Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Horse Training

I worked with the young horses a little bit today, just informally. Penny leads now when I pull on her halter. I haven't had a chunk of time to do a real training session with her, so I've just been doing it a few seconds at a time every day as I pass through their paddock:

  • Day 1: Hold onto her halter and make her stand still for a moment. Let go and pet her.
  • Day 2: Tug on the halter, go with her---maintaining pressure---as she backs up in alarm. Release and pet her when she stops and steps forward.
  • Day 3: Tug on the halter, coax her to take two steps forward. Release and pet her.
  • Day 4: Lead her several yards away from the other foals. Release and pet her.
  • Day 5: Lead her in a circle around the paddock, independent of what other foals are doing. Release and pet her.
Because the sessions were all so brief and informal, she never really thought anything unusual was going on. She never thought she had any cause to get stressed and upset, so we never even passed through the normal tantrum that each foal usually has to have at the beginning of halter breaking.

Of course, that may still await me in the future, but for now she at least understands what pressure on the halter means, and being a fairly agreeable girl, she mostly is willing to go along with it.

I also wormed everyone in the foal paddock except Grace. Grace is still getting over being head shy because of the injury to her face. So that's her only job right now: becoming comfortable with me touching her all over her face, a little bit more each day. I'm not putting a halter on her, asking her to learn to lead, or shoving any worm medication into her mouth, because that would be pushing her comfort zone. Instead I want her to do nothing but gain confidence in me for as long as she needs to.

My philosophy of horse training is: Don't push them beyond what they're ready for. If you gain their confidence and trust first, you'll have much less trouble later.

A couple of months ago, a man came to look at some of my horses for sale. He had worked previously as a trainer in a Thoroughbred racing stable. I was telling him about how I had just introduced one of my horses to wearing tack: I put the saddle and bridle on her, led her around, ground drove her.

"All on the same day?" the man asked, astonished. "What did she do?"

I shrugged. "Nothing. Just stood there."

He shook his head in amazement. "With our Thoroughbreds, it would take us two weeks to even get near them with a saddle, and they'd be crashing all over the place!"

Now, I'm not saying I'm the best trainer ever. I'm really not very experienced. And part of the difference in our two experiences is the breeds we're talking about. A Thoroughbred race horse has a totally different temperament from a draft cross.

Not to mention, Thoroughbreds are usually confined in a stable most of the time and fed large quantities of high-energy feeds, while my horses are loose on pasture with lots of equine companionship to keep them calm and happy.

But another thing that may be a factor is that I spend far more time socializing with my horses than I do trying to make them do anything. They see me as the lady who brings food when they're hungry, fills the water troughs when they're thirsty, opens the gates when they want to go out, and scratches their itchy spots whenever I pass by.

They get used to thinking that if I'm around, that means something good is going to happen. Once they get that ingrained in their minds, it's much easier for me to convince them that anything new I ask them to do for me is just some little game I want to play. Whatever it is, they usually want to try it, because they trust me to make it fun or at least not too scary.

Basically, it all boils down to the fact that I'm a LAZY horse trainer. I want to do the training in the way that makes it the easiest on me and the horses.

Take Torchsong, for instance. When she first arrived here several months ago, she was a terrified yearling who had never been away from home before. But she didn't want anyone to know she was scared, so she acted aggressive.

Within the first 10 minutes of her being here, she had already attempted to bite, kick, rear up, and run over me. I did what I needed to do with her right that minute (run her in the round pen until she settled down and focused on me enough that I could lead her where I wanted her to be). Then I released her into the pasture with her sister.

I fed and tended her, but I didn't ask anything of her for weeks. Then, all I did was enough round pen work that she learned not to evade me when I tried to catch her. This took only two sessions.

After that, I kept tending her as usual and would frequently walk up to her in the pasture, pet her, and then walk away. Teaching her that me coming up to her was no big deal.

After several months of this treatment, now she adores me. If I'm anywhere in the yard, she's standing by the fence gazing at me. If I'm in the pasture with her, I can't get her away from me. She tags along after me like a big dog, begging for affection. She leads, ties, bathes, lifts her feet. And I didn't have to do anything except give her time to trust me.

That's what I mean by being a lazy horse trainer!


Meggie said...

Nancey: Sounds to me like you are a LOVING horse trainer, not a lazy one.

Lindsey said...

Your training methods sound great to me... and they are working for you and your horses. It is so important to take the time to build a relationship with your horse, then you don't have to fight with them when you ask them to accept new things. For answers to specific training questions, check out www.horsetrainingquestions.com