Earlier this summer, I introduced Maggie, my newest addition to the herd, a 4 year old Lippitt Morgan mare. Maggie, and her dam, arrived at Acer Farm to be bred to JB. Through a very strange set of circumstances, Maggie did not end up being bred and somehow, the day the owner arrived to pick up both mares to take them home, I found myself signing a sales agreement for Maggie. As I led this sweet natured mare with huge doe eyes, back to the paddocks, I was rift with emotions on what I had just signed up for. Knowing the bloodline, I knew she would be a tough as nails kind of horse and have a lot of "go", characteristics that are important for a good endurance prospect. At the same time, Acer Farm was now at 6 head, the 6th now being a young untrained horse who was going to need much time from me, something that there was already a limited amount of.
Today, several months later and about 120 pounds lighter, Maggie has moved into full time training. Over the last several weeks, when I am not conditioning JB, I am usually in the arena or round pen with Maggie. The two horses are about as different as two horses could ever be.
JB, having plucked him from a ranch where he was essentially running wild as a weanling, arrived at Acer Farm a scared, confused , trembling, wormy, and underweight mess, terribly fearful of humans. Over the years of building our relationship and trust, he has blossomed into a quiet, brave, nonreactive, low key kinda guy that would rather graze and smell the roses than speed away down the trail. (we are working on the speed thing!) We established our bond in a much different way, given his age and complete lack of trust in human beings. Now, he's a pocket pony.
Maggie, a generally sweet natured mare was handled by humans since she hit the ground. Fear of humans is not an issue at all. Instead, Maggie is very emotional, very reactive. Her strong reactions don’t always seem to fit the situation, whether it is in the pasture with the herd or during a training session. She will frequently squeal so loudly you think she is getting into a huge fight with another horse in the pasture but it’s probably just another horse walking up to her and sniffing her. Reactive, sensitive and highly emotional, all the things I am not:
….and all the things I steer away from when it comes to my relationships with humans. “oh dear”…
A difficult set of personality traits they are, but add to that mix.... strong willed. And here is where we found our common ground.
Maggie didn’t really know how or see any purpose, for that matter, in needing direction and leadership from anyone other than her Dam. While she was weaned at 6 months from her dam , there were then reunited as pasture mates and as a result, very bonded. when one moved the other moved in unison., like they were connected at the shoulder and hip. It was an interesting and strong relationship the two had. I knew if Maggie and I were ever going to be a team, the first thing I had to do was to find a way to establish myself as a someone she could look to for safety when she was not with her herd mates. Not being of the mind or sharing in the philosophy that people need to replace the leadership role between horses, it’s instead my belief to let the horse be a horse and the human be a human. Horses can figure out the difference and can bond with a human in a more profound way that we often realize.
After her dam got in the trailer and went home, I spent many hours in those first several weeks grooming her and taking her for walks. Maggie seemed hopelessly lost without her Dam but found some solace in a couple other pasture mates and eventually began to enjoy the time I was spending with her, greeting me at the gate and whinnying to me when I would enter the tack shed to get her halter.
Eventually we moved to free lunging sessions in the round pen.
The first session or two in the round pen were rough. As soon as I took her halter off she would blast off into a fast trot or canter around the perimeter of the round pen, focusing on anything but me. I wasn’t asking for this but I had to see what she would do. I should mention that I don’t use the round pen or lungeing to “work the kinks out” by wearing a horse down. (that’ probably a whole other post!)
My first challenge was to help her understand that the answer was not to run around the perimeter of the round pen as fast as her feet could carry her. I had to get her mind. As sensitive as she was, I knew I had to be careful not to do too much. A small step to the left or right would send her reeling and kicking out as she passed by me, letting me know how unpleased she was. Echoes of the words of my horse training mentor , Harry Whitney, rang in my ears, “ get the thought and the feet will come”.
At this stage it didn’t matter what that change of thought was, or if it came and went in a flutter. We were defining success on a small scale. It was my job to identify the smallest of change in her thought, and reward it. It would require good timing and feel. Having worked with the Barbs, and other less than domesticated horses for the last several years I was pretty confident I could recognize fairly subtle things in a horse. It might be as subtle as a flick of the ear , a quick look in my direction. It could be a slight slowed or faster pace in response to my shift in my weight, or a tail swish, or anything really....
Or, on the other hand, given Maggie’s highly reactive ways, it may not be subtle at all. I was betting on the latter. Either way, I would have to be quick with my reward, to tell her “that’s it, that’s the answer”…to encourage her to keep checking in…regardless of what she threw at me.
As suspected, the first response she gave me wasn’t subtle at all.
As she ran around the round pen, she would rush more on one side than the other. This was a perfect opportunity she had just presented to me. As she came around, several strides before she got to that spot, I stepped to my left, closing in the distance between the panel and me. She would do one of a couple things I figured, she would either stop abruptly and turn around, or she might blast through the tighter space between me and the round pen panel. Maggie, I should have known, highly emotional and strong willed, came right at me, head low and ears pinned. Maggie was not pleased with the change of program and was quick to let me know , just as she would move another horse out of her way, she was trying to get me to move out of her way. I had a flag in my hand and as she came closer, I stepped firmly toward her and gave the flag a little shake, keeping it low to the ground and not directly at her. She turned and was now traveling in the other direction. In her attempt to move me, she fully expected me to move away, out of her path. What had occurred instead was that she had to move out of my way, and move off into a direction she was not expecting to go. A change of thought indeed had just occurred.
I was quite pleased with how it all shook out. Her reaction gave me alot to work with. And... when she found herself back out on the perimeter, she suddenly stopped , looked at me , licking and chewing as if to say "well that didn't go like I had planned".. "what in the world just happened?"
We repeated this a couple more times, except, I moved to different parts of the round pen, changing the program a bit. She instantly became much more interested in what I was going to do next and less focused on everything else. This was what I was looking for.. as long as she was checking in with me, she was mentally engaged. I wasn’t concerned about what direction or what gait she traveled at. I only wanted to capture her attention, if even for brief moments. Whenever she offered to check in with me, whatever that was at that very moment, she was rewarded .
“Good girl, easy girl...” softly coaxing her with my voice and simple pressure/release by body position.
Eventually she might just relax enough to drop into a walk, and then maybe someday stop and allow me to walk up to her, scratch on her for a while and take a walk around the perimeter with her. That would be success.
We built the foundation over many hours and many days of sessions like this until eventually she realized she didn’t need to be out there by herself on the perimeter, full of worry and working so hard. Pretty soon, her thoughts were more on me. She began to come in to where I was standing, looking to me and asking what she should do. She began to hunt for what felt good to her, for the reward of simply coming in and of being quiet together, for a gentle stroke along her neck or a scratch under her belly where only a good friend can reach. We continued down this road, gradually building the blocks of a solid foundation to where we are today.
Today, I can take her into the round pen, undo her halter and she will stay near me until I ask her to go out. I can move her up and down through her gaits, halt, walk, trot , canter with voice commands and the subsequent pressure and release of my body position. I can ask her to come in to see me, change direction and go back out and pick up a trot. All of this in a quiet, controlled manner; not a fast, rushed, frantic way that I see with so many horses who have been “round pen trained”. Her thoughts and my thoughts in line and finally we have something to build from.
Stay tuned for the next post about how all of this translates to time in the saddle!