Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sensitive Issue of Desensitizing

In the good old days they used to call it "sacking out".  It consisted of tying your horse to a post and rubbing it all over with a gunny sack until it stood for it.  Generally it was a one time thing that happened prior to chucking the kack on his back and cinching it down.  Today desensitizing is a process that in some instances goes on throughout the horse's entire life.  There is a rainbow of fruit flavors available to choose from when you decide how or if you are going to incorporate this tool into your repertoire with your horse.

The science behind desensitizing is sound.  Horses are prey animals.  They have a well ingrained flight or fight response that has allowed them to survive in the natural habitat for thousands of years.  Their instincts tell them that if you see something that might eat you, even if you aren't sure it's probably best to get out of there quickly and then maybe reassess.  If you can't run, you better start fighting.  Desensitizing is supposed to teach a horse to stop and assess first prior to running and fighting.

Desensitizing today is largely done the same as it was years ago with the exception that you don't tie the horse.  You leave them an out so that they don't feel trapped and don't end up kicking in the fight response.  If your horse always has an opportunity to leave the scary object, even if it's just running around you in a circle they will eventually stop to reassess the situation and then accept it.  You can use any object to desensitize but most practitioners of natural horsemanship will use a stick and string (carrot stick or handy stick) or a flag or a coiled lariat.  While holding the horse on a lead line you introduce the object by moving it all around and over the horse's body until he can stand there and accept it.

The variation in method and ideology comes in when we start discussing just how much desensitizing you need to do.   Here is where the rainbow of fruit flavors comes in.

Maximum Desensitizing: These are the folks that have a regimen of desensitizing that they do with their horses each and every time that they work with them.  Typically this is incorporated as part of the groundwork routine but can also be done from the saddle.  You'll often hear this mantra from folks in this camp, "For every sensitizing exercise there is a desensitizing exercise".  So you will first teach your horse to move off of pressure or stimulation then teach it to ignore the stimulation.  It is up to the horse to read your body language and therefore your intention before deciding if it is supposed to move or go.  It is also often used as a sort of cool down after a rigorous sensitizing exercise.  When you start your desensitizing the horse is supposed to just cock a leg and zone out.  It's his cue to stand quietly.  Defendants of this process are the ones that you will often see standing on the back of their horses wielding a chainsaw or leaf blower while the horse stands quietly with a leg cocked.  If you are a horse person that is particularly worried about your horse spooking at different stimuli this looks like a dang good deal.  Opponents of this type of desensitizing worry that you are ruining the horses natural sensitivity to stimuli that makes it such a valuable partner.  How can a horse be sensitive to your lightest cue while also being dead to all outside stimuli?

Moderate Desensitizing:  Obviously this form of desensitizing falls somewhere right in the middle.  You will often pair desensitizing and sensitizing exercises with your horse and may even repeat the desensitizing exercises daily.  The difference is that once the horse is good and standing for the desensitizing you move on rather than belabor the point.   There may even come a time in the horse's career when you stop doing the desensitizing unless a problem with a specific object arises and then you always have the desensitizing to fall back on when needed.

Minimal desensitizing:  These are the folks that really can't even abide the word and will often choose a different term for what they do to "check out" the horse or make sure he is okay with stuff.  This type of desensitizing is much less regimented.  There aren't any desensitizing exercises you do with your horse, you just make sure he's okay with stuff.  For example, you horse is worried about fly spray.  You would just keep quietly fly spraying them until they quit freaking out.  You would do this as needed with the horse.  Or your horse is afraid of your hat.  You would calmly show the horse your hat until he was okay with it.  It's really just good basic horsemanship and common sense.  The idea being we aren't trying to make a horse okay with everything in the world so that you can carry around an inflatable boat on the top of your horse if needed.  We are trying to teach the horse that when we are there with you you don't need to be afraid because if I say it's okay, it is.  You are making a pact to the horse that says, "I promise to take care of you and when we are together I'll help you watch out for scary or dangerous stuff".  The horse learns not so much to tune stimuli out but to be okay with it because he has trust in you, his herd mate that you aren't going to be in trouble.

Even as I write this it seems silly to me that there is any debate about this, but believe me folks from the different camps can get down right touchy about this.  The minimal desensitizers believe the maximum desensitizers are dulling their horses and making dead unthinking horses that nobody would want to ride and the maximum desensitizers think the minimal desensitizers are just "cowboys" making crack heads that are prone to buck or run off at the least amount of outside stimuli.

Let me tell you about my personal journey with desensitizing.  I started out in the maximum desensitizing camp.  It made perfect sense to me at first.  Who wouldn't want a horse that is 100% okay with bombs going off and flags and fireworks.  I faithfully did my desensitizing with my stick and string or lead rope each and every time I did groundwork before getting on my horse.  I got my horse to the point that I could walk all around him while he stood sleeping as I whacked that thing on the ground as hard as I could.  What I noticed is that it worked great in that context.  What it didn't do is transfer to the larger outside world.  I found that my horse was either completely sensitized jumping to my least cue or completely desensitized sleeping while I made a ruckus around him.  I definitely could have gotten on my horse with a leaf blower and stood there blowing away while he slept.  But only if I had done my running around ground work and got him tired first.  It didn't help him to just trust that I would keep him safe in all situations because it was an isolated exercise.  When it happened after we had done some good running around in the arena he totally understood that it was time to stand and sleep.  If I just walked out and caught him and he saw something scary there was no trust.  Because I have a hot sensitive horse I didn't ever end up with a dull unresponsive horse  but I didn't ever get a horse that was completely with me all the time either.

So, with my next 2 horses that I started I went somewhere in the middle.  It worked better, I think, but especially with the little quiet 3 year old Morgan that had a tendency towards laziness I noticed that the more I desensitized the more it took to get him to move at all.  He loved desensitizing.  He thought it was right up there with a good grooming.  Once I realized that if I kept at it I was going to need spurs to get him to move at all I quit.  He wasn't ever really worried about stuff anyway, why continue with it as part of our daily routine?

A mistake that I see a lot of folks make with desensitizing and one that seems to create freak out moments is forgetting to desensitize a horse while he is in motion.  You'd be surprised at how a horse that is standing there completely dozing while you wave a flag around can turn into a nut case when you start moving that flag around while you are riding them or while they are moving around you in a circle.  When their feet are already moving that flight response just seems to be that much closer to the surface.  So, anything you desensitize your horse to should be done standing still first and then also while moving.

A great example of this happened yesterday with the Moony and the blue tarp.  He's spent some time with blue tarp being rubbed on him from the ground and he'll lope over the thing if it's laying in the arena.  Yesterday I decided to practice dragging the tarp while we were moving.  I picked it up off the rail of the arena and he was a little alert but okay.  I rubbed it on him, no problem.  Then we started to move off at a walk.  Instant anxiety.  So it took some time moving off slowly in a circle dragging the tarp for him to be okay with that.  I repeated it on both sides and eventually I was able to carry it like a cape flapping out behind us.

So, I wouldn't presume to tell you what level of desensitizing you should be doing with your horse.  I think like most things in horsemanship it is a personal decision.  But I do think you should be informed when you make that decision and I do think you want SOME level of desensitizing.  I also think that having a horse that is okay with lots of different stimuli starts with having a horse that is okay with you.  Build that trust with your horse and don't let him down and he'll be much more willing to believe you when you say, "It's alright."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Heaping Helping of Humble Pie

I didn't realize that when I started this blog about my thoughts on horsemanship and the things that I've learned along the way that I might come across as sounding like I am now a master.  I am so far from that.  I am mediocre at best.  The entire purpose of this blog is to explore the nuances of horsemanship and to allow me to focus my thoughts on what horsemanship should be and where I would like to go in improving my horsemanship. I take this stuff very seriously and am constantly working on improving myself in numerous ways.  You can't be in this "sport" (I hate to call it that because it makes it sound like a game and it's so much more serious than that!) without maintaining your sense of humor about the horse's ability to regularly make you look like a fool.

So, I thought this blog might be a good time to share with you some of my recent foolish moments and what I learned from them just so you all realize that I have absolutely zero delusions of grandeur when it comes to me and my horses.

I've already talked a bit about talking on the challenge of learning to jump with my older gelding in the balance blog.  I'm still taking jumping lessons and continuing to work on my form and such rudimentary things as steering and stopping when I am in 2 point position.  My jumping lessons, besides being fun, are also incredibly humbling and exhausting.  It's amazing how much work it is to ride that way.  I can happily spend 8 hours in the saddle riding in the mountains and never really get to that point where I'm ready to get off my horse.  A 45 minute jumping lesson, however, leaves me exhausted and panting almost as hard as my horse. While my balance is getting better there are still so many things that I have to try to remember when all I can seem to think about is one thing at a time.  For instance, on approaching the jump you have to gather your horse, count your strides, keep your heals down, push your horse into a collected frame, prepare to get into two point position, keep steady light pressure on the reins, look towards the jump then at just the right moment look beyond the jump to the next jump, keep your right leg back so that he doesn't change leads and oh yeah, don't fall off!  (I'm sure I missed a few things in that list.  I'm still learning!)

My horse is taking the jump and I'm still somewhere at "keep your heals down".  I feel like a complete beginner.  It's just so different from the style of riding that I have been working towards the last few years and by golly, I'm not a kid anymore and apparently learning new things and retraining your body is a difficult thing! But, I'll keep at it.   I am nothing if not stubborn and I really want to get this.  Probably the fact that I'm having so much trouble mastering these things is going to make me want to master it all that much more.  It seems inconceivable to me that I can't keep my heals down.  Really?  How hard can that possibly be?

Pushing myself outside of my equine comfort zone has been so good for the rest of my riding.  It has helped me to remember that form and balance that you think is second nature needs work.  Just because you feel pretty comfortable in your western saddle doesn't mean that you don't have balance and form issues in your riding.  There is nothing like a new discipline to really make you think about your riding and your communication with your horse.  Even if you aren't switching disciplines, just take a lesson and have somebody there who can critique you and push you and correct that sagging shoulder that you don't realize you have.  I don't care who you are, you can benefit from it.

My other heaping helping of humble pie came last week as I was teaching my 2 year old how to back out of the trailer.  This is a hard one for me to talk about because it was a pretty traumatic experience for me.  It hit me pretty hard emotionally.  We got a new trailer this year and for the first time my horses have to back out. I have been turning my horses around in the trailer and leading them out and down a ramp since I as 16.  I've just always believed that was safer.

But our new trailer has a spiffy rear tack and so the horses can't really turn around in it.  I figured it was time for me and them to get this figured out and it's gone pretty well with everybody.  Then I decided it was time for the 2 year old to work on it.  I figured he'd be easy because he had few preconceived notions since he hasn't been trailered more than a handful of times.  He was a rockstar.  After about 15 minutes I had him backing out after I sent him in just by tugging on his tail.  I figured I would do it one more time just be sure he had it well cemented in his young brain.

For some reason, probably because he was getting bored with this repetitive game, he decided to try to turn around and look at me before he got all the way backed out.  He did that in the narrowest part of the trailer and got himself wedged and ended up flipping himself out of the trailer.  I was completely powerless to do anything to prevent what I saw coming and had to just stand there and watch it happen.  He fell out of the trailer into the driveway and thankfully landed on his hip and shoulder.  If he'd come out completely backwards and hit his head he probably would have killed himself.  (Not being dramatic, I've attended many of these accidents).

He popped right up and I put him right back into the trailer trying to prevent any traumatic memories from cementing and making trailer loading an issue and he went right back in.  He took way longer to come out this time but made it out eventually.  Then when we attempted to haul him to a ride it took about 20 minutes to get him out.  I was so disgusted with myself for letting this happen.  Here I had a 2 year old that was completely confident and backing out of the trailer like a champ and I ruined it by pushing it too far and letting him get bored and looking for a new way out of the trailer.  I was upset enough and so frustrated that Dan had to step in and help me out because I was emotionally shot.

Honestly, I am still pretty traumatized from the whole incident.  I just feel like I totally failed my colt and have had many nightmares about what could have happened.  He'll probably get over it much faster than I will.  I'm still processing exactly where I went wrong and maybe it would have eventually happened anyway.

The moral of these stories is that horses will provide you unending opportunities for making a fool of yourself. That's one of the beauties of having this as your life passion.  You will never ever stop learning and growing and improving because this is a life sport.  It's one that you can do your whole life and only a few will ever be considered "masters".  I'm willing to bet those "masters" have days where they feel like an idiot too.  That's just horses.

So, if you've been following along with my blogs and thinking, "what makes her think she knows so much about horses".  Believe me I don't!  I'm learning as I go just like we all are.  Just like in horses, I think one of the most important traits in a rider is try.  You gotta have try to grow and learn.  If I can say one thing about myself I know I have try.  The rest I hope I get figured out before I'm 80!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Getting Grounded

Groundwork, in the world of horses, means many different things to different people.  It can and does include anything that you do on your horse while you are on the ground.  Anything from teaching your horse to pick up his feet to leading and longing and so much more.

When I was a kid, groundwork meant practicing fitting and showing.  It also meant hugo, supremo, extra boring.  I was lucky enough to have a horse that was really really good at it through much of my 4-H career and that meant that I hardly ever practiced it.  I'm sure that I'm not the only one that thinks that groundwork is boring as I hear 4-H kids bemoan fitting and showing practice quite a bit.  The kid in me would still much rather hop in the saddle and get to riding than spend any more time than is necessary on groundwork.  How I wish I had had a better understanding of what groundwork was really all about as a young 4-Her.  There were so many things I could have helped my horse with had I only understood that it's not all just about standing pretty and doing perfect haunch turns.  I absolutely cringe when I see a 4-H horse with a chain on his lead so the kid can control it.  If your horse isn't responsive enough to respond to a feather light hand on the lead rope, why in the world would you hand that thing over to your kid?! I was once drug across an arena on the end of a chained lead rope by my little mare (this was obviously not the horse that was great at fitting and showing).  I was completely powerless to do anything about it.  How I would have loved to have some tools to teach my mare to behave and respond on the end of that lead rope.

It was when I started learning about natural horsemanship that I learned that groundwork is an extremely important part of teaching things to your horse.  Most natural horsemanship programs have a strong foundation in groundwork.  In the realm of natural horsemanship, no matter which practitioner you follow, groundwork is used to teach a horse how to think and move and be comfortable with any number of different stimuli.  It can not only be used to get a young horse ready to accept rider and saddle but it can be used to teach an older horse how to flex and move body parts that are difficult to communicate in the saddle. Groundwork is where we introduce the hugely important concepts such as soft feel, giving to pressure, forward impulsion and standing still; all things that plenty of older, "finished" horses could use some help with too.

Everything you do on the ground should transfer into a usable skill under saddle (that is if riding your horse is your ultimate goal).  Like any great horsemanship program, groundwork is just a piece of the puzzle and isn't meant to replace time spent aboard your horse, but to improve the time spent mounted.  If you groundwork your horse "to death" it will eventually work against you.  Keep it purposeful and useful and geared towards making your horse think and you won't end up with a horse doing tricks on the ground but instead, one that is ready and able to accept new challenges under saddle.  Contrary to traditional thinking, groundwork is not to get the fresh off or work the bucks out.  It is meant to get the horse checked in and thinking so your communication is in place before you ever step foot in the saddle.

So lets briefly talk about some of the basic elements of a good groundwork program and why they are important in both the young and the old horse.

1.  Leading by or Sending  This is an important exercise for developing feel in your horse.  In this exercise you ask the horse to calmly walk off in a circle around you in the direction indicated by your leading hand.  It's important to note the difference between this and traditional longing.  While you can and do longe a horse using this exact principle, having the horse continue in a circle around you at a lope or a jog is not the main goal of this exercise.  The goal is to establish direction, forward impulsion and lightness based strictly on a light feel on the lead rope.  You do not pull your horse anywhere in this exercise nor should you drive your horse forward with a whip or flag.  You may need to do that in the teaching phase to help your horse understand what is necessary but in the end what you are after is for your horse to calmly walk off in the direction you indicate for as long as communicate that you need him to go that way.  It's great for sending a horse through a gait ahead of you, or into a trailer, or across an obstacle.  On an older "broke" horse this is great for making sure they are checked in and following your light feel.  You shouldn't have to drag your horse around or ask him repeatedly.

2.  Backing  No matter what method you use (and there are LOTS) to teach your horse to back, the end goal is the same;  quiet, calm backing, in correct frame with cadence and energy in a straight line or a circle. The purpose of teaching your horse these maneuvers on the ground first is that it makes it easier for him to understand in the saddle and you can better help him to establish proper frame and cadence from the ground before you ever get on his back.  When a horse backs properly they move in a diagonal gait like a trot lifting their hind legs and stepping backwards without dragging their feet.   This is the first place we can help teach a horse to round and collect through their entire body.  If the method that you are using to teach a horse to back causes them to raise their head and rush backwards dragging their feet, I would recommend choosing a different technique.   Most of those methods are the ones that require you to whack the horse on the nose or chest with the rope or stick and string and rush the horse backwards.  Practice backing on the ground so your horse is in the exact same frame you would want them to back under saddle.  I was amazed recently when I went to a big regional Morgan horse show how many of those horses couldn't back correctly. We saw world champion western pleasure horses that backed with a brace and drug their legs through the arena dirt. It ruins the entire picture of a light pleasurable horse to ride.

3.  Lateral Flexion  This is a hallmark of many natural horsemanship regimes and one that causes a lot of debate in the horse world between the practitioners of natural horsemanship and some of the fundamental traditionalists.  Unfortunately, many people that are practicing this technique don't understand the true purpose of it and end up doing it incorrectly.  Lateral flexion exists to teach feel.  You are teaching your horse to follow your hand on the rein with the lightest possible cue.  This is taught both in the halter and later in the bridle or bosal.  If you pick up your horse's rein or lead rope and he snaps his head over to his rib cage before you can even close your fist on it you have taught your horse a trick,  you have not taught lateral flexion.  What you are after is for your horse to bring his head around slowly and correctly following the lightest feel.  You should be able to pick up that lead rope and with the lightest touch bring your horse's head over 9.7 degrees and  have him hold it there without jerking on your hand.  Or bring his head around 87 degrees with the same response and stand quietly until you release it.  Lateral flexion, to be proper, should result in your horse's head remaining vertical.  If your horse just reaches his nose around and touches your stirrup, that is not true lateral flexion.  Unfortunately, I didn't understand this when I taught Chico and Moony how to do lateral flexion.  I was still following the principle of a million lateral flexions while your horse is standing still is a good thing.  Therefore they will often, with the slightest rein pressure quickly flex around to my toe like they are doing a calisthenic exercise.  I've about fixed this with Moony, but it's pretty deeply ingrained in Chico.  You can bet Kit won't have this problem.

4.  Breaking Over or Yielding the Hind Quarters  This is another fundamental element of most natural horsemanship programs.  It's often described as being similar to pushing in the clutch on your horse so that you gain control of his body.  It is useful for stopping forward momentum and can be used to begin to teach a horse isolation of different parts of his body.  Your goal is to cause the horse to step his hind end away from pressure while holding his front end still, effectively doing a turn on the forehand.  If done properly the horse should step underneath himself, crossing in front of his other hind foot as he steps out and around with his hind end.  This is another exercise where precision and placement of the feet is more important than the impulsion in the early stages.  There are techniques taught out there that encourage the horse to move in a "snappy, hop-to-it" manner when you ask them to step over.  If the horse is just jumping out of your way and isn't stepping correctly underneath themselves they aren't preparing for the more advanced maneuvers that we will be teaching under saddle.  It's not that you can't do this maneuver with hustle, but it should first and foremost be done correctly, like backing softly and in frame.  On an older horse that has some stiffness and bracing this will teach him to release his ribs and arc his frame as well.  He can't cross those back legs over and step under himself if there is a brace through the rib cage and spine.

5. Bringing the Fore Quarters Through  This is the opposite maneuver of breaking the hindquarters over and is eventually done paired with it.  In this maneuver the horse steps his front end around his hind end moving his front leg across and in front of the other front leg.  Obviously this is a useful maneuver because it starts the horse doing turn-arounds or spins which is important for any western horse.  If you have a horse that is walking out of his turn around under saddle, bringing it back to basic groundwork can often correct that problem.

So here is what my basic ground work session  might look like before I get on my horse.  I ask my horse to lead by me a few steps around in a circle making sure he is light without dragging on the line and without me having to drive him forward from behind. There should be slack or "float" in that line the entire time.  Then I pickup on the lead rope or mecate and break his hindquarters over, bring his forequarters across and ask him to lead by the other direction and repeat.  If he does all of this light and responsive, I might stop him (by breaking his hindquarters over) and ask for a soft back, or maybe a turn around and viola, pre-flight check is complete and I get on.  It took me about 2 minutes.

If there is a hole, brace, or jig anywhere in that pre-flight check it gives me the opportunity to fix it before I ever have a foot in the saddle.  My horse isn't huffing and puffing, there has been no dust raised or increase in heart rate.  It's just a little quiz.  "Hello, Moonshine, are you with me and thinking?" and he responds, "Why, yes, I am, get in the saddle and let's go to work!"

Kit, my 2 year old,  sometimes will need a little more.  He'll bounce off at the end of the lead rope when I ask him to lead by causing me to break him over and send him the other way.  Or maybe he is completely not paying attention and misses me asking him to lead by.  Then I might get a little more momentum out of him just to say, "Hey, it's time to go to school, my friend!".  And continue with him until he is thinking, and responding lightly and calmly.

There are many, many more exercises that are developed for ground work programs with your horse.  A little research and you will find a whole slew of different things.  Just remember when choosing what goes into your regiment that confidence, willingness and softness undersaddle are your ultimate goals.

Students of natural horsemanship will notice that I left desensitizing off my list of groundwork exercises.  That wasn't a forgetful omission.  Desensitizing is a very important topic and deserves some time all of it's own.  It's incredibly important and often way overdone.  We'll leave that for another time.

So, in summary, groundwork is an important piece of your horsemanship toolbox.  Use it wisely.  Too much groundwork is almost as bad as too little and you have to be careful not to get caught in that trap because it removes the relevance for the horse.  If I was queen for a day, teaching basic groundwork principles would be part of the first year 4-H program and chained leads would no longer be seen or needed on the grounds of a 4-H show.