Sunday, January 20, 2013

Teaching An Old Horse New Tricks!

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you're all keeping warm and cozy during these cold winter months!

When I left off in my last blog entry, I was planning to teach my new pal Bit some ground manners. The main reason for this was because of Bit's constant refusal to stand still whenever I tried to get on him. I'm not talking about once in a while, when he was feeling ornery, but rather, all the time! The minute I'd try to get a foot in the stirrup, he'd start walking around. Forward, sideways - any way that was away from me!

It wasn't just me, either; I witnessed the same problem whenever another volunteer tried to mount him. And apart from being a very annoying habit, it was also very dangerous: I'd have to seize the opportunity the minute he slowed down, jam my foot into the stirrup and heave myself (I'm 50 years old, remember; not terribly young or springy anymore!) into the saddle - all while Bit continued to walk around. Clearly, he needed to acquire some manners!

I had no idea how to proceed. I've never had any training on how to teach a horse, and I've taken very few lessons on Bit. All I knew going in was that during the winter, it would be too cold to ride, and too icy to risk walking him outside where he could slip and break a bone. I could spend as much time as I wanted working with him in the arena, but on what exactly? As it turned out, the things I needed to teach Bit came to me after the fact. In other words, while I was thinking about doing one thing, it would suddenly become clear that I needed to back up a step and do something else first.

The first issue I decided to address was the fact that Bit always guards his belly. He becomes very agitated when I brush him, and gets even more so when I try to tighten the girth on the saddle. Clearly, someone treated him very roughly indeed before he came to The Harmony Barn. Every time I put him in the cross ties, he would dance around, stepping back and as far away from me as the ropes would allow. At some point, I concluded that it might be a good idea to spend extra time grooming him. While I was doing that, it occurred to me to devolve a little and not use a brush at all, that maybe I should just run my hands gently over his belly.

I was as careful in this endeavor as I could possibly be, but it became obvious that it would take some time - and a lot more gentle rubbing - for Bit to realize that I wasn't going to hurt him like those folks in the past did. Indeed, any number of times, as I stood rubbing as quietly and gently as possible, Bit would turn his head my way and try to nip me. I discouraged this with a careful elbow and a sharp word: the idea was to reprimand, not to hurt.

This past weekend, while Bit was out in the mud lot, I took advantage of the fact that he was engrossed in a flake of hay and repeated the exercise. For over ten minutes, I simply stood beside him and ran my hands across his belly. For a time, he seemed to forget what I was doing, and then he would lift his head and turn it toward me. But he wasn't trying to nip, now, he was just looking to see what I was doing. Apparently satisfied that all was well, he'd turn his head back to his hay and continue eating. It sure seemed like progress to me!

Later the same day, I attempted some ground work in the arena. It occurred to me that if I wanted to be able to mount him safely, I was going to have to get him used to the mounting block. The mounting block would serve two purposes: it would make getting on his back much easier, and I wouldn't have to jam my foot into the stirrup - and bang his belly with my boot in the process. In the past, during lessons, Connie and I tried using the mounting block but it was a dismal failure: Bit would simply walk away from it. Given that he weighs at least a thousand pounds, there was little Connie could do to keep him in check. So my next task was to try to get him used to the mounting block.

Initially, I thought I would put a saddle on him and somehow try to get him to stand still at the block, but when I turned the matter over in my head, I decided to back away from that idea somewhat. Instead, I set the block out, and placed two orange traffic cones a few feet away. The idea was to form a small corridor that Bit would stand in. What I hoped was that the presence of the cones would discourage him from walking sideways away from the mounting block.

The exercise itself went like this: with Bit attached to a lead rope and walking beside me, we would make our way around the arena - first walking one way, and then another, always mixing things up to keep Bit from getting bored. At some point, we would walk up to the mounting block. I would climb up onto the middle step (there were three) and come to a stop while asking Bit to halt. We would then stand in position for a few seconds before starting off again.

When we had repeated this exercise a few times, I noticed that every time Bit halted, it was about a foot and a half short of lining up with the mounting block. So I started saying, "Step up, Bit!" while tugging just a little on the lead rope. Bit learned very quickly to take a couple of steps forward and stop. I was cheered by his intelligence in picking this up so fast, and heaped loads of praise on him. At the end, I made sure we finished on a good note, then gave him a big juicy apple to chew on as a reward for a job well done.

Eventually, I'll step things up with Bit: I'll put a saddle on him and repeat the exercise without actually getting on him. After doing that enough times, I'll put a saddle on him and do nothing more than lie across it while making him stand still. Once we've gotten that down pat and he's learned to stand still, then I'll try climbing on his back. But we've got a ways to go yet first, and that's o.k.: I'm willing to be as patient as it takes to teach Bit this important lesson.

I'd like to point out that none of this time spent with Bit would be possible without the generosity of my wonderful fiance Duddy, who leases Bit for me, and who, incidentally, proposed to me at The Harmony Barn! What started as a birthday gift has turned into a love affair between myself and Bit! Indeed, when Duddy and I started making wedding plans, my first thought was to have the ceremony at the barn! And my second thought was to ride Bit around the arena and up to Duddy's side! It seems a fitting way to begin married life: with the two men I love most in the world!

That's all for now, folks! I'll keep you posted as things with Bit progress. In the meantime, keep warm, and please be kind to all the critters!