rope over her neck, back and rump (her rump took the longest).

Sabine's next lessons

Once Sabine was leading well, she had a lot of other lessons to learn.  To be a productive part of society, she needed to learn to stand tied, be fly sprayed, have her feet handled and eventually even be ridden.  But we had to take things one at a time.

Before she could learn any of those things, Sabine needed to learn to be touched.  I started by rubbing her neck - the only place she would let me touch her.  If she needed to move or walk away, I let her but stayed with her, continuing to rub.  If she stopped moving and relaxed, I stopped rubbing her and moved out of her space for a minute.  Then I would go back to rubbing her.  Once she was good about one spot and would stand still and let me rub it, I moved further down her body.  The same rules applied - if she moved, I kept with her and when she relaxed, I stopped.

It took many, many sessions that lasted maybe 10 minutes spread over several weeks until I could rub her anywhere - her face,  her neck, sides, belly, and even her legs.  Once she was standing still and letting me rub anywhere, I repeated the process with a rubber curry comb and then with a stiff brush.  Each item went a little quicker, but it still took multiple sessions.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Meet Sabine

I'm currently fostering Sabine for Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society and she's going to be the case study for The Equine Behaviorist as long as she's with me.

Sabine is an interesting case.  She came to Bluebonnet in August of 2009 along with five other mares.  The rescue received a call from the local sheriff's department saying they had six abandoned horses they needed homes for.  According to witnesses, someone backed a truck and trailer to the end of a dirt road, opened their trailer door, and let the horses out.  Then they took off.  Someone who lived on the road ran the horses into her pasture, but she couldn't keep them nor care for them.  When a volunteer went out to see them, some of the horses were in good shape and some were underweight.  Several of them approached the volunteer and acted friendly.  When she went back with a truck and trailer, she discovered that while she could halter some of the mares, none of them led well.  One of them could not be caught and was very skittish.  But surprisingly all but the skittish mare jumped right into the trailer when she opened the door (and she was able to eventually catch and load the skittish mare).

She got them home and began getting them halter broke.  Sabine then went to another foster home who did not handle her at all for three months, and she got here in February of 2010.  When she arrived, she was barely halter broke.  She crowded into your space, jumped at anything that moved and would not back in a halter and lead rope at all.  My first job was to get her leading and then to get her to respect my space.  Horses can't lead well if they can't give to pressure.  So the first day she was here, I started that lesson.  To teach her to give to pressure, I put her in a rope halter and led her out of her stall to an open and fairly flat area.  I stood by her withers (next to her body, putting me out of kicking range for the most part) and picked up the lead rope.  At first, I put the smallest amount of pressure and when she tipped her nose in at all and her feet weren't moving, she got a release.  She could move in circles, back up, go forward, etc. and I just stayed calm until she gave in.  Once she was doing this reliably to either side, I began to ask for her to tip her nose further and further. Now Sabine will turn her nose almost to her side to very light pressure, but this took many lessons before she was reliably giving to pressure.

Her next task was to learn to give to pressure on her poll.  I did this by putting one hand on her poll and one on the bridge of her nose.  I put gentle pressure on both and even wiggled her head from side to side.  If she dropped her nose at all, she got release and praise.  Over time, I asked for her to drop her head further and further.  Now, she drops her head in response to very light pressure on her poll.

She also had to learn to back up. To do that, I stood to her side and squeezed the rope halter right above the knot under her chin.  At first, I had to use quite a bit of pressure before she would back - and in the beginning I released pressure if she even leaned her body back.  I believe in rewarding tiny tries in the beginning - so the horse understands you are asking for something and that you will let up pressure when they respond.  After a few times, I then ask for more movements.  Now, Sabine will lower her head and back up with just a small amount of pressure on the lead rope.

None of these lessons were learned in the first day. I just began asking for the smallest of tries in the first day, and I built on those responses over the next days to come.  I worked with her maybe 5-10 minutes at a time, once or twice a day.  Generally we had one of those short training sessions when I was leading her out to pasture or back into her stall. 

I do not like horses who crowd, and when I'm leading a horse I like their feet to stop moving when mine do.  Backing a horse out of your space can help teach them to be more respectful, so once she learned to back to fairly light pressure, if she crowded me, ran past me, didn't stop when I asked, or didn't stop when my feet stopped, I backed her up.  Backing up is hard work, and now she leads quite well.  She doesn't crowd, she normally stops moving when I do (occasionally she needs a refresher course!).  Just with those skills, she's a much nicer horse to be around.

But we've got more to cover.  So keep reading, and I'll keep posting updates.