Phil is back in training. To regain some lost conditioning from the past 2 weeks I have gone back to the round pen. Remember the round pen is not used to chase your horse around in circles to exercise him. I think up creative ways to move Phil’s feet right, left, back, forward, sideways. Phil was really tuned in to me and moved with just a suggestion from my finger. Now, that is communication. He did get a bit silly and wanted to canter when I was only asking for a trot, but he wasn’t doing anything disrespectful, so I stood submissive in the center of the pen and let him play. He only cantered 3 laps and circled right in to me; Phil was telling me he was ready to focus.
I walked around the pen and he happily hooked on/joined up. I set up a raised cavalletti for him to trot over. I also introduced Phil to a beach ball using approach and retreat method. The ball was left in our yard by the kids and I thought it would be neat to introduce the ball to Phil. When Phil nosed the ball and it rolled I thought that I may try clicker training to teach more tricks (read introducing new objects). Phil wasn’t really concerned with the ball, so I was able to toss it over his back and head, roll it under his belly, and roll it off his hindend. He was ground tied, so he did have the option to say “No thank you”. I am always looking at my surroundings and thinking “How can I incorporate this into a lesson?” Be creative!
Introducing a new object. When introducing a new object to your horse whether it is a ball, a garbage can, trash bag, a jump, or tarp you must ditch the human thinking and think like he does. Horses are prey animals, their predators ambush and attack from behind, so any new object should be displayed in front of him at a comfortable distance. If he is concerned about the object let him look at it and think the situation over. He may be surveying for the quickest escape route, so keep his attention with rhythmic tugs on the rope halter when he tips his nose away from you and be sure to immediately release for any effort to acknowledge you. If he feels like he needs to move his feet, give him a task such as backing. If he is snorting then he is really concerned or excited and he may need to burn off some freshness before you ask him to focus. If the object poses no threat to him, his curiosity will take over and he’ll inch closer to investigate. Remember, he will serpentine to the object, you should do the same.
Many times I have seen handlers either lead their horse directly to the object or bring the object to their horse; this is human thinking. Let your horse make his own decisions. You are there as his cheerleader. If your horse will not make any attempt to investigate you can pull the object away from him and let him follow (for example if you are riding and your friend is pulling the object away from your horse) or you can go up to the object as if you were a horse and bend down to smell the object. I always say “Monkey see, monkey do”. I sometimes have to teach the newly weaned foals how to eat pellets out of a dish. I bend down and pretend I’m investigating and eating the pellets. It doesn’t take long before the foal’s nose is in the dish checking out what I am doing. This technique works well if you aren’t worried about what you look like to the public.
Tail swatting and flatulence.
Yes, you read correctly. I don’t know about you, but I cannot stand to be swatted in the face by a horse’s tail when I am bent over picking out back feet or grooming a hindquarter. In my opinion, this is a very disrespectful behavior. Over the years I have witnessed handlers take the abuse from their horses in the form of pseudo fly kicking, violet tail whipping, leaning on the handler when picking feet or grooming. I’m sure everybody can relate to the feeling of a violet tail lashing across their sweaty face at one time or another.
When Phil first arrived he showed me all of his rude tricks. One of the best tricks was Phil’s accuracy to swat me in the face at the precise moment I was bending down to pick up a hoof. I also endured Phil’s flatulence when I was bent over in a vulnerable position. I could easily see a pile of poop dropped on my head like a B12 bomber releasing a bomb on the intended target as Phil’s encore. In a herd, it is not uncommon for a higher ranking member to poop on or in close proximity to a lower ranking member to show dominance. This is especially true with stallions when they mark their territory with stud piles. Each time Phil attempted to swat me I grabbed his tail and said “NO!” Sometimes I would hold his tail and lift a hind leg and say “NO!” (you have a 3 second window). By lifting his leg I was mentally taking away his ability to flee. Obviously, I couldn’t physically hold him. I released when he gave a submissive posture like flopping his ears to the side, softening his eye, lowering his head, blinking, or licking his lips. Here is my secret to this exercise. First, I did ground work for respect, second, I sprayed Phil with plenty of fly spray, and third, I never altered the game plan. My goal was to set him up for success, so no excuses to swat at flies. I reinforce this exercise every time I am working near or around his hindquarters. Today, Phil politely keeps his tail still until I move out of swatting range. I no longer am threatened by flatulence or B12 bombings. You may be laughing and that is OK. This was a behavior I chose to rehabilitate.