Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Trail Training Newsletter #99 - part 1


It was the end of February, and I don’t think Mingo had been out on the trail in the month. He was getting very bored of the arena, and honestly, so was I. We were out at the barn on a bitterly cold morning—in the single digits, and I wanted him to get out, but it was so cold, I decided to lead him rather than ride. Since there was no snow and the ground was frozen as hard as concrete, I knew that we wouldn’t go any faster than a walk, and I would just freeze if I was in the saddle. Besides, I could use a little exercise.

Ellen came with me, of course. We led Mingo down the river, and he was very excited, but well behaved. He went faster than normal, and that helped warm us up. I led him back to the top of the hill, turned him around to go back down and he didn’t even mind it.

Halfway up the hill on the second trip, his head shot up and he wouldn’t budge. I heard some pounding, but that wouldn’t normally bother him this much. Then, Ellen pointed up ahead. A house close to the trail was getting a new roof, and Mingo could see the men crawling on top of it. This was too much for him. When Mingo gets scared, he isn’t playing, he’s serious.

I was going to do three trips on the hill, anyway, so we turned him around and took him back down. He was fine, since he was going away from the house with the monster on top of it. We could hear power saws and pounding, and we wondered how we would get Mingo past the house to get him home.

I have been reading Temple Grandin’s new book “How Animals Make Us Human.” It is a terrific book. She tells how an animal’s core emotions influence their behavior. We all understand fear in horses, but there is another emotion that can override it, and that is the seeking emotion. Seeking is the emotion that makes us mammals want to play, look for food or explore. Apparently, both fear and seeking cannot operate at the same time, yet they can flip back and forth.

Whether I was reading this book or not, we probably would have approached the problem the same way, because it has worked in the past. We just were able to better understand what was going on. The method is called peppermints. As we got closer to the house, I realized that if I put Mingo far to the right side of the trail, the trees obscured the roof with the men crawling about. This helped, but we still had the noise. When his head went up, Ellen gave him a peppermint. His head dropped down as he chewed and slowly walked forward. This is where Ellen turned on seek. She didn’t give him a second peppermint right away. Rather, she rattled the wrapper. In doing that, she turned on “seek.” His head went down as he strained to get a treat. We went 10 steps or so, and she gave it to him. He got another one a little further along. I could actually see him flipping back and forth from fear to seek.

Now, we were about to pass the house. the point a horse will bolt forward from a monster is the moment that he has just gone past it. We knew this was a crucial part. Ellen started rattling the paper. Mingo was very focused on her and his potential peppermint. We made it all the way to the street, gave him a treat and told him how wonderful he was.

We are thinking there was something else going on at the house that we couldn’t hear. Maybe it was a generator or something. Kevin tried to take Starry to the hill, and he never even made it out of the driveway. Even though Starry couldn’t see the house, he refused to budge. Fortunately for Kevin, he didn’t have to go past the house to get home like us, and he decided it wasn’t worth fighting over.

Having some treats in your pocket can be a useful thing. I like the peppermints because the wrappers can “call” a horse. The horses like the peppermints, too. A couple weeks ago, we decided it was time to cross the ford with Mingo. Since he has had problems with the fords in our park over the years, we decided to approach the problem prepared. Ellen and Ranger went first, and I followed with Mingo on foot. I rattled a wrapper just before he stepped on the ford. When he did, I gave him his mint. He also got one at the middle and the end of the ford. As an additional reward, when we got across, we immediately turned around, recrossed the ford and went home.

The following week, I was able to ride him right across—just giving him praise. He offered no hesitation and though not eager, was willing to cross without a single problem. We still have 2 more fords to tackle!

No comments: