Kameo: The Experiment (Week #3)

Week #3

Friendly Game, Yo-Yo, Desensitize, Halter Work, Head of the Herd

I got to the farm and was dressed and headed to the barn around 11.  Hay is thrown around 9 and I wanted there to be a little bit of a break between the throwing of hay and training.

On my way to the barn, I was thinking: “Never was Clytemnestra’s kiss sweeter than the night she slew me…” *

I worry that I will get to a good place, push too hard, and then we will be back where we started.  I have to work hard not to have that happen. It isn’t the disappointment I worry about.  I can handle the disappointment.  I worry about getting hurt.  I am trying not to be too worried, but seeing the shift her body makes when she goes from comfortable to scared or angry is often frightening. I don’t frighten easily, but this is powerful.

This week we are going to keep working on the friendly game and all its variations, the yo-yo game, lots of halter work, and a new game I invented called “Head of the Herd”.

Thursday was a series of 30-45 minute sessions broken two hours apart.  Friday was the same schedule, but it started earlier (I was already at the farm).

We started off with halter work.  I put it on and took it off twice each session.  Half of the time she gave me her nose and half of the time she turned away – a kind of resigned “Oh, OK.  Have your way with me if you like.”

We got through friendly games and some basic grooming pretty well.  She let the stick go down under her belly, but stopped short of letting my gloved hand go there.  I was able to curry her a bit without a lot of nipping this time and managed to get her mane combed, but not her tail.

We started to escalate the friendly game by including the desensitization that we will be introducing tonight.  It is really nothing more than a piece of really loud crinkly plastic on the end of the stick that you rub her down with.  She tolerated it pretty well.

Thursday night on our fourth session of the day she would hang out with me in the pasture, but she would not let me put a halter on her for anything.  Because I am not going to use a bunch of treats and bribe her and I am not going to wrestle her big ass I just hung out in the pasture with all seven of them.

This is when I hit on my new game.

I noticed that when I am out in the pasture with all of them she stands back and watches.  Her lips are flying and the tongue is lick-lick-licking (this is supposedly a sign that they are thinking).  I thought that perhaps, since she is so herd driven, she is watching for cues from the other horses as far as I am concerned.  So I thought: “Why not establish myself as the head of this herd?”

I began, starting with the top mare, to push the other horses around while she watched.  Bug and Kayla are the two alpha mares in the group, so I started with them.  They are well-trained and yield easily, so I just moved them around here, then there a few feet at a time with no lead or halters.  Then I moved on to the other mare and the two geldings.  The lowest rung of this herd is the mule (who really doesn’t like me anyway) so that was easy.
She just stood back and watched – those lips and tongue flailing.  I threw hay and then did it again before going into the house for my own dinner.

Lo! And Behold! The next day she was a thousand times more interested and calm.  I had played head of the herd before I sought her out and she yeilded to me with no issues whatsoever for the rest of the day.

And what a day it was!  We worked on friendly games, then worked a bit on yo-yo game, all the while mixing in desensitizing stimulation.  I found some old Christmas garland in the garage and hung plastic bags from the wall of her stall.  Then I covered her stall floor with them when we brought them in for grain.  She wasn’t thrilled and it will take her a bit to get used to it, but the ramping in her stall is pretty minimal considering.
When we let them all into the barn, she hesitated at the stall door and then jumped in and over the bags.  I won’t push it any more than necessary.  Cyndi is going to alternate the plastic on-and-off throughout the week so that we are desensitizing her and not creating a neurotic.

Friday we worked in a lot more of the yo-yo game into our friendly stuff.  I can’t just groom and friendly her for hours at a time.  She gets bored and leaves.  When Cyndi first started learning about the games, she taught Kameo to yo-yo.  It is supposed to be a bit advanced, but she knows it and so we began working with it.  She did great.  I was able to get her in and out of the main barn doors and Friday night before we shut everything down for the evening we had a bit of a recital where Cyndi, the dog, and the barn cats watched as I led her down the aisle in both directions and then reversed the entire length of the barn (about 50 feet) in both directions.

Overall, it was a GREAT week of sessions.  She seems to be picking up on things quickly and I have another humane desensitization idea for next week!

*Yes, I love reading Saki.  Why do you ask?  If you want another short story I identify this horse with, try “The Brogue

Kameo: The Experiment (Week #2)

Week #2

Friendly Game, Light Yo-Yo

This week is an easy week.  We are working in 30 minute sessions that are two hours apart.

Most of our work is going to be friendly work with a light bit of yo-yo game (just a few steps) thrown in to keep us from boring our friendly selves to death.

She is working really well with handling.  She still flinches, but it isn’t a full-body flinch anymore.  Now it is just from her hindquarters and withers through her legs.  She has stopped the ramping and stomping feet while you are working with her, but she will still ramp and stomp a bit in her stall.

I like working with her in the barn (it is CRAZY cold in Wisconsin right now) because she can’t rear up on me.  The ceilings aren’t quite high enough.

I took her out twice on the driveway, a 40 yard stretch of blacktop, and then once out on the track.

She does well on the pavement – there is nothing to distract her.  She did well out on the track, too.  It was snowing pretty hard but she plowed through it and we did well.  She took my lead and didn’t pull or lag.  It was really nice.

Next week we are going to be moving on to bigger and a little more challenging things, but I figure if I just keep it slow, steady, and predictable then we are in good shape.

Kameo: The Experiment (An Introduction)

Alternate Title:

My Strange Love Affair With Mustang Sally

Or, less preferable:

A Horse is a Horse (of Course, of Course) Until She Stomps Your Head


When my friend Greg died, I ended up spending a lot of time with his two sisters. One of them has a small herd of horses in Wisconsin.  Cyndi runs Getaway Farms in Plymouth, Wisconsin.
When I first visited the farm last Summer, I met Kameo.

Kameo in Stall

The only time this horse was calm was when she was eating.

Kameo is a 5 year old Arabian horse that has decent bloodlines and a sad history.  She shied from everything and seemed to think that everything was dangerous and scary.

Those who know me know that I am a fixer.  I fix things.  I set things right.  It doesn’t matter if it is people, architectural rehabs, or (as it turns out) horses.
There was something about her that drew me to her.  The fear and panic in her made me think that we had a lot in common.  We both have been pushed around and abused to the point where we draw in on ourselves and spook at the world.

She had been foaled on a small farm and scared to death her first couple of years.  They kept her in cross-ties and stalls and got her through doors and trailers by shaking milk jugs full of rocks at her.  Pretty much just frightening her to do what they wanted her to do.  When the results of this kind of imprinting became obvious and she was deemed un-trainable, they gave her to a smaller farm where she was tended to by a worry-wart of a new owner.  The new owner wasn’t abusive like the former owner, but she was very high-strung and hand-wavy.  Instead of working through the abuse that the horse had gone through, she would fret and fuss over the bad behavior making it worse.
By the time Cyndi got her, she had been abused and then coddled so that her bad behavior was exacerbated a hundred-fold.

She wouldn’t let you halter her, she couldn’t trailer, and she had never even had a saddle or blanket put on her.  She was practically feral.

She was given away as an un-trainable horse.

She had had no trailering experience, so they had to practically dismantle the trailer when they brought her to Getaway.  Tight spaces made her crazy.

Cyndi wasn’t sure how the other horses would react to her, so she brought her to the back pasture a couple score yards away from the main herd.  Even as frightened as she was with all of the stimulation and new environment, her herd instinct is so strong that she ramped and raced through two electric fences to join the herd she didn’t even know.

Now, she is second-to-last in the pecking order of the herd.  She gets pushy sometimes in the pasture, but the herd that existed before she came was well established and so her place is pretty solid.  Because she seems to be the equine equivalent of Rebbecca Sharp, she is always being pushed back into place after an attempt to climb the social ladder.

One day this Summer, I mentioned to Cyndi that I would like to try to train Kameo and see what happens.  She likes me enough that she will come to me in the pasture and follow me for a bit and I have been wanting to get back into horses, so it seemed like a good match.

We had been watching a lot of Pat & Linda Parelli on DVD and were in a place where anything seems possible.  The Parellis will do that to you, you know.  One minute you are thinking that nothing good will ever come of this mare and then you see Pat and Linda doing what seems to be magic on some monster of a horse and all of the sudden you are seeing yourself Roman riding in the circus as cannons fire and lights flash.  It is very seductive.

It helps that I grew up watching my cousin Bill Hewig train and work horses. When I was little and we went over, I would watch him work with them in the round pen and listen to him talk about them.  He gave us our family horse, Nicholas.  Nick was a large sturdy white Quarter Horse that was great with kids.  We rode him and played with him until my parents got divorced and my brothers and I had to move into the city.

In any case, Bill was talking to me about a couple of conversations he has had with Monty Roberts and gave me some intro pointers and references.  The next thing Cyndi and I have to do is come up with some goals.

She wants a happy horse that will be tolerant, manageable, and softer so that Kameo can be bred.  I would add to that that I would like a horse that is capable of some work as well as pleasure.  I don’t really respond to the idea of horses as pets, but don’t think that all they should do is pull or carry.  So she and I are working on a bit of a continuum of expectations.

The things we agree on are far more important.  We both are thinking that natural riding and training are the way to go.  We aren’t going to use cross-ties and bits if we can help it and we are both against whips and crops as discipline.

And thus begins the experiment.  I am going to incorporate the training into some of the broader aspects of my business for two days a week for the next six months.  We will see how far that gets us.

Stay tuned.