Slowing Down and Listening

I thought it would be a good idea to have someone take photos of me working with the girls so I could “see” some things I might not have time to notice when I’m in the arena, so HM got the photography job last night.

One of the most interesting things about ground work is developing that connection with your horse…it’s like an invisible tether, and it springs from trying to build your awareness of their body language while you’re moving your own body around. One of my problems (don’t laugh) is that I get dizzy easily, and so turning around and around trying to follow a horse while trotting or loping makes it hard for me to “see” changes.

Another challenge I have is that Dove and Friday are almost polar opposites as far as personality, which you’d expect since they’re two different breeds and horses are all different anyway. Friday is independent, athletic, smart, and pretty good about accepting new things and working in different environments. Since she’s a Walker, Dove is still growing both physically and mentally, and she reminds me of a gangly teenager that’s always texting (not that I would know anything about THAT). She gets distracted easily, spooks more readily, and her energy goes all over the place rather than in a straight line–she has trouble knowing where her feet are and controlling her own movement. She also tends to get “stuck,” meaning she’ll keep offering the same thing–no matter if I’m “asking” a bunch of different ways.  But–unlike Fry–she constantly seeks reassurance and love from me and rarely shows resistance stemming from attitude. She really likes to be a good girl.

I know I’ve spoiled both of them–like most inexperienced horse owners, I’m way too nice. A great character study for me has been to watch Dicey, their old babysitter. I’ve seen the crafty old witch actually lure the girls in by touching noses with them–before she’ll bite at them to get them to move away and therefore reinforce her authority. Since Dice has ringbone pretty bad in both front feet, she excels at getting them to do what she wants without ever moving anything but her head. And boy, do they both pay close attention to her.

So I’ve been working on my boss mare mentality, shall we say, and a good way to do that is to do some ground work without a halter or a lead rope.

Since Fry is naturally a crab cake, it’s hard for me not to lose my own temper when I’m working with her (and they say dogs resemble their owners). As exasperated as I get with her attitude, I also respect and admire her for her intelligence and independence. She’s an interesting mare.

Normally what happens about halfway around the arena when I first get her moving is that we break into a lope with our ears pinned like this:

You can see where I missed with the flyspray.

So I get to break into a lope, too. Since she’s obviously a lot faster than her old owner, I have to head her off at the pass and ask for a tight turn.

The stick is going to close the gap before I get there, fortunately

It’s hard for a horse to turn on a dime (well, most horses anyway–Fry happens to be excellent at this). But it takes a lot more effort than just moving away in a straight line, which is all I want her to do–to move away from me without showing me Attitude with a capital A and without running.

She’s starting to get the idea…slowing down and listening here as I ask her to move further away from me:

Thanks for lending an ear, Fry.

My big challenge with this horse is controlling her at the walk. When I do manage to get her to slow down, she will immediately start asking if it’s OK to stop. Here, she’s tipping her head in to me to see if she can quit, which means I have to keep her moving without generating more A and another trot. I’m keeping my stick on the other side of my body and lowering my gaze to take some of the pressure off, but I’m still keeping up the pace with my feet.

Keep your feet moving, kiddo

But seeing her sister Dove at the barn gate proves to be too tempting, so I have to get a little nastier:

No, you can't stop yet.

With sensitive horses like Fry, it’s also easy for them to get nervous when you keep asking for something if they’re not offering the right thing. She’s excellent at stopping when my feet stop moving, and will even drift back with me if I’m at her shoulder and step backward. But last night after the stop, asking her to yield her hindquarters for me got forward motion instead. I drove her a little more, asked for the stop again, and this time when I started to walk toward her hind end she quickly backed up (which I didn’t want either). So then I had to try some different body language:

I don't want you to back, honey....

That didn’t work either…we just kept backing…but you can see she’s got a different expression in the photo above. She’s not really being unwilling here, she’s just not really sure what I want. She’s smart enough to understand I’m asking for more complex things from her now than I used to, and so she’ll try sometimes to anticipate what I’m going to ask her to do (this is the positive side of “I have my own ideas about what we should be doing.”) My other mare, Dove, almost never offers novel movements like this horse does.

I finally wind up using my hand on her nose to make sure she knew I wasn’t asking her to move forward, and to start her bending toward me so it’d be harder for her to back. I also dropped the stick, and relied on my finger to do the job.

Swing that butt away from me, please

And success. Probably the thing that concerns me the most about this horse is not that she’s disobedient, but that she rarely demonstrates a thoroughly willing attitude. That demeanor changes dramatically if she’s in a situation where she “needs” me (like if she’s hurt or scared), so I know it’s in there. But most of the time she’s convinced she’s got much better ideas than I have. She reminds me an awful lot of my heeler. This horse would love having big challenging jobs to do (just like my twins, who crave excitement) and I know she’d be an excellent cow horse.

Good job, Missus.

Since Dove isn’t as mature as Friday, I usually end up working on much smaller skills. One of Dove’s problems is that she gets distracted and uneasy in certain parts of the arena.

I really don't like it over here. Really. Are you listening?

So instead of trotting away because we don’t feel like taking orders (like her sister), she’ll run away out of fear rather than sticking with me. The night before these photos were taken, I had such a hard time with her in this part of the arena than I ended up loping her until I saw signs of submission from her…which took a long time, and we were both sweaty and out of sorts at the end of that little adventure. I hated to do it, but Dove is old enough now and big enough (she’s going to be a good-sized mare) that she needs to learn that running away isn’t going to solve her problems. It’s my job with this horse to teach her to look to me for help when she needs it.

It's much better over here...I can put my head down and relax. Whew.

I do a lot of things with Dove to take her mind off being nervous and get her back “with” me. I’ve done a little clicker training with them both–something that Dove really enjoys–so sometimes I’ll ask her to “touch” something with her nose while we stand in the scary part of the arena. I’ve even asked her to nose things that she’s afraid of, and it’s really cool to see her switch from being afraid to looking forward to praise if I can get that to happen. Linda Tellington talks about how eating activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps horses overcome their flight response. While I use treats as a bribe with independent Friday to give her some extra incentive, I use it as a comfort thing with insecure Dove.

Dove is very good at doing chores she’s already learned. I originally did a lot of yielding work with her, since she tends to plow into everybody and everything. I stopped feeling so offended about that when I realized she even does that with the other horses, too–it’s partly inattention, partly her having a hard time remembering where her feet are.

Good job, Dovey!

But asking her to back while I’m at her shoulder proves difficult…it’s a new thing and so we’re stuck.

Back up, ya big galoot.

She backs well when I approach from the front, and knows how to back off a hand signal when I’m standing behind her, but for some reason whenever I ask with a hand signal we tend to show irritation (tail swishing) which is really rare for her, and I wonder if it’s partly because she feels awkward backing up in general. Since a butt scratch is the reward, and this horse is the butt-scratch queen, it’s hard to figure out why that’s not enough incentive.  By the way, I’ve had people looking at this blog ask me about whether I worm regularly, since Dove’s obviously been rubbing off her tail. I do. I also make sure she’s not scurfy under there, and have tried two kinds of anti-itch stuff on her before. I think she rubs her tail in an attempt to get relief from bug bites on her udder. I’ve tried using Bag Balm on her (hey, it works for cows, right? And the gnats seem to hate it, which is great). Nothing seems to really solve the problem other than cold weather and the disappearance of the gnats and mosquitoes, though.

Here we are at the end of the evening–nothing like a horse hug to put a smile on your face, no matter how many mosquitoes are out.

See, even the boss mare is happy now.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Slowing Down and Listening

  1. This is all very esoteric and technical to a backwoods guy like myself, but two things jump out at me. First, your passion is evident in a way that may not be obvious to you, even when you look at the pictures. Second, these shots remind me of some shots that friends have taken of me when I’m photographing a model (although I’m sure I know a lot less about models than you do about horses).

  2. Delia

    Beautiful. You’re glowing. It’s so great to see this kind love/passion/joy/beauty in real life, natural and undoctored. Thanks!

    • L

      Delia, thank you so much! Wow, you’ve made my day.

      Someone once told me that if your fingernails and hands aren’t filthy after spending time with your horses, you’re not doing it right…I’m glad my hand is kind of blurry in the photo for that reason. At least I didn’t have the dreaded green slime (horse slobber mixed with half-chewed grass) in my hair in this shot.

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