Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A little ride with a lot of training

This morning I took Panama for a little walk along the trail. My friend Anna and her boyfriend Lee came along. The idea was to encourage him to slow down a bit, and to see if he was calmer with someone along, even if it wasn't another horse. I'm not so sure either purpose worked out the way I'd hoped.

I apologize ahead of time for the long post (and the lack of pictures — we had our hands full as it was). It was actually a pretty short ride, but there ended up being lots of training opportunities:

1) Stopping and waiting. Panama didn't slow down enough to match his pace to Anna and Lee — I think they were just walking a little to slow for him. I've tried getting him to keep pace with Michael in the pasture, and he does just fine with that, but Michael also walks a little faster.

However, Panama was much better at stopping when I asked and standing relatively patiently while Anna and Lee caught up. He seemed to understand that we needed to wait for the two-leggeds from time to time.

2) An encounter with a dog off-leash. Despite the clearly posted signs requiring that all dogs be on leashes, of course there are always plenty of people who think that doesn't apply to them. We encountered one such woman right away. Not only was her dog not on a leash, but it was also apparently a puppy (or at least extremely energetic and relatively untrained). When we were still 50 feet from the trail, he came bounding across the field to us.

I took Panama a little ways to the side and Anna tried to catch the dog, but he quite happily wriggled loose and bounded up to Panama. After bouncing back and forth for a moment, flirting with the idea of getting closer, he finally ventured closer and stood a couple of feet in front of Panama, staring up at him. Thank heavens Panama is more curious about dogs than anything: He just stood there and stared back. He would have tried to smell the dog had I given him his head, but under the circumstances I thought it was better that I didn't.

Finally the dog's owner, an older woman, came hurrying up to us. She looked worried and stressed out, with good reason I think — I could have really fussed about her dog being off-leash and endangering me and my horse, had I wanted to. She pulled out a leash, wrestled with the dog (who did NOT want to go back on the leash), and then waited to see which way we were going before heading off in the opposite direction.

I was very proud of how Panama handled the entire thing — he was extremely calm and patient, despite the dog running around underfoot, and especially despite how little he likes to stand and wait on the trail.

3) The trash can. I mentioned after our last trail ride that Panama gave the trash can a wide berth, and I wanted to work a bit on that next time. Despite Anna and Lee being along, I did take a few moments to work with him on the trash can. I wasn't able to fully desensitize him to it, but next time I'll take him out alone and we'll work on it without the audience.

First I rode Panama by the trash can a couple of times. He was still veering away from it a little, even walking at a diagonal to better keep an eye on it as we passed. (You never know what those things will do once you've got your back turned!) So I dismounted, led him right up to it, and let him sniff it a little. Banged on it, opened the swinging door and let it snap shut, then let him sniff it some more. Banging while sniffing. A couple of really big bangs (and a couple of little jumps). After a few moments I could bang on it pretty hard and he no longer jumped.

So I remounted. And he still veered away, though not as bad. Silly horse! We walked back and forth a couple more times, until with a little bit of leg pressure he walked straight by it, albeit reluctantly. Next time we'll address this issue again — I want to get him to the point where he will hardly even notice it!

4) The street crossing. A little ways past the trash can is the street crossing. For some reason there was a lot of traffic in the neighborhood today, lots of big trash trucks and other scary-sounding vehicles. Not all of them were passing the trail crossing, though, so poor Panama could hear everything that was going on but couldn't see much of it. He was a nervous wreck.

I knew better than to try to get him to cross the street with all that going on. Instead, I let him hang about 20 feet back, and worked on getting him to stand still near the road. It took some time — he was quite anxious and kept moving around at first. He tried a handful of times to turn around and head back the way we had come, but I wouldn't let him. So then he started trying to back up (he's figured out my "brakes" don't work as well for backing), which earned him a few little kicks. (I hardly use my heels at all on this horse, because he's so sensitive to the "go" command, so when I say "little kicks" I really mean, little kicks.)

About this point I looked over at Anna and Lee, who were standing on the trail (Panama and I were off on the grass beside it, about six feet away). Anna looked okay, but Lee had his arms crossed very tightly across his chest. I laughed. "You nervous, Lee?" I asked. He nodded, rather stiffly.

"Try to breathe deeply and evenly," I told him. "If you're nervous, he can sense it."

After that Panama started to calm down a little. I'm not sure if it's because Lee took my advice, or because Panama got the hang of it. He (Panama, not Lee!) started standing quietly and looking around for longer periods of time, which earned him a lot of praise and petting. We did a few circles, and moved about 10 feet closer to the road in the process. Panama was still a bit nervous, but not nearly as bad.

5) The man hole cover. While we were waiting for Panama to calm down, I noticed that there was a manhole cover on the trail, about five feet away from the edge of the road. Manhole covers are one of Panama's biggest fears. I think it's because his horsey vision doesn't offer enough depth perception to tell the difference between a different color in the road, and a hole in the road.

Anyway, once Panama was doing better about being near the road, I decided to walk him toward the road, right past the manhole cover. The first time, he dodged to the side a little bit. So I did it one or two more times. The last time, with some leg pressure I was able to keep him on course — not over the cover (I wouldn't ask that of him yet) but he did agree to walk next to the cover.

I was so pleased with our progress there at the end that I decided to call it a day and head for home. Poor Panama had had a lot of challenges to overcome in a very short period of time, and he did try to rush a bit on the way home. Interestingly, though, when Anna and Lee took a different route back to the barn — Anna had flip flops on and had a difficult time walking through the field — Panama stopped rushing as much and started listening to me more.

I think my attempt to make leaving home a little easier on Panama by hiking with someone actually made him more nervous. It could have been because he was feeding off of Lee's nervousness, because he doesn't really know Lee or Anna all that well, or because we're just a better team when we're alone. I may still try it again sometime — and also try it with my husband, whom he knows much better — but I think this actually says something very important about the kind of situation where my horse does the best.

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