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.