In the beginning
When I first met Jenny she was searching for a new way with her horses, looking for something she just couldn’t put her finger on. Together with her horses she has embraced massive changes. The horses now live out with field shelters, no shoes, mostly without bits and with plenty of enrichment in their environment. There are plans for an area of track to be created to help with limiting grass at the risky times of year. Who wouldn’t want to be working with an owner like Jenny!
Jenny has kindly allowed me to document the time I am spending with Rose her chestnut cob mare. As we go I’ll share some of my reasons for doing things the way we are. I’ll explain why some things didn’t work and how I could do better. I only ask that if you want to discuss amything (I’m always keen to learn) you do so after reading from the start.
When Jenny met Rose she was told that she didn’t like school work. Out hacking it was said she would back off unless you were confident with her. Too confident with a whip and apparently she would stand on her hind legs. I’m proud to say that Rose has never stood on her hind legs with Jenny. Nor has she reacted to a whip as we don’t carry one. She has learned to feel comfortable in an arena; not yet a completed project but underway.
To begin with Rose quite naturally reacted to every noise or distraction when in the arena. A horse getting used to her new environment this wasn’t surprising. It’s a quiet spot in the countryside with passing horses, the odd tractor, pheasant shooting and hunting in season. Pete the peacock is resident and has the knack of floating down into the arena on a breath of air when least expected or welcome!
R+ isn’t the first place to start
Some time ago, I worked with Rose and Jenny to begin some positive reinforcement (R+), clicker training. We delayed the project as Rose became tense and frustrated. Jenny is a novice clicker trainer, Rose a novice horse (in all ways) so although I believed it would work the time just wasn’t right.
So in preparation for being able to use R+ in future we continued to create the right envioronment for Rose to flourish.
Rose’s shoes were removed and along with her field friend, Travis, she was given 24/7 access to a large dry lot with access to (depending on time of day and year) field shelters and different surfaces- sand, stone and grass.
We introduced games into both horse’s weekly routine to help with confidence and calmness. As Rose was particularly concerned about the arena one of the games we played was the buckets game – Jenny would put small amounts of food into different buckets and then help Rose to discover them. The intention being to create a belief in Rose that Jenny could ‘unlock’ good things for her. Finding food in the buckets is never contingent on any behaviour other than being in the arena with Jenny. No tack, no force, just waiting until Rose finishes exploring a bucket before helping her discover another. Quite soon Rose was confident enough to explore the whole arena (even the spooky end) on her own.
Don’t give up
We still use the buckets game before every arena session and on days when Jenny isn’t planning any other work or enrichment. That’s because being worried about working in an arena doesn’t just disappear in a few weeks (listen up lovely clients who stop the behaviour strategies a week after my last visit!) plus it also acts as a barometer of Rose’s anxiety on the day. If she isn’t happy to go to the buckets at the far end of the arena and investigate then we won’t ask her to go to that end when we’re working with her. Increasingly she is happy to access all areas of the arena although the far end with its trees and view down the lane can still produce triggers for her.
We worked with the lightest touch and lots of patience to create basic cues. These helped with in-hand walks out and short ridden hacks. Beginning with tiny walks out on a loopy rope to taste the hedgerow benefits and later micro hacks that extended over time into full circuits with me on foot or a friend on horseback. Sometimes she will stop on the drive leaving home or stop mid route. Jenny waits, lets Rose take a look and then asks her verbally to walk on. It is still very much a work in progress but it has already reaped rewards.
Although Rose has made such huge progress there are still some areas I’d like to help her and Jenny with and so I have started her R+ work again. In the next instalments I will explain how Jenny has worked on safe feeding by hand protocols, clearer communication through her cues and explain some of the R+ basics that I’ve started with. Until the next time, Trudi