Teaching Aesop to love hoof care

I’ve had a few conversations lately with several different friends about the range of experiences their animals have had with animal professionals like veterinarians and hoof care specialists. Even as an animal professional myself it can feel scary to trust my horse or dog to someone else’s care who might not have the same ethics or awareness of body language that I do. Both the horse and dog world are still works in progress.  Empathetic handling is not always a consideration. Behavioral health often takes a back seat to “getting the job done.” This is a particular concern when it comes to mustangs. Aesop was wild until he was four years old. He’s only known a few humans, and the first few chased him around with flags and acted unpredictably. There wasn’t time for a relationship. Unlike many domestic horses, he is not automatically trusting of new humans. It is critical that he forms a positive opinion of as many new people as possible. It is critical that he views humans as safe, since he’s known so few. It’s my job to advocate for him.

The first step in advocating for your horse (dog, bird, newt) is teaching them the skill set they will need for their procedure ahead of time. You don’t want the first time the equine podiatrist comes out to be the first time your horse has their feet picked up and held for longer periods of time. Alexandra Kurland has a saying: ” If you haven’t gone through an active teaching process to teach your animal a behavior, don’t expect to get it on a consistent basis. ” Basically, don’t leave it up to luck;) Making sure your horse is comfortable in the cross ties, can lift all four feet and hold them in different positions, is comfortable with a rasp and is comfortable with a “new” person handling him is the bare minimum for a hoof trim. Standing still and balancing on three legs are skills too, passive though they might seem.

When my  new trimmer, Autumn, came out the first time I completely underestimated how afraid Aesop would be of someone new. He and I work together a lot but  since we aren’t at a boarding barn there’s not many new people to get to know. Aesop was terrified of being touched by anyone at all, including me,  with the new strange people in his barn. Oops! Autumn was kind enough to set up appointments with me every Monday so she could come out and handle Aesop and he could get used to her at his own pace. She’s been out three times now and he is getting really comfortable with her. It helps immensely that Autumn is relaxed and open to new ideas and has learned the “clicker game” very quickly. Here’s a (long) video of Autumn and Aesop working together today:

The video is a little bit like watching paint dry and that’s the point. If we go slowly, listen to our horses and progress only when their body language indicates comfort, the whole process of introducing new people and procedures can be relatively stress free. Once or twice in the video you will see Aesop raise his head, stiffen or just turn away toward the windows. Those are micro-expressions of stress/fear in him. When he expresses those signals, Autumn moves back to the last point in the procedure where he was comfortable. Once his muscles are soft again and his head is straight and low, we know we have the green light to move on to the next step. He even starts to offer his foot once he is sure of what we want.

It’s a new concept for animals to participate in their own care. In the past, the definition of success was “nothing happened”. But I don’t want horses who don’t move a muscle because they are terrified of the consequences. I want horses who show me through a drop of their head, offering of their foot or nice deep sigh how complicit they are in their handling. Aesop didn’t ask to be rounded up and brought into my world; it’s my responsibility to make his experience comfortable, safe and fun.

It takes the time it takes…

When I first re-started Dragon using the clicker all I was focused on was making sure he was relaxed and obedient. I had made some large mistakes in his early clicker training by not understanding what a good foundation was, not understanding proper food delivery and not understanding stimulus control. Once I realized I needed to cover all of those variables and went back in Dragon’s training to help him understand those concepts he became very calm, focused and rideable. I wasn’t concerned with his balance or carriage at that time. I just wanted a safe horse who would stand quietly at the mounting block, listen to the cues his rider offered and be emotionally calm under saddle. It’s a good place to start for any horse and rider, certainly. Here’s a short video of our first Why Would You Leave Me under saddle:

In the video you can see that although he is calm and relaxed, his balance leaves a lot to be desired. He is heavy on his forehand with his head nearly to his knees and his hocks strung way out behind him. On the other hand, he is doing a great job of learning to target my seatbones as a guide and staying between the channel of my legs. When he doesn’t, I slide down the rein and ask him to move back under my seatbones and click! when he stays there on his own. On the day that video was made, I was thrilled with my smart, relaxed horse. Looking at it today, I’m glad I didn’t know as much about balance as I know now. But he needed to learn about using my body for direction before we could talk more in-depth about the way he carries his body.

Over the last two years Dragon and I have moved from basic foundation exercises to more intermediate work. We’ve done a ton of ground work where he has learned to use my body as a target, tons of work on circles where he has learned to bend and take a bit more weight onto his hind end, and lots of jaw gives which allow him to go onto the bit and start to use his body more correctly. Two years sounds like a long time but learning to use your body in a completely new way and then strengthen those muscles is a process that can’t be rushed. Unlike “modern dressage” we are not doing this work on contact. That means I am asking Dragon for a certain bend or head elevation and I am asking him to hold that posture on his own. He doesn’t have reins to lean on so he has to build his own correct muscle and truly understand the process, not just passively allow himself to be molded. This way I know he is in true self-carriage. I’m learning the process as well, which makes it a touch slower.  Here’s a video of our ride today where we were working on jaw gives and bend while following my seatbones:

My whole life I wanted to learn dressage. I read myriad books, took infinite lessons and still I was left not understanding the whole picture or how to influence my horse so he could learn to carry himself more athletically. It is a difficult discipline even for a supremely talented rider, and often those who do it best are unable to articulate it to others. It is only through following the work in The Click That Teaches by Alexandra Kurland that I finally am learning how to help my horse balance and how to use my own body to teach him. We are finally moving toward the dream of a centaur, not on heavy restrictive contact, but lightly, together.

Longeing, lumping and splitting!

If you asked most horse people whether longeing their horse was a simple or a complex process, I bet most of them would say it is simple. The horse walks, trots or canters out on a circle at a pre-determined distance from the trainer in the center. But that would be a lumper talking. See, you can be a lumper or a splitter. A lumper takes an exercise/new behavior and looks at it as a whole and expects the animal to immediately grasp all of its parts. Because humans are conceptual thinkers, we don’t always immediateley see all the  individual components of a behavior the way we need to in order to explain it well. A good trainer is a splitter. A splitter looks at the finished behavior and breaks it down into all of its component parts so it is easy for the animal to understand and achieve. I’ve been working on longeing with Dragon, not just go in a circle however you like type-longeing, but move off immediately on the first cue, move off softly, maintain emotional control, remain attentive, have an even tempo, hold your body in a way that is healthy for you type longeing. It’s practically rocket science when you focus on it in this way;) And its enjoyable because you are really focusing on shaping beauty. Here’s just a short clip of a nice, soft walk to trot transition. He is relaxed and has a nice tempo, but his head is too low, which is causing him to be on his forehand/not properly balanced over all four of his feet. My click is for when he shifted that balance.