Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Annoying Habits

By Laura Crum

I have a new horse in my barn. Well, not new exactly. My one boarder, who is my friend and old team roping partner, bought Smoky a couple of years ago. The horse had just turned three. His previous owner (who was the breeder) had put about ten rides on him. Both Wally and I rode the colt and liked him. Wally took the small blue roan gelding in exchange for a debt, though neither Wally nor I wanted to train another colt. We promptly turned him out for six months in my sixty acre pasture (which has lots of topography), so that the colt, who had been raised in corrals and had a very babyish, tentative way of moving, could grow up a little and learn to use himself. Wally had a good hand that we know put sixty days on Smoky the summer of his three year old year. Then we turned him out again.

The summer of his four year old year Smoky got ninety days of riding by this same good hand, which included working cattle, going on gathers, and being ridden outside. Then he got turned back out. By this time the horse was a very strong mover, and could gallop across the pasture, up and down hill, leaping the creek, in perfect balance, never breaking stride. He could outrun the fastest horse turned out there. In the spring of his five year old year, Wally sent Smoky back to the same trainer for ninety more days. Then he sent him to a rope horse trainer for another ninety days. And at the end of this time (Sept 1st) he brought him back to my place and the two of us starting riding him.

Its been interesting. The four horses I keep here (my old team roping horse, my trail horse, my son’s horse, and Wally’s team roping horse) are all over ten years old and settled, steady horses, each in their own way. Smoky, though a very gentle, easy-going colt who never once challenged his trainers, (they both reported zero bucking, spooking, or bolting episodes), is still a colt. He doesn’t have that steady quality that an older horse has. Both Wally and I questioned if we ought to be doing this, as we both feel we are past our colt riding days. But Smoky has convinced us.

Yes, we have to work at it to keep his head carriage steady, yes he sometimes bounces when he stops, but that’s about the worst of it. He’s reliable and quiet on the trail, good with other horses, never fresh, not spooky, completely flat-backed. You can make a team roping run on him, though he’s a ways from being ready for competition. His worst fault is being lazy and a little pushy (the people who raised him until he was three were the sort who fed treats). But he takes correction well, and I’d rather one that was lazy then one that’s on the muscle.

There’s just one little thing. Smoky likes to paw. The first day I had him here, I noticed this habit. As I began my evening feeding routine, distributing hay to each horse, Smoky stood next to his feeder and pounded on the ground in a steady repetitive fashion with a front foot. It was annoying.

“Quit!” I yelled.

Smoky ignored me and raised clouds of dust with his emphatic digging.

I started to yell at him again and stopped. I was teaching this horse to ignore me. Without thinking about it much, I grabbed a small rock, about one inch in diameter, said “Quit’ again in a calm voice, and nailed the colt in the shoulder.

Smoky jumped, unsure what bee had stung him, and went right back to pawing. I nailed him again in the barrel. I’m a pretty good shot with a rock.

This time Smoky jumped and crowhopped a little. He still wasn’t sure what was going on, but he eyed me suspiciously.

I stood there waiting. Smoky began to paw again and I hit him right in the side. He saw me this time and jumped away from me to the far side of his pen. Since he’s in my one small pen, which is thirty by thirty, he still wasn’t too far away. He began pawing again. I nailed him in the butt.

Smoky jumped, turned around, and faced me with his ears up, looking distinctly wary. This was fine with me. I began the feeding routine again. Smoky stood at the far side of his corral and watched me. He did not paw. When I put his hay in his feeder, he stayed back, looking nervous. After awhile he approached cautiously and began to eat. When I reached out to stroke him between the bars of the corral, he flinched away from me.

In another horse, I might have found this response worrying, but in Smoky’s case, it was just right. Smoky is annoyingly gentle, as I’ve said, and always wants his nose in your pocket, the result of how he was raised before I got him. I was quite happy that he should learn to be a little more wary and respectful of me.

Thus my feeding routine became one of loading my pockets with a few small rocks as I walked down the driveway, and zinging Smoky as soon as he began to paw. In a very short time, Smoky gave up the pawing. Yesterday, when he was tied to the trailer, he lifted his front leg to begin the gesture. I said, “Quit” in a low voice and his ears came up, he looked at me, and he put that foot down quietly. Wally laughed. “He’s afraid of you,” he said.

“Oh yeah. He thinks I’m the wicked witch of the west. Except that I also feed him. But do you notice, he doesn’t crowd me any more.”

Wally acknowledged that this was true. We both wish that the colt had been raised in a turned out situation—he will always be a little too willing to get in your space for our taste. But he’s a good colt and he learns fast and is gentle to ride, so he has a lot going for him. And I’m well on the way to curing him of his annoying habit.

Any one else have an annoying equine habit that they’ve found a cure for? I’d love to hear your story.


autumnblaze said...

My boy is mouthy. I have NOT found a solution but then I also haven't tried THAT hard. He's never mean only playful. And when I'm braiding his forelock and he holds my shirt/belt in his mouth, falling asleep, I have to admit it's endearing. He knows the line though. A look will make him stop if he's nearing it or crabby and I think teeth may come into play. I'm sure if I was consistent in not letting him do it, he'd at least stop with me. He'd still nom the cross ties, anything within reach etc. though I'm sure. So, I fail in correcting my boys bad habit. I did at least find out he was gelded late (3.5) and that could have something to do with it - and his sire was the same way.

gillian said...

Oh, I'm so jealous of your aim. I have terrible hand eye coordination, and whats worse, my otherwise spooky/reactive mare could care less if I nailed her with a rock. Go figure.

The annoying habit she had was not wanting to be caught in the turnout. Its a small grassy place and she used to mosey away when I came up to her with a halter. every time she wandered off, I free lunged her at a pretty good clip. I asked her to stop and approached her quietly. If she chose to wander off, she went around again. We were both pretty sweaty by the end of it but now she stands just fine to be caught. I guess this would only work with a smallish turnout. Or if you did like mugs and chased 'em with your cowhorse.

Laura Crum said...

autunmblaze--For me its all about whether the habit annoys me. For instance one of my other horses bites at his neighbor and kicks the bars at feeding time and, for whatever reason, this doesn't bother me. So I ignore him. Smoky's pawing annoyed me, so I addressed it. Everybody's different. If your horse's behavior doesn't bother you or threaten you, I, for one, don't think you need to fix it. Mugwump once wrote me how she taught all her horses to stand quietly at feeding time, and though I'm sure her system works and I see nothing wrong with it, I wasn't moved to try it, simply because my horses antics at feeding time don't bother me (except for Smoky's pawing). I guess an annoying habit is all in what annoys you.

And Gillian, I remember Mugwump's post about chasing Sharien's filly on Sonita--it was fun to read. I think your trick with your mare would be just as effective, if less entertaining for the horseman and spectators. And yeah, it wouldn't work in my sixty acre pasture, unfortunately. I've had horses that were hard to catch there, and baiting them with food proved the only solution. Unless you were game to rope them, which we weren't.

OneDandyHorse said...

When I first got my horse, in my eyes, she was the worst horse on earth. She would run you over while leading, bite, kick, would get in your face... she had serious stuff going on! She used to push on the gates and destroy it to get out (until I put electric fencing) now, she respects any gate, fence or "wall" even if not electrified. She now leads well, fast or slow and does not walk on my heels or feet! I did it by having her nearly walk in front of me (not easy, since she would only walk behind someone), quite a struggle, and I would kick at her legs any time she woudl come too close to my poor toes. Same went when she stomped her foot down or pawed the ground. She was mouthy and in your face (still is but with a bit more respect), I would smack her in the mouth whenever she would try and grab at me... Also found out that they do not become headshy if you do that... I think they know exactly why they are being smacked in the mouth. She had never been with horses before this spring... she got quite a lesson when my old crusty ex-racer kicked her right in the mouth (no damage done), she got kicked and bit quite a lot by the other horses, that's normal. I don't mind her being in my space at all, that's why I haven't corrected it, I give her treats sometimes after rides, but I never let her be mouthy and decide when she wants her treat, I make her be patient for the treat and I make it clear that I give the treat when I feel like it, not when she wants it­... seems to have worked very well. I have also thrown rocks and sticks at her for not behaving... when I first got her, the first thing she showed you was her butt, and she wasn't affraid to kick out at anyone or anything (she kicked my sister and sent her flying! She's alright today, thank you winter jacket and abundant snow!), so I would never get in the space where she could get to me, never babied her too much at that time (I do today, because she knows who's boss). She threatened to kick me many times, including the time I went to see her (before I bought her... yeah, I still bought her, that same day). We board 4 horses for the summer and none of them are properly trained and aren't respectful for a minute... so I've been practicing my aim with those too... I don't care if they are not mine, I will not put up with a horse that rears in front of me boxing with her front paws (nearly got me in the head the first time, I wasn't prepared), I smacked her HARD with a halter and leadline I had in my hands, she did it again right after that, I replied the same way, she never did it again. Just be consistent and don't be afraid, stay at a safe range and correct them whenever you get a chance.

Funder said...

My mare is a terrible digger and ear-pinner. I selectively ignore it and it's slowly going away. Dixie paws when she wants her food, and she pins her ears at any living creature nearby (other than me) to warn them off. I just stand there, holding her dinner, until she's not pawing and her ears are up. Then she gets fed, but not before. She's gotten a lot quicker about standing still with "pretty" ears!

She sometimes digs holes when she's impatient with being tied, too. I will smack her on the chest if I'm standing right there, so she's learned to settle down and stand quietly if I'm nearby. If I wander off away from her for more than a minute or so, she starts digging again. Dixie is not the most patient of horses!

Laura Crum said...

Funder--Its interesting. Smoky does not paw when tied if no human is nearby. He will stand tied quietly for hours. The pawing only occurs when a person is standing near him who he thinks might possibly untie him. I've known horses that pawed endlessly when tied, digging holes, as you say. Hobbles seem to be the only cure for this.

OneDandyHorse--I'm completely intolerant of horses crowding me or being willing to get in my space. For me, it's a safety issue. Every time a horse steps in my space he gets corrected. I'm not nice about it either. That said, I have had horses that persistantly stepped into my space. One turneed out to be a bottle colt. That horse is retired, and I still take care of him. He will still step in your space, despite the many, many times he's been corrected (often quite harshly). But he never once, in his whole life, stepped on or injured any human. So I know that horses can be this way and still be safe, good horses. I am hoping Smoky falls in this category.

horsegenes said...

I haven't found the cure but I sure have one with an annoying habit. He is in a stall with a paddock and when he gets bored, he plays in the water. Not just a little, he can literally flood his stall in a matter of hours. We have tried taking the auto waterer out and giving him a tub and he will splash in the tub until he can get a hold of it and dump it. We put a bigger tub in and put rocks in the bottom and he still manages to turn it. We gave him a galvanized low profile watering trough and he practically had his front feet in it and water was everwhere. If he is out on pasture he will stand at the water trough and splash until the ground in front is deep and muddy. This goes on all year long and you pretty much never catch him in the act. You just get to see the results of his actions. Horses need lots of clean fresh water so it isn't like I can just take it away. Any suggestions?

Laura Crum said...

kel--My horse Gunner used to play in his water. He broke several automatic waterers (water squirting everywhere--now there was a mess) and overturned troughs. But he wasn't obsessive about water. He leaned on gates, rested his butt on panels and tree branches...etc. He just liked to fuss with things. As an old horse, who is turned out in a big pasture, he doesn't do this. I'm not sure if its old age, or he was just bored when kept in corrals. So, I guess if I had a suggestion, it might be to address the boredom factor--whether by turn out or more work or whatever comes to mind. I've tried hanging those rubber balls and the horses just ignore them, so that hasn't worked for me.

Mugwump once told me that horses playing in the water can be a sign of pain. She saw it twice, with a persistant sand colic, and one other horse...I can't remember. Is there any possibility your horse could have pain issues? I don't actually know anything about the play in the water/pain connection, but you might ask mugwump.

Nan said...

My Paint, Flash normally has good manners. If he's up at the barn I can usually get him easily, but when he's out in the pasture (he and his buddy are out 24/7) he can be awful to catch. He seems to know when I want him for something, especially if I'm late for a lesson! Mostly he just turns his butt to me and walks away. But sometimes he runs all over like a crazy thing. Very disrespectful. I've tried treats, coaxing with petting as a reward, catching my other horse (who is easy to catch)and taking him to the barn. Nothing works more than once. Eventually he tires of the game and I can herd him into the paddock area where he goes into his stall and stands quietly as if it never occurred to him to avoid getting caught! Once caught he gives me no trouble at all. I know he has my number. Any suggestions?

Laura Crum said...

Nan--I've had horses that behaved like that before. I have to admit, my usual solution was not to turn them out if I thought I'd need to catch them up and ride them regularly. My friend trained one by calling him every day and feeding him treats, even when she wasn't going to ride. Maybe that would help. Its a hard habit to cure, though. Good luck.

Joy said...

I have to give my horse a joint supplement so he gets a bucket w/ a small amount of pellets and the joint supplement mixed in.

He started to get pushy about the bucket and one day tried to rip it out of my hands. So I threw the bucket at his head and swept the pellets out of his stall.

Now he looks away from me while I hang the bucket on his stall and he doesn't eat until I walk away. It was a pretty quick and simple fix!

Laura Crum said...

Joy--Sounds like your instincts are a lot like mine. That would have been exactly my reaction, too.

Nan said...

Thanks, Laura. I have begun to go out into the pasture with treats and just spend time loving on him when I'm not going to ride. So far there's not much progress but we will persevere. I'll keep you posted.