Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another Horse Story

by Laura Crum


I don’t usually post two days in a row, but I wanted to share this story and ask if any of you had experienced anything like this. My Sunny horse likes to test me, as I referenced in my earlier post this month (see “Picking a Fight”). Its been raining a lot here and I haven’t been able to ride regularly. But I do have lots of green grass along my driveway, so I’ve been trying to get the horses turned out regularly. Yesterday, I caught Sunny to turn him out for awhile and he tried one of his little games.

Now, Sunny feels good, yes, but he is kept in a large corral (100 by 100), and he runs and bucks and plays as much as he wants. So he is not a mass of pent up energy. When I turn him out he does not run around--he grazes steadily. Like all the horses, he is very eager for his “turn” to be out grazing. When I got him out of his corral yesterday he walked sedately beside me for ten strides, and then (when I wasn’t paying attention—of course) he leapt up in the air and kicked out. One little move. He didn’t touch me; he didn’t tighten the leadrope. By the time I looked back at him he was walking again—with a little gleam in his eye that said he thought he’d won one.

Sunny has pulled this trick before, and I always get after him for it. So I backed him off and whacked him a few times. And I swear, he tossed his head and stamped his front foot at me. Like the herd stallion. It was all I could do not to crack up, but I backed him off a few more times and whacked him until he made mouthing motions and had a submissive expression. He put his nose up to me very gently for a pat, which I gave him. Then I led him off and turned him loose to graze with no further sillieness. This interaction is totally typical of Sunny.

Sunny has many other such minor defiances of varied sorts, but they are all alike in that he never touches me or unseats me (when I’m on him), and they are very calculated on his part. He is never upset—either fearful or excited or angry—when he does them. He does not intend to hurt me. He is testing.

This horse just needs me to do the alpha horse thing. He is never the least bit frightened or truly intimidated when I get after him. It makes him feel secure. I am having to get over my wish that we could just “get along”. No, I must demonstrate my boss mare status every once in awhile or he’s not happy.

Do some of you have horses like this? Are there any tricks you know that can reduce a horse’s need for this sort of correction? I really am very fond of my little yellow mule, and I would love to find a path that works for both of us that doesn’t involve me whacking him, but so far I haven’t managed it. I am unwilling to punish him any more harshly than I do—and I’m pretty sure that it would do no real good, even if I were willing to do it. We get along just fine under the current system. And maybe this behavior of his is here to teach me something, as I said in the “Picking a Fight” post. But I can’t seem to get past my wish that I didn’t have to do this. Any suggestions?

14 comments:

stilllearning said...

Do you have to whack him? (I know you're not hurting him, but that gets old quick.) Couldn't you just do some quick back-up steps, some yielding of the HQs, maybe a little mini-send out on the line-reverse-go the other way-move? (Picture Clinton Anderson here...)

He needs to recheck that you're in charge. Maybe just some quick groundwork would do the trick, with no "whacking"? Seems to work with my guy when he's full of it and testing. It reinforces my leadership, but without even pretend-violence, just obedience.

Breathe said...

My gelding needs this sometimes too. It's like he doesn't really believe me unless I take it to that level. I'm not whacking him hard, probably the horse equivalent of a football player's slap on the butt, but nothing else seems to be adequate. Not ground work, not backing, not sending out.

So I'd love to hear if anyone has moved on past this too!

Funder said...

Hah, my mare does something similar. Sometimes when my back is (mostly) turned she'll pin her ears and toss her head, like -she's- making -me- move my feet. A yell and a threatening gesture puts her back in her place. Like Sunny, she behaves better after, like she just wanted to make sure I'm -really- the leader. My gelding did it too, complete with herd stallion head-toss, and I had to whack him with the end of the lead.

The violence doesnt bother me, because it's so ritualized in my case. Interested to hear others' experiences...

Laura Crum said...

Funder--yes--the "violence is so ritualized"--that captures my situation exactly. I wouldn't say it bothers me in any important sense--I don't feel I'm doing anything wrong. I'm just exasperated (a bit) that I have to keep doing it every so often. None of my other horses test me like this.

Breathe and stillearning--Sunny is a pretty tough cold blooded little critter. I have to whack him hard just to get his attention. I'm not leaving any marks on him or anything, but I don't think just the backup steps (which I also do) would do it. I have horses that I don't hit at all, and horses that I don't even yell at, so I'm pretty careful to dish out the appropriate amount of force to each individual. Sunny seems to need a pretty strong dose. But yeah, stillearning, I feel the whacking, which he seems to need, gets old for me.

Enjay said...

While I understand the whacking gets old, it is the way horses communicate. A higher ranking horse wouldn't hesitate to give him a whap, even if it wasn't a serious one, for being a snot and that's probably what he's looking for from you. In that same vein, if you have a horse that outranks him observe how that horse disciplines him and see if maybe you can emulate the behavior to some degree.
Perhaps you can can develop a round pen routine that establishes your dominance before he pushes you? Such as crowding him, turning him, pushing him until he's asking to stop, like they do at the clinics? Maybe that would satisfy him and you wouldn't have to smack him around as often.

Laura Crum said...

Enjay--if you have time, read my earlier post titled "Picking a Fight", which describes how Henry, my son's horse, dealt with Sunny--and yeah, Sunny kept testing him and Henry kept whacking him. I have had the same thought. This is how horses treat each other. From my human point of view, Sunny and I have a relationship where he needs me to "beat him up"--which any self respecting shrink will tell you isn't healthy. This is probably why I keep wishing I didn't have to do it. From a horse's point of view, Sunny just wants me to prove I'm the boss mare, since I insist on being boss. Normal horse behavior. There doesn't seem to be much for me to do but accept my role. As for the round pen stuff, I took down my round pen when I quit training young horses. My riding ring doesn't even have a fence. I just climb on em and go. Anything that isn't broke enough for that I don't want. But it does limit me when it comes to messing around with them.

lopinon4 said...

I fear you may be stuck with this role in your relationship. I think he's making it clear that he needs these reminders from you, and although I'm sure it seems tedious, it does make him feel more secure, which is a trait that you love about this horse. My gelding is similar (although he's appalled when I strike him), and tests me every once in a while, forcing me to yell and wave him back or something. Afterwards, he is back to being a perfect angel. Mostly, he looks for the strong vocal reminders...like he needs to know that I'm paying attention. It's pretty comical, really!

Laura Crum said...

lopinon4--I agree with you. It is comical, and I fear it is my destiny with this horse. Just like you said, that tough minded cold blooded attitude is what makes him a bombproof trail horse--and that's why I value him. I guess this was a last ditch effort to discover some magic trick that would turn him into a "sweet" horse as well. Thanks for the reality check. I always value your opinion.

Enjay said...

Laura, I had read the Picking A Fight entry but it hadn't mentioned specific behaviors, just that Henry beat him up. I was remembering my gelding and how he was a pushy little jerk. I was watching the herd one day and noticed one of the mares gave him a rap, he came back, gave him a bigger kick, he came back, he only stopped when she finally drove him to the back of the pasture and held him there for a while. So I started using a lunge line instead of a lead and when he got snotty I'd drive him out to the end of it and push him around until he decided it was nicer to behave. I figured a round pen would be easier, but I didn't have one either so usually made do with the lunge or a small dry lot. The only horses who Cat respected physical punishment from were the old plow horses, and I don't actually remember him ever getting kicked by one, just a raised hoof usually sent him on his way.

Enjay said...

It may bear mentioning that I had to do this a couple times a month the entire time that I owned him. It didn't fix the problem, but it did mean that I didn't have to whack him around as much.

Helen said...

Laura, I had just the same problem with my very alpha mare, Bella. She would deliberately test me out then when I made her back up she would stamp her feet at me and threaten to rear.

Clicker training has transformed her into my best and most trusted friend who would turn herself inside out for me.

In her case she is very, very itelligent and I think it was mostly boredom on her part - she had no opportunties for showing me how clever she is and using her brain to good effect.

I wish you could meet her so that I could show you how wonderful she is now. She's gone from being a stroppy mare to an absolute joy. She does Spanish Walk and full floor bows at liberty and is just about perfect to ride, and she would have been a little s*d without clicker training.

Thank you so much for your kindness in your other comments, and for leading me into this discussion. I think my plans and dreams may be returning slowly now, with Bella at the heart of them.

I have some video on youtube of Bella and her three quarter brother Jack working at liberty. I will try to post a link for you later.

I have been so sad and depressed that I couldn't have argued or dominated any horse for the last year. Thanks to clicker training I will never have to again.

I do use a little negative reinforcement as a short cut with new horses but it is very brief and mild, just to get the response I need more quickly so that I can praise and reward it. If I had to repeat the negative reinforcement more than a few times I would feel it had become a pattern of behaviour and look for another way to communicate what I need from the horse (usually free shaping, which I could explain if anyone was interested).

Maybe if he could show you just what a clever boy he is, and learn to communicate with you in a very clear and gentle way......

Thank you so much again for all your kindness and understanding.

Mrs Mom said...

Our Sunny/ Sonny's sound a lot alike Laura. Seriously.

With mine, I have to do the drive him away and make him w-o-r-k. Stop, back, turn, disengage hind end, trot on, change direction, trot some more, back back back.... Most days, it ends after about a ten minute session, and only needs repeating about once every six to seven weeks. However-- currently he has had two months of me just tossing him hay and food, knocking off hair, and then I have to run to tend something else. This might prove to be an interesting time now that things *might* quiet down and I start messing with him again. I'll have to take notes, and compare them with you. Maybe we can sort something out that will help with both our guys.....

little K said...

Sunny sounds like he has some pony in him! Horses with that much personality make me giggle. I swear some horses have a sense of humor!

What happens if you ignor the behaviour? If you stay calm and assured at your task you'd still be showing your alpha status and perhaps he'd realize that causing a ruckuss is more energy than it's worth. I've found this to be an effective technique in extingusihing spooky or goofy green behaviour. Otherwise it's kinda like he's training you to react to his behaviour as opposed to you training him to change his behaviour in reaction to your aids.

Laura Crum said...

Hi all-sorry for the late response--I had a houseguest this weekend and didn't get on the computer much.

Enjay, Helen, Mrs Mom, and Little K, thanks for the suggestions. Enjay and Mrs Mom, your techniques would probably work on Sunny, and Helen, though I have never had anything to do with clicker training, I don't doubt that Sunny would love it. These are all valid approaches, I think. Part of the problem is I just don't have the time to mess around with him that much. I'm getting three horses turned out, saddled, etc in the midst of a day that is filled with other activities. The whacking system, little though I like it, works well and is quick--a big plus. After a few whacks Sunny is well behaved. So, that's a factor I didn't mention. I don't really have time to dink around with him, even if I had the inclination. I rode him yesterday, after ten days off, and he was his usual bombproof self. I enjoyed my ride very much, and figured that I am ready to accept that this is just my deal with this horse. We are fond of each other in our funny way.

Little K--I think Sunny is part pony. Look at his photo and my blurb on the sidebar. Large pony crossed on QH is my guess. He has that pony personality. Ignoring won't work with this behavior (I've tried it) because he escalates the behavior. If he steps near my foot and I don't correct him, he then steps a little closer. If he makes a nipping gesture when I cinch him and I don't correct, the next time his lips get closer to my arm. Without the correction, I'm quite sure he'd eventually step on my foot...etc.