For the past week or so I’ve fetched Spring Song from her paddock and taken her to Pax’s stall in the lower barn. This barn is new to her because she is stabled in the upper barn when she’s not out with the girls (three other mares) 24/7.
I leave her in the stall, go to the upper barn, get her tack, etc. Since her tooth cap was removed Thursday afternoon I’ve been riding in the Bitless Bridle to give her mouth some time to heal. Plus I love the Bitless!
When we enter the arena I lead her around the entire area several times in both directions. We practice the halt, yielding the hind end, yielding the front end, backing up. Our back up at this stage is a step or two straight back, then I ask her to go forward.
I take her to the mounting block and proceed incredibly slowly with mounting. Initially someone held Spring Song while I mounted. For the past couple of weeks I’ve mounted her without a helper. I do not get on if she moves a foot. The past four or five days she quite enjoys moving her feet…backwards!!!! I perceived that the foot movement coincides with me gathering up the reins of the Bitless Bridle. She often refuses to step forward while I’m up on the mounting block. I get down, lead her, play some yielding games and again approach the mounting block. One day (after several of these backward movements) I said, “NO” when she moved a foot and slapped her behind the saddle. She was a bit surprised, She stepped forward. Stood still. I got into the saddle. We stood there. And, finally I asked her to walk off.
The surprised look on Spring Song’s face reminded me of the look our vizsla, Trooper, had on his face when Bill and I were attempting to trim his toenails. At that time Trooper was under a year old and we were able to overpower him if need be. Trooper decided that having his toenails trimmed was catastrophic and Bill held tightly onto the young dog. Trooper wasn’t settling. He was becoming frantic. I said, “Let him go. We’ll get the clicker and take some time to help Trooper get his toenails clipped. I’m not having him pull a muscle in his frenzied attempt to run away. And, I don’t want him feeling so afraid of you and me.” I gathered some treats. Got the clicker and found Trooper. One of the hardest things for me to do is to BELIEVE in the clicker even though It always works!!!! When I started with Trooper I clicked/treated when he sat there while I was holding the toenail clipper in my hand. (You’ve got to start somewhere!!!) After a few click/treats I held the toenail clipper closer to him. Click/treat. Then I touched my other hand on his leg. Click/treat. Then I touched the toenail clipper against his back. Click/treat. Within a few minutes Trooper was happily sitting and presenting a paw for me to trim.
Guess the big question was and always will be: do I get the job done quickly at any cost or do I take things slowly, read the animal’s reaction and bit by bit accomplish peacefully what I wanted to do. This also translates to: do I want a relationship where the animal is looking for the other boot to drop or do I want a relationship where the animal is searching happily for the answer to a question? Force or clicker? Sadly it’s SO easy to MAKE an animal do something and it takes patience, creativity and TIME to teach with positive reinforcement. In this day and age the quick answer wins way too often.
Today Spring Song took this moving at the mounting block to a new level of gamesmanship. I led her to the whip storage bracket on the arena wall and picked up one of the wands with the soft ball on the end (I got these from Allen Pogue at Imagine a Horse). I also had my clicker in my left jean pocket and many small treats in my right jean pocket.
I placed the wand on the low pedestal, just in case I ran out of patience with the clicker.
I decided that I didn’t like the surprised look from the slap. I knew that using the clicker would get through to Spring Song. I just had to be patient and NOT so “human”.
I led Spring Song to the mounting block. Asked her to stop. She did. Click/treat. Took her for a short walk and at some point asked her to yield her hind end. Back to the mounting block. Waited while she stood still. Click/treat. Took her for a walk. Back to the mounting block. I climbed up on it. She stood. Click/treat. I repeated the sequence and upped the ante by doing things like picking up the reins, raising the reins, tapping her rump, tapping both sides of the saddle, pulling the stirrup. And, you guessed it, I was running low on treats. Special note: the short walk is very important for her. It’s always the same pattern and it becomes mesmerizing. She puts the gap time in the walk to good use, puzzling out what I’d like for her to do.
I had one treat left in my pocket. We were at the mounting block and she was standing perfectly. I gathered the reins, placed my hand on her neck and felt that she was just beginning to think about moving one step backwards. I looked at her hind end, silently asking her to mentally yield to me and she did not take one step backwards. Instead, she shifted her weight ever so slightly so that she was standing balanced on all four feet. I mounted and off we went!
When the ride was over I showed a friend how Spring Song has learned to pretty much read my mind and yield her hind end (both sides) with minimal movement from me. The friend was interested in the exercise and I helped him figure out how to do this with Spring Song.
Back to the lower barn. Spring Song enjoyed munching on hay and chilling out. After I brought Zelador and Zeloso into their stalls I led Spring Song to the BIG paddock to join the other three mares.
When I got to the gate I saw the mares over 100 metres away on the crest of the hill. I put Spring Song in the paddock and she walked quietly towards them. I realized I’d never seen her do this at a walk. She always trotted, then rolled into a canter. I watched her for several minutes. She kept on walking and I felt that she was at peace and pondering our time together.