Friday, October 7, 2016

a good brain deserves a good foundation

I wrote not long ago about the preliminary ground work Charlie and I (and a horsemanship pro) began as a first step towards easy-peasy trailer loading.

Plenty of folks don't spend a ton of time practicing trailer loading before hitting the road with a horse. And many horses are totally fine with that. Especially OTTBs, most of whom have spent a not-insignificant amount of time on the road. 

Majesty! Thy name is Thoroughbred!
 There are a couple reasons why I want to go this route, though.

The most important (and most obvious) is that I need to know the trailer is a sure thing. When I'm juggling a schedule and squeezing in lessons here and there with my trainers (who themselves are juggling busy schedules), the trailer can not be a question mark. 

Additionally, the objective of some travel can be anxiety-inducing in its own right (think: the earliest outings with an unknown and very green horse; or, farther down the road, nerve-wracking horse shows). A consistent, routine, predictable trailering experience makes for one less thing to worry about. 

Plus. Ya know. Ain't nobody wanna be stranded alone with 17h of OTTB that won't load. 

There's more to it than that, tho. Upon further reflection, I'm realizing that our practice at this ground work is driven by a greater purpose than just trailer loading. 

does this count as ground work?
See, as many of you pointed out in that earlier post, Charlie seems for all the world like a good dude with a good brain and a good temperament. Which is exactly why I bought him - knowing little about him beyond that. 

And that's exactly the qualities about him that I want to continue to foster. 

The horsemanship pro confirmed in our first session that Charlie is incredibly good natured. But he cracks a little bit under pressure. Specifically - his inclination was to get defensive when he didn't understand what we wanted from him. 

Which is totally fine. This is horse training. He is learning. And I want him to learn that he doesn't need to be concerned or worried or defensive if he doesn't understand. That we will take the time to show him how to get the answer right, without him getting in trouble. 

Because that feels like the type of situation that will crop up in our training together again and again and again. Every time we try something new, I'm going to get something wrong. Charlie is going to get something wrong. 


So this slow incremental process (that in some ways is freaking me out bc omg I want to go to lessons soooooo baaaaad!!!) somehow feels like a very important learning opportunity for both of us. It feels like a really good opportunity to build trust and understanding in a very safe and low-pressure environment. 

That way, when we do inevitably end up in some high pressure and potentially ugly situation, hopefully we'll have laid the foundation such that Charlie's already prepared and practiced at putting his good brain to work. In an ideal work, it'll always be the easiest choice for him to just be a good boy.

At least that's my hope haha. I wanna do everything I can to bolster and buttress what is already a good quality in this horse (his brain), rather than run the risk of undermining it by pushing him when he's not ready to be pushed. 

does he not look cuddly AF tho?!?

We'll see tho. It's always a balancing act, right? 

What are some of your favorite trust building exercises with horses? Have you had more success just getting out there and getting miles or taking the path of slow and steady build up? Or some combination?

Does it depend on if they're green v broke? Young v mature? Do you prefer ground exercises or ridden exercises or both?

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ALSO - stay tuned tomorrow for the official list of the October 2016 Two Point Challenge contestants and baselines!!! 

35 comments:

  1. It took me forever to build trust with Stinker. But he had a rough start to life and is a very sensitive horse. The lady I got him from (not the rough start) had done an excellent job on the ground so I didn't spend a lot of time there. Under saddle it has taken months of slow and steady work to build that trust. Personally I think slow and steady is the way to go but I tend to have hot reactive horses that don't let you get away with anything.

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    1. it took forever with isabel too - probably a solid year. it was totally worth it tho! so far i'm thinking Charlie might be a little easier in many ways, but i'm prepared to take the time he needs regardless.

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  2. Sounds like a good plan. Horses have gotta learn how to learn, and it gives you an opportunity to learn how to he likes to be trained.
    I prefer ridden work because it's just so much more fun, but over the years I have grudgingly given in to the usefulness of groundwork.
    As for slow versus getting out there, in theory, once the basic aids are established (stop, go, and turning) my horses should trust me in scary situations because of the familiarity of what I'm asking them to do. In practice though I'm finding that I have to trust them just as much so this to work. So I take the slow and steady approach if it's something I myself am leery about (eg: jumping) but in other situations I expect my horses to just deal with it (eg: going past something scary on a trail ride).
    Thanks for the follow btw :D

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    1. ha i prefer the ridden work too. not just bc it's more fun (tho it totally is), but also bc i honestly know how to do more in the saddle. i'm more confident in my skills and troubleshooting. most ground work exercises (beyond the standard leading, grooming, general handling) are not as familiar to me so i can easily mess up some positioning or timing or whatever. we're working on it!

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  3. I do a ton of stuff from the ground. I can now get on Carmen most of the time without it but she seems less relaxed if I don't spend even about 5 minutes doing something. My favourite one is leading- getting them to follow with slack in the lead and staying with me. It seems simple but when everything falls apart I want my horse thinking that with me (not on top of me or leaving me) is the best place to be and that all will be fine.

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    1. oooh we do soooo much leading and hand walking. so much. generally before every ride, even tho i'm about 99.9% sure we could manage just fine without it. somehow it seems to really help set the tone and settle in. Charlie has a GIANT walk (which i love, btw) and walking along side him helps me get a sense for the rhythm and understand that he's not racing away or anything, that's just a function of his giant legs, so that once i'm up on his back i'm less likely to start grabbing at his face.

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  4. How did I miss that you bought this gorgeous guy?! Awesome!!! And to answer your question i think it depends on the horse but I always do a little of slow work and putting miles. Some natural horsemanship exercises like from Chris Cox are fun and help with trust.

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    1. YAS I BOUGHT A HORSE!! :DDD

      lol but yea, i'm a big believer in lots of slow and steady miles too. i keep reminding myself that the only miles Charlie is going to get are the miles i put on him, so i better get to it!!

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  5. I think every horse is so individual and has to be approached so differently. That's been smacking me in the face lately as all the things that worked with Ruby are pretty much not working at all with Cinna and I'm having to dig deeper into my bag of "tricks" and pick friends brains for training tips. I think the fact that you've identified that Charlie's go-to response when confused is getting defensive is key to setting him up for success in your training because you know to take it slow and teach him to trust that you won't overface him. And I think all the hard work you're doing on the ground is building the ideal foundation for a great, and productive relationship!

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    1. thanks i really hope so! it's so funny bc he really handles new situations really well - like he doesn't seem to freak about literally anything. his trigger is getting "pushed." for instance, it's pretty clear why he retired from racing. he was DONE being pushed to run. so now any time he feels like i'm shoving him along, he gets a little upset. so he just needs to learn that it's ok, and that we're listening, and that whatever i'm asking for is gonna be ok - it's not going to be another race lol. but yea your point about the differences between horses is so interesting too, as i'm feeling similarly with the switch from isabel to charlie.

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  6. Probably not very helpful in your situation, but the very best thing I ever did for Gem and I was get out on the trails and jog with her sans tack. When we first hit the trails, she was insanely spooky at everything. (well, she still can be but it is way better now) I went out one day and just grabbed her halter and a lunge line and we hit the trails on foot. I was there for moral support and she had to figure out how to balance herself and maneuver around the trail without adding my balance to the equation. It worked amazingly and I believe any future endurance partner of mine will begin on foot. It also taught her to mind her own footing so I don't have to micromanage her going down the trail.

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    1. i can definitely see how that could help a spooky horse! charlie is like... the opposite of spooky haha (i've only seen him spook twice and it was while we were in the middle of ground work sessions when he was already feeling a little pressured - thus the 'cracks under pressure') but i'm still super eager to get him out on the trails and mix it up!

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  7. Love that you are doing this! Prisoner was always a swell guy to be around so I really didn't do much ground work with him. Looking back I wish I had as it reveals a few holes in our relationship. No time like the present though. Keep up with the slow and steady, it will get you where you want to go faster that just pushing for it. I would start him over jumps and all those various xc obstacles in hand, let him sort out his mind and legs without a rider to lean on. Love watching your progress with him!

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    1. i'm so glad that things with Prisoner have been going well lately! but yea i see what you mean about the 'revealing holes' bit - i was super surprised at the outcome from our first session with the pro. but that's exactly what it was: "training holes." so we're working on it, and honestly i'm grateful to have found the issues so early bc right now it doesn't feel like a regression, it just feels like part of the process.

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  8. I do ground work with critters to teach them parts of their job before I'm sitting up there and can get hurt. (I've taken a horse from "does not ride, has never been sitten upon" to "rides w/t/c outside of a ring by themselves or in groups" twelve times -- I'm still very much not-a-pro, but I'm way more than most ammies.)

    What I want to get out of ground work is a basic understanding on the horse's part of How Things Work Around Here... (These are ideal goals and I am constantly working on my end of the bargain. It's not fair to hold the horse to a standard if I'm over on the other end of the lead phoning it in...)

    -- respect my space
    -- do not walk on me
    -- move when I ask you to move
    -- stop when I ask you to stop
    -- stand still patiently
    -- honor the slack in the rope
    -- keep trying when I ask for something
    -- when you do right, there will be an obvious release
    -- I look for and reward your "tries" at new material
    -- I break things down if they are too hard for you
    -- I will be fair
    -- I will keep my temper
    -- I will be patient
    -- I will not overface you
    -- I will be consistent
    -- If you escalate, I will meet you there. However, the instant you give/soften to me, I de-escalate.

    -- No grudges -- you are always allowed back in the "good boy" box the second you show signs of wanting to be there.

    But also, ground work gives me a chance to 'get to know' the horse -- temperament, how easily frustrated, how horse thinks, how horse handles stress, how much try is inherently in horse, does horse have soft-shut-down failures or explosive failures, what level of cue is needed, etc. It gives me a lot of practice reading the horse's emotional/mental state while I'm on the ground... so that I know him pretty well before we get to the riding part. (This doesn't take forever, six or seven sessions of ground work is usually ample.)

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    1. agreed on all your points. it's definitely such a great opportunity to learn about both of us and how we react both to each other and to other stimuli. i'm not as optimistic about only taking 6-7 sessions bc there still is a very clear end result here: trailer loading, and it's going to take as much time as it's going to take. i'm optimistic tho. progress is happening!

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  9. Yup yup. Love your attitude and approach here. :-) You're never going to regret time spent on stuff like this.

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    1. my thoughts exactly - we never regret taking time to get it right

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  10. I have amazing luck with breaking down tasks into very small pieces and asking simple questions, one at a time. This sets you both up for success and builds your horse's confidence very easily. With consistently approaching learning this way, your horse starts to see you as a pretty awesome leader and trusts you to not overface them.

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    1. yup - such an important approach too, and it's exactly what i missed when i first set out to start trailer loading. like, i went right to the trailer but the pro was like, 'uhhh, no, actually you first have to talk about the smaller piece of what you mean by asking him to move forward FIRST, and only then can you actually go to the trailer.' seems like a small distinction but it's exactly what you say: asking questions one at a time

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  11. Sounds like you have a solid plan. We use a lot of ground work and repetition to establish boundaries and build confidence. We started nearly from day one for Roscoe and he is easier than some of the older horses. The horses I got after they were in their teens, time was more of a factor. But all the work early on definitely pays off in the long run.

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    1. yea i'm thinking age is a factor here too. Charlie is still young - 7 years old - but he's emotionally mature and has already experienced so much. he's got his own thoughts and opinions and history to contend with too.

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  12. IMO Ground work is so incredibly important. For one, it creates a solid line of communication between horse and rider. But it also helps develop trust, is a great way to help a horse learn how to engage and disengage all of his parts, and just generally develops a horse that is much more receptive to education. In my experience, it's useful for pretty much any horse, but it's the most useful for a horse starting with a fairly clean slate, because it allows you to install the tools they'll need to be a good citizen.

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    1. agreed completely! that trust element is really exactly what i want to zero into, as is the open lines of communication. plus it's been really interesting to see the different paths he follows in trying to answer a question, and the list of options he goes through when he'd rather NOT do the thing i'm asking. very informative!

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  13. I'm like you - I don't feel like I know groundwork as well, so I don't know if I am doing it "right"! Am I releasing pressure at the right time? I'm just sort of bumbling along, doing my best! Guess that is all we can do, right? LOL

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    1. ha yup. team giant baby OTTB bumblers, here we go!! but hey, i try to tell myself that even if i'm not doing it *exactly* right, it's still moving in the right direction. there are so so so many "right" ways to do a thing and honestly very few wrongs. sure it takes me longer to get the desired response from the horse than it takes a pro, but so long as we still get to that response and i stay patient, it's all good, right?

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  14. I love me some good ground work. I don't think there's really a wrong way to do it either--working on that bond and trust without the added pressure of riding is pretty much a win-win.

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    1. that's what i'm learning - that it really doesn't have to be perfect to be beneficial. it's always good to hear that from other people too tho!!!

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  15. Every horse is different! Sounds like you have a great approach!

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    1. thanks! they're definitely all different - which is why i like it when people share their experiences and ideas!

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  16. Amennnn sister! I love ground work and don't do nearly enough of it, because I feel like there's always so much 'more' to work on under saddle. But when I first started working with Dino over 8 years ago (omg so long), I did a LOT of lunging and long-lining. I was able to install his go button via voice commands, and it took the mental pressure and stress of riding off of him, and helped break a lot of negative associations he had about work. It also allows us to connect and interact in a different way, and strengthens our relationship for sure! When you get further along, another 'trust building' exercise I love to do is to just clamber on (probs bareback), drop the reins, and let Dino go where he wants. Letting him know I trust him and that I'm not always going to shut him down is huge for him.

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    1. ha as i've told you i definitely think Charlie and Dino have some similarities. particularly i am also very much using this ground work to counteract Charlie's negative associations around being pushed forward.

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  17. I don't do a ton of ground work but I do obstacles in hand sometimes and expect a fair bit when it comes to ground manners. I think it's so wonderful you are setting Charlie up for success! I think sometimes it's those good natured guys that get pushed too far when they aren't ready (not that you would do that, just extra kuods for you!). I really really wish I had my own trailer to practice with, soon I hope :)

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  18. Vi was always great on the ground, but I think it took 5 years before we built trust. There is definitely a difference.

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  19. I love this post. You're so spot on with all of it and Charlie is so very lucky he landed with you.

    When I got Griffin and he was too young to ride and didn't know a damn thing, I did tons of ground work. Just being near him and spending time *daily* made the biggest difference, but along the way we learned a lot of respect and trust. With everything we did, I tried to end on a good note for him - not for me. It wasn't easy and I didn't always succeed, but checking myself at the door and doing what was best for *him* was what mattered. He learned that getting things right was fun and rewarding and this taught him that he could count on me to do right by him - because the ultimate reward for correct behavior was always "Okay you're done! Go play with your friends. Good job today."

    Also, through groundwork, when I quit trying in the beginning to only be his friend and instead assumed the role of leader, the trust formed WAY faster. Now I'm still his leader whom he trusts, but I'm also his friend that he can trust *because* of the leadership role I assumed in the beginning. (Boy is that interesting to think back on!)

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