The Wild Child and the Problem Child

I am gradually returning to working with my horses. It’ll be a while yet before I can ride. But the strength in my left arm is improving steadily, and it allows me to do a bit more ground work.

I have two horses that really need work. The wild child and the problem child. They really are two completely different projects.

Venice came to me unhandled. And with my own limitations due to the broken elbow, I have been very slow to do anything very proactive about her training. I’ve mostly just spent time with her to let her get used to people. She got to the point that she was comfortable eating her meals out of a feed pan on my lap. And Jen (Twister’s owner) who has been doing all of the horse chores since my accident (bless her!) has been able to touch her face a few times in the last few days.

But as the weather has gotten colder and wetter through November, I’ve noticed that Venice is not handling it all that well. Her coat is not quite as thick as the other horses, and she definitely looks shivery in the mornings. She has a little shelter in her paddock, and she does use it. But it doesn’t appear to be enough for her.

I mentor a few riders who are getting into distance riding. One of them, Veronica, brought her husband over yesterday to help me with a couple of chores that I could not accomplish one-handed. There is a wall in my barn, between the run-in area and the main barn, that has suffered from a bit too much horse attention. They like to rub their behinds against it. Then turn around and rub the side of their face on it. Over time, that pulled some nails out of top and the entire top corner of the wall had come loose and was swaying in the breeze. So we fixed that wall. Then I found another stall wall for him to fix (since he was handy and at-hand). King removes stall boards with his teeth when he’s bored and impatient. That happens a lot, since King doesn’t get fed as much as the other horses, and is always waiting for the other horses to eat so he can go back outside after he wolfs down his two handfuls of beet pulp and vitamins.

After we finished those repairs, I had a look at Venice, and she was still shivering a bit. I decided that I’d had enough of that. She needs to have a blanket. And in order to get her trained to accept it, she has to be halter broke first. It is time to get serious about this. So, again taking advantage of the available (and greatly appreciated!) help, we set up a chute to drive her into the barn. Twister was in the paddock with her, and he kindly showed the way to the food dishes. Well, he actually disappeared into the barn like a little black streak and had the treats in both stalls eaten before we even convinced Venice to go out the gate. It did take a bit of work to drive her through. She can deke around faster than you can blink. She is seriously quick. Eventually we managed it though, and bit by bit worked her into a stall. They are 12×12 box stalls, open at the top. She can just get her head over the top boards. She can see all around the barn, but the walls are too high for her to get over (I hope!).

She was nervous at first, but not crazed. She ate her hay as soon as we left her alone. I came out after everyone had left and went in the stall with her. She is not at all aggressive, just very shy of people. She would not let me touch her however. I finally pulled out a lunge whip and stood outside the wall and flipped the lash softly over her back repeatedly. She was quite terrified the first few times. But gradually settled down as she realized that it wasn’t going to hurt her. She stood in the far corner and after a few minutes wasn’t flinching at all when it landed on her. I thought that was enough for the day and left her. This morning she is a lot less nervous and was very pleased and bright-eyed to see Jen bringing her breakfast.

I cleaned her stall this morning (the elbow is definitely getting stronger!) and while she watched every move very carefully, she put up with that surprisingly well. Then I pulled out the lunge whip again. This time I went in the stall with her. She stood much better for it this time and was standing relatively calmly within a few minutes. I was able to leave the lash draped over her back and just flap it around a bit.

Standing calmly. By this time she was not flinching at all when I dropped it over her. The lash is just resting over her hip here.

It’s still going to be a while before I can get a halter or a blanket on her. But she seems much more comfortable inside. No more shivering. And she is eating very well. So she’s not stressed out enough to kill her appetite.

The other horse that I’m working with is my problem child. Diego. He’s an Arab that I found a home for a couple of years ago. At first he worked out fairly well, and he did finish a couple of 50s. But over time, things started going wrong. His new owner was hurt and he was returned to me in September. He has a number of issues. Primarily, I think, he lacks confidence. So I plan to do a lot of ground work and basic schooling with him. One issue that I can work on right away is trailer loading. While he does load, it’s never willingly.

So a few days ago I brought him out after breakfast and did some work on leading nicely. I ask him to step forward with me a few steps, then halt. If he stops nicely, I click and reward. It took about two halts for Diego to start focusing intently on my body language and trying to anticipate my stops. After a couple of more halts, he was walking in lock-step with me. I could step, stop, back, and step forward again with him in perfect harmony. Smart boy.

Then we went to the trailer. He immediately went into resistance mode. Zigging and zagging, and rearing a couple of times. I just waited it out and asked him to move forward. Once he got a foot on the ramp, I clicked and treated, then backed him right away from the trailer. I kept my voice very quiet and steady to try to give him confidence and keep his stress levels down. We repeated the process, he managed to get both feet on the ramp. Again I clicked, treated and backed him off the ramp again. We continued this process, inch by inch getting farther up the ramp. When he was almost loaded, with one front foot actually in the trailer itself, he got claustrophobic and panicky and reared up banging his head. So we had to start over. But eventually, his resistance collapsed and with great trepidation he walked on. I immediately clicked, and turned him around and unloaded him before presenting a big handful of treats and lavish praise. Then more treats and more lavish praise. He was pretty surprised that I took him off the trailer so fast. “Well!” Diego said cautiously “I am a good boy… Ummm really? I am?” He was obviously quite pleased with all the approval and praise. More than the treats even. I asked him to load again, and he resisted for a couple of minutes then loaded with far less drama. Again we unloaded immediately and he got a ton of treats and praise. The third time he got treats as he was turning to unload and then more once he was down the ramp. Then we quit for the day.

On day two, he was still resisting, but no rearing and no zigzagging. Just planting his feet. Eventually, his resistance again collapsed and he loaded up quietly. This time he was slower to turn, and very controlled unloading. By day three he loaded perfectly. He stopped once on the ramp to get a treat, but after that just tromped up and down happily. And by the end was just asking “Wouldn’t it be a lot less work if I stand right here ON the trailer and you can just feed me ALL the treats and admire me extravagantly???” I actually had to insist that he get off.

Yesterday it was snowing pretty hard and I didn’t want to work on a slippery ramp. This morning was better. Cold but not snowing. My uncle and his girlfriend were up visiting the horses, so they watched while I brought Diego out. He looked at them with big eyes. “You are not going to come behind me are you???” Snort. He’s had to be “encouraged” a few times in his history to get him loaded, so that’s not something he’s comfortable with. But they just stood off to the side quietly, and I gave him some time to think about it and get used to them before even asking him to load. Then I gave him the cue, and he loaded up perfectly. Absolutely not the slightest hesitation. He stepped into the trailer, stopped, and waited politely for a cue from me. I rewarded him. Turned him. Stopped again. He stood patiently. I asked him to walk off, and he did. Very slowly. When we got back on the ground I gave him a big hug and told him he was awesome. He nodded at me and said “Yes, I know” rather smugly.

By the third time, we were able to unload one step at a time. Stopping and waiting calmly between each step. He was utterly perfect today. And he knew it too. Crazy little horse had a big smile on his face at the end of the session.

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