Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Haltering, leading, and tying

As I mentioned yesterday, I am working again with Rondo, the colt I halter broke last summer.  He just turned two, and although my mother-in-law does some basic handling of him, feeding and petting, he hasn't had much other work.  She also started leaving his halter on all the time at some point over the winter, which meant that he no longer had any regular practice with haltering.  I had stopped working with him because the drive is so long, but now that the weather is getting nice again, and now that she wants to find a home for him, I am going to start working with him again.

My first order of business was to get a halter on him, since he didn't have one on (she had to cut his off recently — more on that later).  I was expecting this to be much harder than it was, because she'd said she'd had a hard time getting one on him recently.  It wasn't too bad, though.  I walked right up to him, gave him a treat, and draped the lead rope over his neck.  He started to back away, so I just moved with him and said, "Quit," and he did.  Initially he didn't mind the halter being slipped over his nose, but when I had some trouble with it he started backing away again.  Once again I just moved with him, keeping the halter over his nose as I did so.  Once he stopped I buckled the halter and gave him another treat, and that was it — a couple of minutes and a few half-hearted attempts to get out of having to be haltered, like he was testing me but didn't really have any intention of picking a fight over it.

Leading him in from the pasture was less successful.  He didn't like moving away from the other horses and kept trying to head me off and turn us around.  Either that or he was just trying to walk on top of me, but I rather think he was trying to herd me.  I used my elbow to put some distance between us and praised him whenever he gave me space and walked straight without fussing.  I also stopped him periodically to ask him to back up (to make him use his brain, pay attention to what I'm asking him, and focus on something other than trying to herd me) and reestablish some distance between us.

Our next task was to work on tying.  I never tied him last summer, mostly because I didn't work with him that many times once he was halter broke.  But my mother-in-law tried to tie him for the first time recently, when he had a wound that she wanted to dress, and between being tied and having stuff sprayed on him (also not something he's been taught to tolerate), he pretty much lost his marbles.  She had to cut his halter off of him because he pulled everything so tight in his panic.

So on Monday I just worked with him a little on tying.  I chose a solid fence post, one of those huge thick kinds that was buried in the ground (although I had to move him to a different one after a few minutes when I realized there were a few nails sticking out of the fence there that I hadn't seen at first; I'm telling you, so many of these places in the country that my in-laws rent are full of booby traps for horses).  At first I only looped the rope around the fence post and held it tightly with my hand.  Rondo pulled back a few times, and each time I made an "uh-uh" sound and then praised and petted him when he quieted.  Once again, he was testing me rather half-heartedly to see if I'd give up — I think giving up has been the norm around there any time he puts up a fight.

Then I tied him to the fence post (with a knot that wouldn't tighten if he pulled, and that I could release quickly if I needed to) and showed him a dandy brush.  He sniffed the brush and pulled back, rearing up a little.  I'd kept my hand on the rope, so I just gave it an answering tug and told him in a low voice to quit.  He quieted and I showed him the brush again, with similar results.  After a few times he no longer tried to pull after sniffing the brush, so I held it toward his shoulder, still without taking my hand from the rope; once he quieted, I took it away and praised him.  Each time I held it a little closer, waited until he quieted, then took it away and praised him.  After a few times of this I was able to place the brush on his shoulder with virtually no reaction.

Now keep in mind that I did introduce him to a brush last summer (just not with him tied), and that he was suspicious of it at first then, but allowed me to brush him a little.  (I also discovered last summer that he did NOT like extremely stiff brushes, so the one I used on Monday had supple plastic bristles.)  He has just gotten away with acting wild all winter.  He doesn't really have a very reactive or dominant nature, but from a few things my mother-in-law said, I think he's been allowed far too much freedom to dictate what he will and will not tolerate.  He's just learned that if he says, "No!" she backs down right away.

Once we got over the brush-proximity reaction, I was able to stop holding the rope with my hand, and start brushing his back and sides.  I'd brush a few strokes, return to his head and praise him, and then brush for a little longer, until I was able to step away from his head for several moments without him freaking out.  If he pulled back, I asked him to move up a step.  If I stepped away and he tried to follow me, I put him back where I had him.

After about fifteen minutes I was seeing some definite progress — I was able to brush all the way back to his rump without him getting nervous or upset, and I was also able to step away a short distance in order to do something without him panicking.  I knew he hadn't been asked to do that much in months, so I decided that was enough and released him.

We had some of the other horses tied in the same general area, so then I had to teach Rondo to stay away from horses that are tied.  Another name for that lesson was, "I'm not always here to see you," because he was primarily interested in getting more attention and more treats from me.  But he figured it out and wandered off to graze a bit.  After a while I went out, put the halter on him again, and walked him around some more before releasing him — I want him to get used to the idea that I could halter him at any time.  He backed up a little bit the second time but not nearly as much.

One other thing I practiced was sticking my finger in the corner of his mouth to get him to open it, in preparation for deworming — he hasn't been dewormed since he was gelded last fall.  He didn't like that much, but learned that he couldn't toss his head and toss me off — he succeeded in that only once, and I came right back.  I got him to submit to that a handful of times, and each time he fussed a little less.  We're a long ways from being able to deworm without a fight, but it's progress nonetheless.

He's a smart horse and very willing, and I think he will learn quickly.  He doesn't seem to have trouble translating what he learns from one side to the other — for instance, when he was okay with the brush on one side and I went to the other side, expecting to have to do the same thing all over again, it turned out he was okay with it there too.  My goal is to teach him some ground manners and get him comfortable with all the basics — haltering (again), leading, tying, grooming, deworming, and picking up his feet — in the hopes that it will make it easier for my mother-in-law to find him a good home.

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