Monday, November 10, 2008

Manners....Please




Brego is our two year old Morgan Barb colt (gelded) He displays characteristics and behaviors that make a person wonder at times. Every horse farm has one I suppose, the one horse that is constantly finding ways to get himself into trouble. On any given day Brego is making mishap but while we all love the class clown, Brego came to us with a side that wasn’t so likeable.

Since he arrived at Acer Farm as a weanling, he has repeatedly amazed us with with athleticism and intelligence, ( I can’t wait to try him with endurance) but manners around feeding time?? They were atrocious, especially for such a youngster. Simply put; Brego was a regular Dennis the Menace. His damn, Kit, never corrected him like good mothers typically do and his previous owner, who is dear friend and Lippitt Morgan breeder, loves his horses so much, he allowed Brego to get away with all sorts of behaviors like kicking him during meal time. It’s no wonder , right? When we inquired into this, our friend simply remarked, “ I don’t like to get after my horses and he only does it once in while” . There is no convincing our dear friend that these sort of behaviors probably need to be attended to. Believe me we have tried. So, we deal with the aftermath. Thus, we had some work to do.

At feeding time, Brego’s normal routine was pinning ears, charging the fence swinging his rump to threaten to kick and sometimes more than threaten, he would block you with his body from approaching his hay pile and would even go so far as to challenge you by attempting to chase you off his feed like he would a less dominant horse. Observing all of this in the first couple of weeks we had him, and Brego only a weanling, we knew we had better get this addressed and quickly. In time when he got bigger and stronger, this sort of aggression could be dangerous. We opted to approach this from a couple different directions.

To begin, we put him in with his older half brother, Roman. Who better to teach a youngster than an elder, right? Roman is like a patient grandfather, gentle but stern, as opposed to Rebel, who turns up the volume right away and has been known to push youngsters through a fence. Brego being fairly small yet, we did not want to risk injury.

Brego quickly learned that pushing big brother off a feed pile wasn’t going to happen. It was amazing to watch this unfold every day. The progression was as follows:

Brego approaches Roman with ears pinned, attempting to push Roman off of his hay. While Roman’s head is still down and eating, he sees Brego approaching and offers a warning by swishing his tail and pinning the ear closest to Brego. Brego continues to approach, ignoring the warning. Roman lifts his head from his pile of hay now with both pinned ears, flicks his nose out toward Brego, takes a step or two towards Brego approaching as if to say-“ get away little man…this is my pile, and I am not allowing you to come in and eat with me”. Brego stops and looks on for a second, clearly rethinking the situation while Roman circles back around to return to eating, keeping a wary eye on the pest.

Brego now tries to come in from the other side and moves in a little faster on Roman, clearly upping the pressure and testing the waters. Looking on, it appears that Brego thinks that increasing intensity and speed might just do the trick. See, Romans’ response up to this point has not made too much of a difference so far. As Brego comes in again, a bit fast, he also swings his hindquarters and proceeds to back into Roman. By now, Roman has offered two previous warning and the student is not quite catching on. Time to up the ante. Roman meets this challenge by coming into Brego’s hindquarters with his chest, which limits Brego’s ability to get any power behind his kick, shoving him away from the food with his chest, and as they are going, Roman nipping Brego in the rump just hard enough to make his point. This sends Brego away from the hay now and Roman returns to eating his hay.

Brego moves off, and comes around the other side, again with ears pinned. Yu have to admit, Brego has some dedication. Before Brego gets very close at all, Roman is on top of things and charges towards Brego. This time a bit more forceful, ears pinned, as if to say, “this hurts me more than it’s going to hurt you ,son” and makes contact with his mouth directly on Brego’s hind quarter. Roman sends Brego further away this time. You can hear Roman bite this time (….ouch) Roman returns to his hay pile, appearing satisfied because he knows the lesson is now over.

Brego goes to the other side of the corral, licking and chewing, indicating that he is thinking about what just occurred, and knowing Brego – heading back to the drawing board for next time. By now we have placed another hay pile out and while he is rather sulky looking; Brego decides that maybe it would be less work to go taste that one instead of the one he really wanted. We can’t always have what we want, grasshopper.

As you can see, Brego is strong minded. In assessing what unfolded here that day and what has continued to unfold many other times in our remuda, Roman offered him several good deals before he finally upped to pressure enough to mean something to Brego. A valuable lesson was learned by Brego. How did Roman know how much was enough? It almost appeared that at the final reprimand, Roman knew the disagreement was over at this point and he could go back to contently eating his pile in peace long before Brego himself even knew… another reminder that horse are picking up on subtle things presented in body language that we as humans can only try to see , missing most of the time.


Over the course of the next several days, Brego and Roman repeat this pattern, but each day, the pressure Roman applies becomes a bit less for the desired outcome which was for Brego to change his thought. Eventually, all it would take was the slightest flick of an ear by Roman and Brego would stop his approach and make a different choice. Interesting… Isn’t that exactly what we, as horsemen and women want to have happen in our training sessions? The most glaring difference here? Roman stayed consistent. Unfortunately, as one of the human factors, we aren’t always the most consistent. We tend to get lazy. We get inpatient. We change things.

It took Roman several weeks of this repeated process to establish the ranking within the herd. With many horses, it would only take a couple of times, with Brego.. he is stong minded. These are valuable lessons by the patriarch, lessons that have proved invaluable as Tom and I have progressed his training along. While sometimes it is necessary to change your approach if what your asking is confusing the horse. With Brego, sometimes he just takes a little more convincing. Changing things in this case might have caused things to go on longer.

Since he was a yearling, we were going to be graining him. Our second approach was that every day, we would enter his paddock, now shared with Roman, with his can of grain. At first he would run right up and try to eat the grain out of the can. Some might think that is cute and for some people and some horses, that might be okay. With Brego and his personality, I could see that this could turn into something negative.

In order to establish a safe space between himself and I, I would send him off by walking directly into his space at the spot between his shoulder and head. (this is a safe spot for a person to be and a hard spot for a horse to allow you to be as there isn’t much he can do to you from here). If he did not yield to my body entering his space, I would tap his cheek bone with either a finger (away from the eye) or open hand as I walked into him. This would send him off. I did not care which direction he went and only had to be careful of him kicking out as he left. In theory, what I am trying to communicate to him is “ this is not okay to approach me this way, now take your thought over there and try again”

I would then wait for him to try to approach me again. If his feet got stuck ( which is really his mind being stuck) and he opted to just stand there and look at me I might let him do that for a minute. If it goes on too long with out him making any attempt to try to approach again, I might take a walk to my left or right to see if I could draw him forward a step to me. If he took a step toward me, I would retreat a step, and that would be his release, his reward that told him that he did what I was asking. We would continue down this path and if he approached me in a manner that showed he was attempting to be thoughtful about things, and ears up , not pinned, I would reward him and allow him to come in and eat . If was the least bit aggressive in nature, I would walk into his space and send him off again. I would repeat this process until he would make an attempt to approach with ears up. I want to pause here because a lot of you knowledgable horse folks out here might say, “sure, that sounds about right”…make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. I want to pause on that for a moment because that is one of those buzz phrases in natural horsemanship arenas that I hear a lot of. It makes a lot of sense and sums things up nicely but after giving this some thought over the years, I have modified the use of that phrase in my own training. I like to think about it as making the right thing easy… that’s it… not necessarily focusing on the make the wrong thing difficult part. I think people can tend to get too caught up in focusing on making the wrong thing difficult with this phrase. I find it works better for me to think more positively and remove that second part of the phrase all together.

If needed, I could have considered a flag if more pressure was needed but he generally responded well to my body language.. thanks to Roman.

To continue, once he approached in an acceptable way, I would empty the contents into his feed pan and continue to stand there with him and praise him and pet him while I allowed him to eat. Work done, right? Not so fast. After some continued effort and consistency to establish this, Brego then decided that he did not particularly like anyone standing there petting him while he ate. He began exhibiting behaviors to push me out of the way while I stood there, offering to kick or sometimes just a slight shouldering into me. Other times, he was fine with me standing there but when I went to walk away, he would pins his ears at me or offer to kick as I walked by. I realized that he needed to understand that it might feel pretty good to allow me to be there with him while he ate, like sharing a file of feed with your favorite pasture made. I should not have been surprised that this horse was changing the rules once again.

To begin addressing this issue, once he was there eating I would halter him to gain some ability to keep my self safe and come level of control while I pet on him, brushed him, talk to him, find itchy spots and all things that I thought might make him associate my presence as feeling good. He would start by pinning his ears a lot and flipping his head while he munched away. Sometimes he went to leave and I just allowed him to do that, staying with him and walking away with him. I suppose I could have made a bigger deal out of this but I had the sneaking suspicion that in this case, it wasn’t needed. I just hung out with him and eventually this itchy spots won over. He realized he could be there with me and it felt pretty good. There was no sense leaving because I was still going to be there. In time, we have made leaps and bounds in his manners around feed and I no longer have to worry about what Brego might do as I walk past him in the corral at feeding time. In fact, he now leaves his food pile to come over and say hello and get a good scratch. If I am out there to halter up one of the other horses, it ‘s only a matter of time that I feel a warm fuzzy muzzle resting on my shoulder, and yes it’s Brego. I would say he has turned the corner in the manners department . Now, can anyone tell me how to fix him from wanting to stand up on the fender of our trailer?

4 comments:

Karen N said...

I loved reading your blog on your Dennis the menace horse, and his manners. I have a full Morgan and I know she investiges everything. She has kept me laughing for 16 years. As an animal communicator I have come across allot of well intended humans with animals. Brego is fortunate you are such a clear teacher with him.
Glad I found your site. I look forward to reading more. I also live in Montana, in Absarokee.

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Hi Jonna! I assumed Brego was bred at Acer Farm...no? Is he a JB son?

Jonna said...

Hi Karen- thanks for stopping by! Morgans are great horses. Brego keeps me on my toes with training him , that is for sure. I just love watching him interact with the others. I hope to have a few more photos of his second saddling on the blog soon. Stay tuned!

Jonna said...

Hi Tamara- Thanks for commenting.It's kind of a funny story. Brego actually is of no relation to JB. We purchased Roman and Kit as a package deal about 4 years ago. Kit was Roman's damn was about 25 years old. We ended up giving Kit to our friend Howard, in Billings who had a wife who fell in love with her. That following spring that Kit was at his place, Howards 2 yr old Lippitt stallion got loose.. and you know the rest of story. Given Kit's age, we were all surpised she cycled. Brego is the result of that breeding. Our friend then turned around and gave Brego to us. Kit and Roman , we believe, although have never tested , may have some Wilbur Cruce blood in there but it's not confirmed.

JB does have one filly that Howard does own however. That filly is out of one of Howards Lippitt Morgan Mares. I will have to put some photos up on her.

Thanks for stopping by!