Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Trimming and saddling and everything in between

Before I acquired Sage, I read that one of the most difficult parts of mustang training is dealing with your mustang meeting new people. I wholeheartedly agree. Although I have been trying to avoid Sage only becoming used to me handling her, she is noticeably fine for me to do most anything and jumpy when someone new comes around. Combine that with her general unease about her feet, and you have to at least think that her first trim was a bit nerve-wracking. In fact, I had second thoughts the night before about letting my farrier trim her; I even got the point where I could trim a bit of hoof off myself. But her feet were quickly getting out of hand, so I knew I had to let him do it whatever the outcome.

Of course my natural fear was that she would be so traumatized by the incident that she'd never let me touch her feet again--or worse yet, not let me halter her again. I'm not sure why I let myself get so worked up about this, but I did. My farrier is accustomed to working with mustangs, and he was optimistic about her. So while Brandy got her shoes reset, I haltered Sage and let her loose in the arena so she could watch things progress. She was curious, even trying to steal some of the farriery equipment off the arena wall, but she wouldn't let my farrier pet her. She just snorted at him and walked away.

When it came time for her turn, I brought her out of the arena and handed her rope straight over to him. I imagine it must be a bit a like letting your kid go to kindergarten, and watching him interact with his teacher for the first time. Sage did pitch a bit of a hissy fit. She was nervous about him touching her, and she jumped around the aisle and hit the end of the lead rope a few times. She ran into the wall once, and once she turned her butt to him to try that avenue of escape--which was the only thing she got "in trouble" for the whole time.

Obviously, I knew that this was going to happen, and while it was hard to watch, I knew it was necessary. She had to learn, and most importantly she had to learn that this was something that was a) going to happen whether or not she liked it and b) not going to hurt her. I really shouldn't have been so nervous. Being smart as she is, she settled down very quickly. Since she was touchy about his hands next to her feet, he used the rope to sling her foot up and show her what he wanted. Within roughly 15 minutes, my farrier had her standing there (loose, basically), with her foot in his hand, while he sat down on a bucket and started cutting away dead sole, trimming, and rasping. Without much fuss, she let him do both front feet (since that's all we'd ever worked on picking up), and by the end was comfortable with him petting her.

What a relief, and her feet look so good! Now she is even better about picking them up, and she gets them cleaned once (if not twice) each day. Success! Here's what her foot looks like, and although it's covered in shavings, you can see that she'll pick it up quite willingly and let me take pictures of it.

That was last Thursday, and since then she's gotten a bit of a break in "hard" training because of our exam schedule. However, I make a point of haltering her every day (usually in the morning) and doing something--such as reviewing the basics or picking feet.

Today the weather was unusually warm, and so I thought it would be a good day to saddle up again and enjoy working outside. I "tested" her a bit with the jingly cinch around her legs, but she didn't seem bothered at all, so I just saddled up. As you can tell from this picture, she's not too concerned about the saddle at all:

We did several things today. Behind her you can see our little rock/dirt pile hill that I like to use as a makeshift trail obstacle. We went up and down and side to side, simulating a rough part of a trail. Of course Sage is used to rough terrain; trust me, although the sagebrush country looks flat, it's actually quite full of holes and rocks and Patrick and I had a hard time even walking over some parts of it. However, the idea is to get her used to how the saddle feels in all these situations.

We made our usual tour through the backyard and the bushes, and then I decided to take her out into the big pasture by the road. I try as hard as possible to train her out of sight of the other horses. Thankfully she is quite independent-minded, but this can be an obstacle when training any horse. She has to learn to look to me as the herd leader, even if it's just a herd of two of us. If she doesn't trust me, but instead seeks shelter in the other horses, this is counter-productive. If she were to get nervous away from the others, we'd start doing things she knows how to do: backing up, turning, stopping, etc. This would teach her that there are things I can ask her to do that she can easily do, even out of her comfort zone, and will help her build confidence.

I was tempted to walk her down to the road along the driveway, but the neighbor's dog was out, so I hugged the driveway in the pasture, putting two fences between us. He is friendly but gets extremely excited and barks very "aggressively" (or so it sounds) at the horses when they walk up and down the driveway. Since the driveway is basically a tunnel of fences and trees, it can be scary. I look at it as a training aid, as my horses are now pretty much dog proof, but when he comes out of nowhere he really can cause a serious accident. I want Sage to be trained but not terrified.

He did bark at us several times while we were in the pasture, and Sage hardly batted an eyelash. We worked on stopping, backing, yielding to pressure, trail "obstacles", and not pulling my arm off to get to grass. When we got back to the arena, I slung the lunge line over the saddle horn and started to get her used to the feeling of me pulling/jerking on the saddle on her back. I followed this with several jerks and loud motions of the stirrups, as well. I even grabbed the horn, put my foot in the stirrup, and put weight on it like I was going to mount. Once again, she was steady as ever.

Sometimes it seems overwhelming the amount of information I have to teach her before she can be a bomb-proof trail horse (or, at that, a riding horse at all). But training a horse is like a physics problem. You have to lay out all your variables and tackle it piece by piece. If something gets too complicated, break it into smaller pieces. You want to give your horse the chance to be able to answer requests correctly so you can reward them. This will create a horse that's willing to work with you on things. Not once have we ever pushed or been aggressive with Sage. That's not to say that I haven't established my dominance in the herd over her, because being a pushover can lead to a horse taking advantage of you really quick, but it's to say that I've never snubbed her to a post or forced her to do anything without discussing what I expect. I once heard a university horse trainer say that you should, "Expect a perfect maneuver from a horse in training and punish everything else." I feel like this would be a very unsatisfying way to train a horse. I'm sure it "works" in the end, but you'll have a cranky, spooky horse or one that has that look in its eyes that say life isn't really all that much fun.

Sage and Brandy waiting very patiently to come into the barn to get hay.

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