Dashing through the Snow

By Patty Wilber

Saturday and Sunday of last weekend were beautiful and I did not take advantage of the great weather as I wore myself out on Friday enjoying Colleen and her new horse and going to our Back Country Horseman Holiday Party!

So, I ended up riding on Monday before it started snowing and on Tuesday after the snow. I worked with Gette on Wednesday and rode after my infusion (and a nap) on Thursday! Not a full on “normal” week, but getting closer!

The high on Monday was predicted to be 42F at 10 am, with decreasing temperatures, wind and snow coming by 12 noon or so.  I got myself out there! I had planned just a little arena work and a trail ride with Lucy, but Gette (short for Sufragette), aka Ms. Butt-in-ski, followed me into the saddling area when I went to get a halter for Lucy, so I haltered her and let her have tying practice while I did the arena work and then took her on the trail with Lucy.

Gette sometimes declines to come along when being ponied, so I use a chain under her chin, which provides just enough incentive.

Lucy and Gette out on the trail. They are currently best buds since Gette’s previous bestie, Surupa, went home. Of course, Lucy is going to Heidi’s soon, so maybe Gette and LT will pair up when we make the switch. You can see a bit of Appaloosa roaning coming through on Gette’s neck. Eventually (like in 5 years as Lucy has a double dose of the gene and Gette only has a single copy) Gette’s coat pattern will look a lot like Lucy’s, but in a bay-based rather than an red-based version.

By Monday afternoon, it did indeed start snowing.

I thought I messed up and had taken this picture in black and white until I realized the red in the rail was, in fact, still red.

The sunset was outstanding.

The cold and the snow did not dissuade Jessica from bringing her mustang, Trigger, for our lesson Tuesday morning! I might have hunkered down inside as it was 25 F! But it was sunny and not breezy, so once I got out there, I was not sorry!

We went out on the trail with the very green but very mellow guy. I took Penny because she is barefoot. When horses with shoes ride in snow, the snow can make uncomfortable ice balls in their shoes. Also, Penny is calm and good at ponying, which is how we started off.

The snow was weighing down the branches, which reached across the trail, so we got bombed with the white stuff as we made our way up the trail.  Penny did not care and neither did Trigger, to his great credit!

Me and Penny are bit covered in snow! We pretty much cleared the trail for Trigger! Photo by Jessica.

Penny and Trigger! Photo by Jessica.

Working young horses is always interesting!  Trigger, as mentioned, is naturally very quiet. He is not going to volunteer to do anything he doesn’t want to do.  Thus, the challenge with a horse like him is to recognize when he has legitimate concerns vs. when he just doesn’t quite want to. When he doesn’t quite want to (his default mode), it is important to get a response quickly rather that letting him stand and stand and stand and ignore our cues.  But on the other hand, we want to be fair and not unload on him.  We do not want to scare him into overreacting.

The more often we are able to up our cues smoothly to get a measured response while minimizing the time he ignores us, the faster we will progress. We are teaching him to try!

Also it is super important, I think, to recognize that this behavior does NOT indicate he is “stubborn”. This is the way he copes with things he does not understand.  That means we should not take this behavior personally, nor do we need to get mad at him.  We need to be smarter and more patient than the horse and try different ways to engage him!

His owner is doing most of the work herself, so another fun challenge is to help her develop the feel for when and how hard to push!

I don’t want to sound like some sort of mean trainer, but there is real danger in being too nice. Time and time again I see owners that allow their horses to literally push them around.  This tells the horse that she is in charge of space and can result in dangerous situations.

My space is my space and a big rule with me is that the horse cannot invade that area or cause me to move my feet. I will vigorously defend my space.  I prefer to live. That can sometimes look a little dramatic, but almost all horses learn this rule very very fast, so being crystal clear and consistent pays off big time!

Eliminating that problem means I am safer because the horse is not pushing me around, the horse responds much more quickly to my body language and other cues I give, and the horse becomes more confident (and less spooky).

(Not that we need less spooky in Trigger’s case, but we do need him to be more responsive!)

But about that less spooky thing.  Horses with owners that are too nice do not rely on their owners to protect them from anything.  When the owner “buys into” the horse’s worries, the horse’s fears are legitimized and reactiveness is reinforced.  So, what to do?

When a horse is truly afraid (head up, ears perked, full of tension) we do need to recognize and support him, but we still must hold our space AND keep the horse engaged in a supportive but consistent way.  “Yup, that bag IS very scary, but I am right here and you are going to be fine. Let’s get a move on.” We do not need to get mad, and we do not need to punish the horse, but we do need insist the horse not invade our space or ignore.

Some horses are naturally super reactive and those are harder to work with and take more time, but the average horse will respond very fast and become more confident in short order!

For example, if I am leading the average horse, and the bag causes the horse to try to push into my space, I will defend my space, and then reward the horse for remembering that rule. The hard things are: having good timing, meaning what I say and being vigorous enough to to get my point across (and it might not be pretty), quitting as soon as I get a try and never being angry or punitive.*

*Personal safety is priority #1, so if a horse is scary for a handler, get help. If the handler is scared, it is nearly impossible to execute properly.  I went to work with a draft horse that was an attack biter. Yeah. That was not fun.  He was doing fine then suddenly came at me pretty hard and I did not have any time to do anything but go right back at him.  Running away seemed way scarier. I threw up my arm, yelled at him, snapped his lead rope HARD and repeatedly, and made him back up (which he did know how to do). He backed up three fast steps, dropped his head, licked his lips and never tried to bite me again.  He ended up becoming a police horse!

After the first, “Stay out of my space” fix, we might change directions, lead from the other side, and stop and back up.  We may pass by the bag again and again until it is non-issue.

“But that will take forever!” you may think. True.  But if we take the time to redirect that behavior now and are ALWAYS consistent about our space, mean what we stay, insist they try in a calm, fair manner, the horse will learn to trust that we know what we are doing and that we can protect them and value them (I swear they know), they become less and less reactive.  It is not magic, but it sometimes feels like it and it is very cool!

Unfortunately, if someone gains a horse’s trust, that does not mean the horse now trusts everyone.  Each person has to establish the rules and relationship because if they do not, the horse will do what it has to do, in its mind, to stay safe or evade work.  As one shoer told me, “Good horses consistently go bad with some owners.”

Similar techniques have to be applied under saddle, for the exact same reasons, but the rule “stay out of my space” might be reimagined as “pay attention to me” or “heed my cues”, but I have written way more than I intended. I can cover this another week!

Next week is Christmas Hats! With the same hats I have used forever. I might have to try and be a bit more creative…

Breast Cancer Treatment update: The neuropathy symptoms have REGRESSED quite a bit!  The winning items: tips from Lisa the amazing massage therapist, acupuncture with Jaclyn, and Bill’s made-from-scratch magic CBD, TCH salve!  Really made from scratch-he grew the plants, processed them and made the salve.

My blood levels are good. Credit to the breathing techniques and trying to be active enough so my body knows I need more blood cells and hemoglobin!

The one remaining tumor is still getting smaller and smaller! Nine more infusions of the HER2 targeted drugs + Taxol to go. I am skipping next week for Christmas. Surgery in March. And then a lot more stuff. Cross that bridge down the road.

About BlogPatty

Here's the skinny: I have a thing for horses. They make sense to me. I have a small horse training business (it's a "boutique" training business, not because it's super fancy, but because the horses get a lot of personal attention). I also go by Dr. Wilber, and teach biology full-time at a Central New Mexico Community college.
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