Thursday, December 17, 2009

some you win and some you lose

We've been having a lot of fun with Eladia and she is going really well now. Every horse is different and presents us with new challenges, and therein lie both the difficulty and the fun of working with horses :-).

She had been a delight to start and had been turned out. When we brought her back in, she decided to be a bit of a princess and deemed being ridden as below her dignity. There was a small issue with her being funny about things happening on her right side. We spent a lot of time on that, using some novel approaches (might write about that later) which let her work through her little fear issue at her own pace. She basically taught herself to stop, look, think. And in a short time, she was ok with everything on her right hand side. There had been no indication of any issues on that side when we started her, so I'm not sure where it came from. It is of course possible that I rushed or overlooked something at the time.

The other problem was her hot Paso blood, I'm not kidding when I say that some of these horses just say NO on principle sometimes :-). So showing in no uncertain terms that she is a high-born princess, she didn't want to be ridden. She pulled faces when I got on her back, she humped up and threatened to buck and all that jazz. So we basically re-backed her, with me spending lots of time leaning over the saddle and Yvonne leading and rewarding every little quiet and polite step. I hate that part of training, it's damn hard on the lower ribs and abs, leaning over a stocksaddle. This is another one of those times when my martial arts training pays off!

Anyway, Eladia worked through her issues and we are back to riding her. And what a terrific riding horse she is. So cool out on the trail. Very forward but not rushing, goes in front or behind, looks at everything but hardly shies. And she is so smooth to ride! Yes, she is a proud little thing but now I think she enjoys the attention and the going out. I'm sure that her new owner will have loads of fun with her, she really embodies all the qualities of a Paso.

We didn't do quite so well with Amira, the Arabian mare. Right from the beginning she was untrusting and hair-triggered in her reactions. We soon found out that she was also inconsistent. No matter how slow we progressed with new things, everything was an issue to her. And worse, she would appear to be ok with something for a few minutes and then it would suddenly be an issue again. Or it would be ok one day and all forgotten the next day.

For example, I like to spend time standing near a horse and either touch or not touch it while it stands still. That includes being able to walk around behind and standing next to it with my arm over the neck or back. Basically I want them to be ok with my body near or touching them. Until this is the case, I won't even dream of getting on their backs. Amira seemed to accept this pretty fast in one of our earlier sessions. But later in the same session, she started to run away from me again with all signs saying she'd never seen me before. We repeated and left it at that when she stood still and breathed and started to relax her topline.

Next session, it was all forgotten, with much blow and snort and eye rolling. So back to square one.

I don't do much lunging, it's really a preparation for under saddle work only. However, it's my opportunity to study a horse and to set up basic communication. In addition, I like to make sure that they stay light and soft and that they follow the bend of the circle so that the inner hind leg steps under well. Some horses only need a rope headstall, others understand better with a cavecon. We tried both on the mare and she was bending beautifully in the cavecon. However, the whole thing for her was just an opportunity to run the nervousness out of her system. A lot of horses want to rush when they are a bit worried and that's ok because they soon realise that it's easier and nicer to slow down, breathe and relax the topline. Amira couldn't get that worked out. I think in the whole time we worked with her, she willingly followed down transition cues a couple of times, and the neck stretched down once briefly, all followed by starting to run again. She acted like a horse that gets high on it's own adrenaline. Also, whenever she felt uncertain, she started crowding me with her inside shoulder. While it wasn't hard to send her out, it didn't help in getting her to settle.

She had a very bad reaction to the pad. First ok, then not and she ran off. Started again and she put up with it (not ok, just tolerating). Same thing next day. The following day, she also had a strong reaction to the roller although I introduced it very slowly. I always show a horse the new object, gently touch them with it, if it has buckles, I make noises before I put it on etc. I put it over the back slowly from both sides, encouraging the horse to look at it. Then I gradually let the end down and touch the belly with it. Before I do it up, I make sure that pressure comes on gently, I release and praise. When that's all ok, then I do it up, and only just tight enough that it won't slip. All that preparation aside, when I asked Amira to take one little step forward, she went into a full blown bucking fit with grunts. I had the impression it was more of a hissy fit than a fright. I watched briefly (lunge still attached) to see if she would stop (didn't), then I asked her to whoa. The ask didn't work, so I told her. I will admit that it took a couple of hard tugs on the lunge and a dose of my evil voice. But then she stopped, looked at me. That was when I decided it was a hissy fit.

I walked over and patted her and asked her to bend her neck to release some tension. That seemed to work a little. I asked her to take another step, which immediately led to another outburst. This time I strongly demanded her to stop right away which she did. We repeated that a couple more times until she walked forward without jumping around, then a brief trot. At that point, session ended, gear off, a pat and back to her paddock. I was again left with the impression that she tolerated it all only because I forced her to, and if I hadn't interrupted her bucking, she would still be at it.

Next day we had exactly the same deal. Saddle pad was "terrible". Roller was "no". Me standing next to her was "terrible". We kept it as brief and pleasant as possible and stopped every time as soon as she stopped saying no and tried to do as asked. But those moments were pretty rare. She was pushy, couldn't stand still. Scared herself with her own tail and couldn't keep her feet still.

By this time I was pretty sure that I didn't really want to get on this horse, and Yvonne agreed. We had another brief session, as low key as possible, looking for tries from Amira. But basically the impression we got was a horse that was incapable or unwilling to try. Even if we had been able to work through the bucking issue and the fear of being touched and the skittishness, there would never be any certainty that at some point in the future, it wouldn't all be forgotten. Basically she was the sort of horse where the rider or handler can never relax because you simply don't know how she will react to the next new thing. Unpredictable and explosive.

I've rehabbed some pretty interesting horses and have had good success even with a couple which were called unrideable. I have only ever had a couple of horses in the past which didn't work out. In once case we suspected a brain problem (the horse had an aberrant tooth growing out of his ear and we suspected there was another going inwards causing pressure, as he became increasingly weird in his behaviour). The other was a young mare which originated from a mob of horses which had been near starved over a long period of time. She was lovely but would suddenly lose the plot and buck/rear/bolt for no apparent reason. I don't know if Amira had any issues with her brain, but her owner said she always was jumpy and inconsistent.

I consulted with her owner and we decided not to go ahead with further training, as she would always be a potentially dangerous horse. I felt pretty down about it, and so did he. But I guess we would be much more upset if someone would have been hurt either here while working her or later on (assuming that we would have successfully got her going under saddle, which I doubt anyway).

The owner told me that the other mare I started for him is going really well and that he's enjoying riding her. And that there are two more young ones he'll send over next year.

We learn from each and every horse. Some are bitter lessons, some are sweet ones. On the balance of things, horses are fantastic critters and I really enjoy being around them. They have a sense of humour, they have pride, they like to show off. They make me happy most of the time :-).

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