Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Teaching Old Horses New Tricks
As I mentioned last time, Ellen has been thinking of riding Ranger, again, because he has been doing so well. One of the obstacles in riding him is saddling. He is just horrible, and each year he gets worse and worse. We saddle in our stalls, because we feel it is easier. Since Starry became Ranger’s neighbor, he has gotten really bad.
He snipes, snarls and even kicks out--all aimed at Starry. It is now fun to saddle him, so if you aren’t going on much of a ride, anyway, it is just easier to lead him.
Let me backtrack, a little. In the last year or so, he has become difficult to halter, top. He would toss his head up, push at us and just be difficult. It isn’t that he didn’t want to he haltered--he was just excited about going out. It got very annoying. One day, Ellen got fed up. She took her clicker skills out and decided to try to improve him.
His halter is the kind that you buckle the strap that goes over his head. Ellen held the halter noseband in front of Ranger, and only clicked him when he put his nose in it. Everything else he did, she ignored. She also didn’t hook up the halter, either. He wasn’t getting any treats or going anywhere until he put his nose in the halter.
The next step was to not click him until he put his nose in and held his head still.
You may wonder how many lessons it took to change his habit. Much to our surprise, he was greatly improved on the second lesson--and was a new horse on the third.
That was a few months ago. Ellen decided that if she is going to ride him, she wanted him to saddle like a gentleman. Remember, this is a bad habit that has going on for years--and just has gotten worse. She did click him when he stood still in the past, but he never really improved; and like I said, he got worse with Starry.
This time, she decided to enlist my help. We would retrain him just like we did with the haltering. She planned to break it down into tiny bits. I was the clicker person--freeing her up to just do the saddling. She let me use my discretion on the clicking. I would only click when he stood still.
He was loose in the stall, and I stood in front of him on the other side of the stall guard. Ellen brought in the saddle and showed it to him. He started to snarl. She just stood there--until he did the same. Then, I clicked, of course. We practiced that a bit. The next step was lifting up the saddle as if she was going to saddle. By now, Ranger seemed to understand that this was a new game, and it didn’t take any time at all for him to just stand. The clicks kept coming.
She gently placed the saddle on his back--click. She took it off and repeated it several time. He got clicked for each.
She left it on his back--click. She walked to the other side, brought the girth up--click. She did that a few times--click--click.
She girthed him up--click.
And then she took it off and repeated the whole process,
Ranger loves treats.
The next day, we decided to do it, again. Ranger was perfect. Once again, just one lesson was all it took to make a difference. Why did we wait all these years to do this? We will keep practicing, and sometimes he will wear his saddle on his walks. Of course, we will fade off most of the clicks--and Ellen will be able to do them, herself.
So, we can teach an old horse a new trick with the help of clicker. Clicker training also proves, once again, that we don’t have to settle for a horse that misbehaves. Instead, we can gently change their behavior.
Ellen is happier--and so is Ranger. For all we know, he thought he was supposed to attack Starry when Ellen was saddling him. Now, he knows he is supposed to just stand still.
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Ranger is basically, retired. For a 27-year-old, he is doing well, except for his breathing. He has COPD, which is bad enough, but if he gets frightened of something, he has what can best be described as an asthma attack. His head goes high and he struggles to catch his breath.
Lately, we have been just leading him on the loop. Ellen did ride him a few times last spring, but since he doesn’t seem to want to trot, it is just easier for us to lead him. It’s good exercise for us, too.
Last year, we would walk him down to the river a lot. He had trouble going back up, and we had to stop a lot for him to catch his breath. This year, we have had so much rain that the mud at the very top of the hill has been horrendous. It was so bad, that Cole felt that no horse in his right mind would step through it, willingly. (It is funny how much trouble he will go through to try to keep his feet from going in the mud.) Because we didn’t want to take an out of shape horse through deep mud--and we didn’t want to walk in it, ourselves, we just stayed on the loop behind the barn.
We finally had a dry spell, and the mud improved enough to lead Ranger through it. We decided to see how he would do on the hill. This summer, he seemed to be breathing much better on his walks. Most days, Ellen hasn’t even had to give him antihistamines. That is in spite of the fact that his breathing is usually the worst in hot weather.
We led him down the hill with ease, turned around and made our way back up. It was with much disbelief that we observed--no loud wheezing. He was able to walk up the hill better than he did last summer.
The next day, we tried it again. I am so happy to say that the first day wasn’t an anomaly. Once again, Ranger walked up the hill without any breathing distress.
Well, we decided it is time to integrate the hill on his weekend workouts. It is more interesting than going 6 laps on the loop. We can do the hill and a few laps to bring his workout up to a half hour. He seems to like the variety--and we sure do. Plus, it is shady!
Ellen was thinking she might just dust off his saddle...