Kameo: The Experiment (Week #8)

I got to the barn around 9:30.  After throwing hay I went to go get her from the pasture.  It was then I realized that she is playing a bit of a game with me.

I am being tricked.

The past two times I’ve been out to the pasture, she has culled herself from the herd when I’ve called her.  She comes up to the door and then hesitates before walking in, but won’t take a halter in the pasture.  She walks in the door and then proceeds to do whatever she wants in the barn until I can finally get the halter on her.

So what seemed like a really great breakthrough is really not so much.  I go out to the pasture, show her the halter and lead rope, she pins her ears, and then ducks into the herd.  She does a kind of circle around the herd and then comes inside on her own.

She then stands at the hay stall and fusses and stomps while she eats.  This needs to end.  I thought that I was getting a really cooperative horse when she started coming inside on her own, but I am getting a toddler who doesn’t want to go to school.

Once I get her in a halter, she is ready to work.  I have gone back to basics – lots of grooming and friendly work.  Her flinch is almost gone, but pops back up right after I put the halter on her.  I was able to brush and manipulate her legs and hooves, so at least we are making progress.

When I bring her out of the barn onto the asphalt drive, she then tries to be really pushy and take over.  She wants to drag me to the grass.  Part of it is just the season – the Winters in Wisconsin are hard on the pasture.  Right now the pasture is mud and slush, so a healthy lawn of green grass in late February  is something like a keg at an AA meeting:  Not good.

I don’t want to lose control of the situation, so I turn it into a game at the door.  I start backing her into and out of the door.  Any door.  She still tries to bolt out of her stall if you aren’t paying attention, but she is getting more comfortable standing still while she is halfway over the threshold.

I thought that, as a small triumph, I would try to get her to back up into her stall from the aisle.  I felt like this is dangerous, as the barn’s main aisle isn’t very wide and it meant that I would have to face her as she backed in with my back pinned against the wall.  IT WORKED!  I got into position and then began backing her up.  As she moved, I was able to direct her hindquarters so that she didn’t get started by backing into the door frame.  This is what I was worried about – I had a mental picture of her getting to the frame and hitting it, where she would then rear up and stomp my face into the floor.  This did not happen.

She backed in all the way and then stood there for a second.  I worked her in and out for a bit and then took her back out into the pasture.

Because we have a lot of downtime in-between the sessions, I thought I would see what kind of work can be done in the pasture/barnyard so that I could still be hanging out with them.  I started to do a little bit of fill and grading – on the West side of the pasture.  It is really low and is swampy – especially as the snow melts.  The water doesn’t run off quickly and just sits.  So I start to dig out the culvert that drains the property and open up the ditches.  Then I start to empty wheelbarrows into the lowest parts of the depression.

The funny thing is that Kameo kept coming over to me as I worked and filled the wheelbarrow.  If I had a proper harness, I would have asked her to help me out.  As it was, I was content with her being curious. At least it wasn’t the nasty mare that I had two weeks ago.

We were also able to get some blanket play together.  She didn’t mind the blanket and is still ok with the cinch.

Both days this week, I worked with her face and mouth. While in a halter, she is surprisingly good about having her face, ears, and neck touched without flinching.  I have been doing some friendly work with her mouth and chin to get her ready for a bit and bridle.

There is some old, unused maple syrup in the cellar of the farmhouse, so I took a dram of it and have been using it as a bit of a tease for mouth-play and the bit.  I take just the smallest amount on my index fingers and work them into the corners of each side of her mouth.  It isn’t enough to be a treat, but just enough that she registers “sweet” when I play with her  mouth.  Once she is ok with the fingers in her mouth, I take the smallest amount and put it in the center of the snaffle bit that I’ve been working with.  She takes it in and holds it for a minute.  I have been trying to make sure that I take it out before she either gets tired of it or scared and haven’t tried to attach it to the bridle yet, but we are getting there.  I did this a few weeks ago before she went into heat, but now we can start to use it more regularly.

And that’s it.  I feel like we are beginning to be back on track, but still not there yet.  I am planning on incorporating saddle and bit play into the grooming and friendly process every time so that it is a totally normal thing for her.

Week #9 begins circling and driving.  I have been practicing holding the lead rope and driving stick, so that I don’t end up a cartoonish knotted mess, but the proof will be in the round corral this coming week.

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 (Week #1)

Week #1

Friendly Games & Warm Up

And so it begins…

I had been around Kameo throughout the Summer and Fall, but she was always a bit of a handful.  Most of my time was spent with the older, more experienced horses out on the track or on the trails.

Having watched a number of Parelli videos loaned to me, I thought that the friendly game and some general getting-to-know-you was in order if I was going to be the one to train her.

So we started with a carrot stick and a soft face brush.

No need to push this.

When I got to Getaway Farms on Thursday morning, I had a cup of coffee and sat down to talk about direction with Cyndi, the farm’s owner.  She warned me about moving too fast and letting things get out of hand.  “Make sure that you are matter-of-fact with her.  You don’t want to have to dance around and tiptoe all the time, but you don’t want to be too rough.  If it starts going wrong, jut stop and let her think.  You’ll see her get frustrated and have to think  when you do, just rest and let her think.”

And with that, off I went to the barn.

This being the first day, I didn’t have anything else on the agenda but friendly games.  I wanted her to feel comfortable with me and understand that I wasn’t a threat. I only have two days a week to train, so I can’t let my rush for results interfere with the process.  How annoying would it be to approached by someone who says: “AREN’T WE GOOD FRIENDS?  DON’T YOU SEE HOW MUCH I LIKE YOU AND HOW I AM REALLY NOT A THREAT??!?” over and over again while they try to put their fingers in your ears and rub all over you?

I went out to the pasture and singled her out.  Without too much trouble, she took a halter and allowed me to lead her into the barn. Even though she likes me, we didn’t start off with a lot of aggressive direct contact.  I walked her up and down the aisle, then started working out physical touch with a carrot stick and lead rope.

She has a strong flinch and it seems like I will never be able to touch her directly for any amount of time. It is like a scared full-body shiver that runs through her from the tip of her nose to her hooves… the back two click-click-clicking on the floor of the barn in a kind of warning rush of nervous energy. I am no cowboy, so I took it easy with her and let her decide how much she trusted me. To be brave and bold are noble goals.  To be foolhardy around a scared horse (especially THIS scared horse) is lunacy.  I was able to run a brush down her back eventually, but she wouldn’t offer up her legs or hooves and currying her was out of the question.

One of my jobs in my city life is teaching design and sewing to adults.  This doesn’t ordinarily impact the horses, but there are interesting side effects when I talk about my rural life to city women.  I was talking about Kameo in class one night before I started this training experiment and one of the students mentioned that with few alterations I could be describing a person with PTSD.  This is not to belittle the pain of those who have suffered, but rather to give them some understanding in human terms of what this mare is going through as I gently work with her.

We kept the sessions short but on a schedule.  I was working with her for about 10-15 minutes at a time every three hours.  I wanted her to feel comfortable but still focused throughout the day.

After the third session of the day, she started hanging out in the pasture right outside of the barn door.  When she would see me out in the yard on the other side of the fence she would walk over and look.  She is alert.

By the end of the time at Getaway, she was taking a halter and being led into the barn with no problem.  A couple of the sessions we did out in the pasture because she seemed to be too wound up to be led away from the herd.

And so our first training week ended well – she seemed to be okay with me leading and working and she didn’t mind the schedule.  Next week we will add a couple more things and start with some desensitization.

I am not going to push this.  I would like to have her under a saddle by the middle or end of Summer, but I am not pushing things.  I want all of our sessions to end well.  With her that may take a lot of work.