Monday, September 20, 2010

Bad Horse Day, part 1

I have decided to name yesterday Bad Horse Day.

It started with a ride on Panama. Michael and I went out to the barn around early afternoon, and I groomed Panama and saddled him up. Now I hadn't ridden since Thursday, but I wasn't expecting it to be a problem, since he was so good all last week.

Whether he could have benefited from turnout, or the wind just had him all fired up, or what, I don't know, but the ride didn't turn out like I'd planned.

My original agenda was to practice cantering, and we did get some good practice in. I sometimes feel that I get my shoulders back, heels down, and ride the canter without bouncing for a couple of strides — but then it all falls apart before I can figure out how I'm doing it!

Anyway, after cantering several laps to the left, I started cantering him to the right. As we were coming up on the gate, I saw him staring hard — in the "I'm about to spook at this" way — at the jump standards and poles stacked outside the arena just past the gate. Sure enough, a stride or two later he teleported to the side.

I had seen it coming, so I was more or less ready for it. (In the past, a sideways spook at the canter has usually removed me from the saddle.) Unfortunately, no sooner had he hit the ground again, than he started running away. My balance had wobbled when he blew to the side, and no sooner than I regained it was I fighting to regain it again — I clearly remember two separate times when I thought I was going to fall. And then I was fighting to stop him before we hit the rail, as he was running straight at the end of the arena, and didn't seem to know which way to turn.

I stayed on and got him stopped, though, despite the fact that I rode out most of that rodeo with a lost stirrup! We went right back to work, but this time at the trot — no way was I going to canter him again until I was sure he was back in control.

Unfortunately, that time never came. He spooked sideways again at the same spot, even at the trot. It was one of those really big spooks — the kind where they actually slap their hooves audibly on the ground before they launch themselves into the spook. Luckily he remembered himself right away that time and didn't try to run away, because somehow I managed to get the loop on the reins caught under my leg when we landed. Don't ask me how I managed that!

I spent the rest of the hour we rode just walking him around the arena, with varying degrees of spookiness by the scary spot. One of the jump standards was knocked over, and I started wondering if it had blown over while we were walking by, so I dismounted and we left the arena to fix it. He wasn't scared of them at all when we were outside the arena, or when we were moving in the other direction — it was only to the right, our worst side.

Finally, a horse Panama knows and likes came into the arena. I asked her rider to walk her by the jump standards so we could follow, and he could see that Pixie wasn't scared. That seemed to work. The first time he kept his distance but didn't try to shy away, and the second time he followed behind Pixie at the rail. We had been riding a while at that point, so I called it a day!

This post ended up being longer than planned, so I'll finish the story of Bad Horse Day later today!



At September 20, 2010 at 11:59 AM, Blogger Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Hmmmm. That's the type of thing that my equitation instructor would have ordered me to smack him with the riding crop over. His philosophy was to make the horse more concerned about my riding crop than whatever is spooking him. Sometimes it worked, other times it just got him more worked up. Plus I don't like the punishment approach with horses.

I think approaching the scary spot and waiting for signs of relaxation, then petting and praising might help. I'd sure be wary of moving past that same spot again without some training method in mind. Please tell me you were wearing a helmet.

At September 20, 2010 at 12:14 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

NM, I was definitely wearing a helmet! I always do now, except for when we took him swimming.

My trainer would probably have told me to get him in trouble too, though her version would have been circling him and letting him know he was in trouble, then going right back to work. Personally, I was too glad to be alive (and still mounted) to think that way. Besides, he knows it's bad to run away, even without getting into trouble. The fact that he stopped after the second spook, and did NOT run away, proves that.

Panama does NOT do well when you make him stand near something that scares him. Not at all! We tried that when he was afraid of the indoor arena, and it never worked -- he would just get increasingly more worked up, the longer he had to stand there. Panama just learns and relaxes better when I keep him moving and thinking, rather than letting him dwell on something that scares him.

My usual approach is to pass the scary thing over and over, every time working on him getting a little closer and reacting a little less. Of course, he gets tons of praise when he shows progress. Usually this works within 3-4 passes. Whatever scared him yesterday, though, was bad enough that he needed the stability of another horse before he could get past it.

At September 20, 2010 at 2:41 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Good job for staying on. Sounds like you need a "holy shit" handle for your saddle.
My approach to spooking is to do circles of varying sizes next to the scary object when I ride. This way the horse is approaching it (going towards it in the circle) and fleeing or retreating (going away from it in the circle) Making a horse stand next to something he is scared of is not natural to it. If a horse in the wild is scared of something hes gonna approach it probably snorting, then run away, approach it and run away until the horse realizes it's not gonna hurt him by approaching it and running away a ton of times. Punishing a horse by means of negative reinforcement only reinforces theres something painful (hitting with a crop, smacking, pounding with your heels on their side) and scary about scary things. Spooks get bigger and more violent as a horse starts associating spooking with unpleasant punishment. I find the best approach is to use a calm voice cue "your alright" and praising and calm body to reassure the horse it's ok, even if the horse spooks a ton of times and your losing your patience. Remember Panama is still young, hes gonna act like a young horse and spook at stuff ;)

At September 20, 2010 at 3:00 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Sydney, that sounds like what I do, too. I don't think my trainer hurts or scares him when she "gets him in trouble," but I'm not sure it does any good, either. He knows he's done wrong without being told, in my opinion. The fact that he stopped himself from running away the next time seems to support that idea. Really, if you think about it, the fact that he stops himself from running away EVER makes it clear that he knows he's not supposed to. Some times he is just more successful than others at mastering his instincts.


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