Day 5 – Phil’s Courage’s Journal – Round Pen

Phil gave me the middle finger this morning! Yes, you read this correctly.

The breakfast routine was followed. Phil lined up behind me (this was good) and waited for me to rub his head (this was better). As I turned back towards the food dish Phil trotted ahead of me (this was bad). I expect Phil to follow behind me to the dish. I drove Phil off around the round pen with a loud squeal and kicked dirt at him. He kicked at me while I drove him off. Essentially, in horse language, he gave me the middle finger. I kept his feet moving, changing directions, squealing and kicking dirt at him until I noticed a little change in his posture. He softened his eye. I asked him to stand and face me while I circled his food dish. Every time he made a move towards the food I drove him off with a squeal and a kick of dirt. I was imitating an Alpha mare claiming her food and space. A mare when she means business will flatten her ears, lower her head, and if this warning is ignored, she will squeal, lunge, and bite. Phil stood like a gentleman while I claimed my space. I also put my hands in his food and rubbed his dish to leave my scent.

It is important to really know the difference between a kick that is from built up energy, a playful kick, or a kick that is meant to send you a disrespectful message. Any kicking near humans should not be tolerated. The intent of the kick needs to be dealt with correctly. It is unfair to a horse that has lots of play energy to be corrected when he is released into the pasture and takes off kicking.  This kick is not meant to be disrespectful. Releasing your horse properly into the pasture will be addressed when Phil meets his new herd.

I want to remind everyone that Phil is acting just like a weanling. This is his education level even though physically he will turn 7 years old next month. You will notice that once Phil believes I am the Alpha he will not question my requests and the training will progress faster. I cannot let him down at any time. I have to make sure he is always set up for success. This means I make it difficult to do the wrong thing, and easy for him to choose the correct option. You will see some regression at some points, this is to be expected. 

11:00am: As I was returning from a trail ride I heard Phil desperately calling to the mares. I bet the mares went down the hill to graze for the morning and Phil could not see them. Sure enough the mares were out of his sight. It was interesting to see that the other horses in a near by pasture were still in Phil’s sight, but he has identified himself with one particular herd. My heart wants to put him with a herd, but my brain says this is a very bad idea. Even though I hate to see Phil upset I know he is learning that the mares will disappear out of sight, but will always come back. A big part of Phil’s agitation is that he needs exercise. This was a perfect opportunity to introduce Phil to the training round pen. Now, I know he is full of energy so I’m not going to think for one minute he is going to lead politely. I am going to set us up for success. I put the rope halter on using proper halter techniques. Phil is getting better with the head down cue. I sent him out to the end of the lead and asked him to move his feet forwards, backwards, up, down, right, left. He was trying to avoid my pressure and was trotting through his hay, on top of his feed dish, whatever was in his path. I stayed in position right behind his girth and kept him moving. As long as I was going forward I was in charge. I will say I have seen many people ground driving and if an obstacle gets in the horse’s path the person stops and tries to navigate the horse out of the path of the obstacle. This is incorrect. As long as the obstacle is safe for your horse and safe for you, keep moving. When you stop, you reward. Phil was not going to hurt himself on the rubber dish or the hay. He did bunny jump (with good scope) the dish which was new to me since my QHs usually just stomp on it.

Intro to training round pen:

 The walk to the round pen was actually enjoyable. Phil was polite (look for proper leading in upcoming journal entries). I took the halter off and released Phil in the 60ft pen. Since he is familiar with ground driving, I extended my arm and pointed in the direction I wanted him to travel. This is a big visual and a way to project my energy. I asked him to trot. He wanted to canter a little and that was fine as he burned off a little energy. I just did not drive him. When he settled down I worked him in at a trot, changing directions frequently. I always let my young horses trot at least 2-3 times around before asking for a change of direction. I use big slow movements. Phil can easily see me switching the halter into my opposite hand, this is a cue to him that I am about to ask for a change in direction. When Phil changes direction he turns into the panel. He wants to get as far away from the pressure as possible. When I have Phil’s respect he will turn into me to change directions. The entire time Phil stretched his neck out as far as he could over the round pen panels. This was to be expected because I do not mean much to Phil at this point. When he looked at me I immediately curled up, drew him in and asked for a Whoa. He circled in and faced me. I kept my head down and my shoulders rounded, but watched his hooves out of the corner of my eye. As soon as hooves began to move I stood up and drove him around (you have less than 3 seconds). I asked for a Whoa again and he circled in to me. This was repeated several more times until Phil came up to me, lowered his head, blinked, and licked his lips. I did not look at him, I let him relax. I felt he was ready to “join up or hook on.” Phil did “join up” and followed me around the round pen (no halter, no lead)….forward, backward, up, down, right, left. He followed on his own free will. I had him follow me over to the water trough and let him get a drink. I keep a water trough in the round pen. At this moment, I meant something to Phil. This was a great time to stop, hose him off, and put him back with his hay (even though he trampled it all over his pen).  Notice I did not stuff his face full of treats to reward him. His reward was that I was going to leave him alone. I will address treats and training in a later entry. Don’t think for one minute I do not love to give treats to my horses!  This is an incorrect assumption. I have a HUGE container of horse nibblets in my tack room.

Phil still looked for the mares after his was put away, but stopped whinnying and pacing. Most horses are overfed and under exercised. This leads to a lot of behavior issues that are NOT the horse’s fault.

I do want to point out the round pen is not to be used to run your horse around in aimless circles to tire him out. You will see I do a lot of different exercises at various gaits in the pen. Even though Phil and I spent 30 minutes in the round pen, we stood in the shade for most of the time. He was learning that standing by me means rest and relaxation. Remember, to let your horse rest if he isn’t fit. Your horse will build up lactic acid quickly in their muscles. Most of us cannot keep our horses in racetrack condition; including me.

When I returned home from picking up the kids from school, Phil was standing contently under a tree with a back leg cocked…..and the mares were still at the other end of the pasture. Boy, exercise sure does some great things for the body and mind!

Evening Feeding:

Phil was an absolute gentleman at dinner. Yippee! My son drove his go-cart and my husband removed trees that had fallen during the storm that brought tornadoes to South Carolina with the tractor during feeding. Phil is getting some great desensitizing.

For reference I’ll try to reinforce to you that when your horse truly acknowledges you he has to have BOTH EYES on you; not one eye on you and one eye on another horse or his food, etc. If you have ever attended a Clinton Anderson clinic then you’ll remember Clinton’s mantra “Two Eyes.”