Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Frankenstein Component

     You can turn any good horse into a monster.  A horse that is unsafe to be around, and it is easier than you think. 
     Often people reward the wrong things and unintentionally encourage bad behavior.  Horses understand appropriate discipline but they will quickly modify behavior to get their own way, accepting treats and rewards for good - or bad - behavior, it doesn't matter to the horse. On the other hand, horses do respond to rewards, sometimes not in the way we want though. 
     Often people reward bad behavior without thinking.  An example:  a horse that puts its ears back and acts up when being saddled but gets a treat, not a smack, learns quickly that it gets rewarded for putting its ears back and misbehaving when being saddled.  Another example is a horse that is trained to come when called, with a treat, often is excited and rambunctious for the treat but then is inadvertently "rewarded" for that bad behavior too.  Behavior that is unsafe for humans, but perfectly acceptable in a herd.
     I've often had difficult horses brought to me for training.  Years ago I accepted a job working with an orphaned yearling, this young horse had no manners, no boundaries, was extremely demanding and alltogether unsafe.  In fact, he was downright scary at times!  But he was not "evil".  He had been conditioned to behave the way he did because he'd never been taught the herd civilities, no mare had ever disciplined him, not even a mother.  So, in his world, he was behaving normally, in a way he thought was "right", but in a way that was extremely dangerous to humans.  Consistent discipline and rewards for the right behavior turned that situation around very nicely.
     In our world, our equine partners must live with and put up with us, not the other way around.  But to achieve this, we must behave in a way they can understand or, in other words, behave as the "boss mare" in a herd.  We must reward good behavior that is conducive to the human/equine relationship.  Remember, top mares are the leaders in the wild.  See you next week!  JD

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Win Some, Lose Some

     Everyone has a journey to make in this crazy horse show world.  It takes miles and miles to make seasoned campaigners of both people and horses.  Many times, the horses become confident long before their riders and this certainly makes things topsy-turvy!
     If you show enough, you will certainly lose when perhaps you really should've had the blue ribbon and likewise, if you keep showing, the equine gods will shine on you at some show and you'll win a class after you've had a major problem but the judge just didn't seem to notice.  (There are times when judging is so strange.  Remember that things do look differently from the center of the ring and too, judging is not a perfect process, it's often just one person's opinion.  It's best not to take these things to heart, just take them in stride.)  If you show long enough, it all does even out.
     To me, it's so important to look at the bigger picture.  Are you and your horse making reasonable progress?  Is your horse working better?  Are you overcoming your own problems and getting more relaxed?  I love it when my riders are excited about their achievements and their first wins but I also believe in being honest about any achievement.  It will not do you or your horse any good to crow and puff up about an ordinary ride, no matter how the judge placed it.   There's a lot of hard work and a lot of wet saddle blankets on the road to success and I really think it's important to evaluate a number of shows, perhaps even a full season, before making a firm assessment about the progress of a horse and rider.
     Keeping things in perspective helps me with my work with both horses and their riders.  I also am always thinking of the future and thinking through what the next step is that I need to achieve to get to a final goal.  And, in the end - there's always another horse show!  See you next week, JD.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Miss Tizzy Fit

     Without good horses, no one stays in this business for very long so I like to look back and pay homage to some of my favorites from time to time.  Miss Tizzy Fit was one of my earliest successes and boy did we have fun showing her!
     I found Tizzy for a client at a Paint horse sale in Madras, Oregon.  She was 4 years old and well started, she had been to a couple of schooling shows but that was about it.  This little mare was well bred on the stallion side but nothing to speak of on her dam's side.
     Anyway, I hauled her home and worked with her all through that late Fall, Winter and the early Spring.  When we took her to her first show she beat two National Champions in Western Pleasure and the rest of her show career was just like that. 
     We showed her in youth and open classes and she did mostly Western Pleasure but also lots of Showmanship, some Trail, Horsemanship and Equitation classes  - even some Hunter.  Often Tizzy took the high point award.  She was Western Pleasure circuit champion several times over and won many, many year-end awards.  We showed her all over the northwest - in Washington state, British Columbia, Oregon and Idaho. Tizzy was the right horse at the right time.  She was what the judges were looking for, which I think is a very important point as styles change and so do our thoughts on how a horse should look and move.
     I really owe this mare a lot because she gave me confidence in my training program and helped make my reputation.  What more can you ask of a horse?  I will never forget Miss Tizzy Fit, may she rest in peace.  See you next week, JD.   

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Keeping Focused

     Keeping a horse focused on you and the work you are doing can by trying at times.  Horses that spook and are nervous are the most obvious examples of a lack of focus, but horses that become bored also have difficulty focusing.  There is a sliding scale of misbehavior that can indicate a horse isn't focused.  A milder case might show up in a horse who looks for any excuse to break or just doesn't "care" to pick his feet up over a Trail obstacle.  On the other end of the spectrum is a horse that looks for any reason to spook, buck or run off.  Doesn't sound like fun does it!?
     A mild lack of focus often can be dealt with through just a reminder from the rider.  A bump with the bridle, a bump with the leg.  Maybe a back-up or two.  Sometimes just letting the horse stop and settle for a moment helps.  I don't like to let any horse build up adrenalin or as I call it "steam".  It's very hard if not impossible to bring them back to a calm state after a build up of steam occurs.  So, watch for signs of agitation and stop the build-up before it happens by letting them settle then getting them focused back on their work.
     Now, the more serious cases obviously need more help.  First of all, if they need it, I let them play (really play!) on the longe line before I ask them to work.  Then (and, especially if they're young) I'll probably bit them up next because this gets helps their focus shift from playing to working.  I like to take the more difficult horses and get them to soften in the mouth, the poll and especially in the rib cage.  I want them to not only yield to my leg but bend around my inside leg.  I want to lift a rein and have the horse drop down softly into the bridle.
     When working on a horse that really has difficulty focusing, and the horse starts spooking or thinking about everything else but me, I'll go back to basics and start an exercise that is appropriate to his level of training to get him thinking about me and the bridle and my various cues.  This may be a walking circle, might be a trotting reverse arc, may be a leg yield or other exercise. 
     Also, you will find that once a horse softens to your hands and legs, he is much more relaxed and able to work, as well as focus.  A tense horse is not a good learner.  When a horse relaxes his poll and neck, it just follows that he will relax his back and can then engage his hindquarters. 
     One last tip:  you, his rider, must also remain focused.  Don't start an exercise and just drop it because you are bored, out of time or in a hurry.  Ride for your horse and make it a point to accomplish something, even completion of a simple but well done basic exercise, with every ride.  Hope this helps!  See you next week.  JD