Thursday, June 10, 2010

In which I stand on a soapbox and talk about training Miss Fiddle

Let me begin by saying that I'm not a professional horse trainer, and I don't even want to pretend to be one. I do not fix problem horses, I don't offer advice about tack or equipment for other people, and I don't put my horse on a pedestal as an example of a Well-Behaved Horse.

I do, however, believe that every time you interact with another living being, you are teaching something and you are learning something. Every single time.

Think for a moment about the last interaction you had with another living soul. Did you order the dog out of the kitchen? Did you kiss your son on the forehead? Did you promise your spouse that you would pick up bread and milk at the store? All of those creatures learned something about you. What did you teach them?

Those creatures had some reaction to your behavior. Did you like the reaction? Do you intend to change your behavior to get a different reaction, or repeat your behavior to get the same reaction again? They are shaping your behavior at the same time you shape theirs.

Cool, huh?

It's not always completely straightforward, especially in a new relationship. The other creature, be it horse, dog, or new co-worker, has experiences that lead her to believe that if she does this, then you will probably do that. A dog who sits on command at my house can reasonably expect a scratch on the nose or a nice cookie. Dogs from other households might expect a cookie every single time, and they might be confused when I praise them without food. I learn (by watching their initial confusion) that praise wasn't what they expected. They learn, eventually, that there will be cookies, but not always.

When we have understanding about behaviors, we are both happier.
So, how did we get Fiddle from this:(July 2007)
to this:(May 2009)
to this:
(March 2010)?

It was a long, slow road, actually, and although I did the lion's share of training with her, I didn't do it all myself.

What I wanted was a reliable trail and endurance horse who could move forward with ears forward on a loose rein, could behave appropriately in a crowd of unruly others, and could pay attention to me and follow my instructions all the time. That's a tall order.

I needed her to be able to do the following:
* Control her impulses
* In an unfamiliar situation, do something that has been "right" in the past
* Look to the handler for help and guidance

I like to start my dogs and horses with a trick or two, some default behavior that is always "right." For dogs, the default is "sit." A sitting dog is a good dog.

For horses, the default trick can be anything that will allow the horse to communicate, "I do this because I want to be good." Fiddle's trick is to hold up one foot and arch her neck down.
This trick teaches control of the feet (we teach it for all four feet), and control of impulses. She can't bite or kick anybody when she's doing this trick. She is being good. For Fiddle, it's a relief to have a behavior that is always good. She can default back to it when she is uncertain, and that lets me know that she wants more guidance.

When I first got Fiddle, she seemed to be a very angry young horse. Although she was nearly 5 years old, she acted more like a cranky toddler than a nearly-mature mare, and she hated to be confronted with unfamiliar situations. She frequently tried to kick and bite people, she would plant her feet and refuse to walk properly on a leadline, and she pinned her ears at everyone.

Because she had learned elsewhere that she could scare some people by trying to bite them, we kept her away from timid people who might allow that behavior, and surrounded her with canny people who would get in her space and make her move her feet if she was inappropriate with her face. Every single time she tried to bite someone, that person (who was warned in advance what she might do and how they should respond) would crowd into her and make her yield her hindquarters, trot in circles, or back up--in other words, we were teaching her that "biting" equals "working".

We gave her the same response for her threats to kick. If she aimed a foot at someone, that person would work her. Eventually, she learned to keep all her feet under control when she was around people, because "kicking" meant "working."

The key at this point in her life was keep timid people away from her. This mare believes that if you give her an inch, she deserves to take a mile. If she ever succeeds with a threat to bite or kick, she would learn that sometimes she could get away with it. This is much harder to eradicate than the absolute you will always have to work if you try to bite.

To help her cope with her fear of uncertainty and new situations, I took Fiddle into every weird situation I could find:
We travelled to Standardbred Play-days in Canada, I hauled her to the ocean, rode her into the backcountry, and took her to ridecamp to build and mark trails.

It's important to note that, although I rode this mare extensively, I did not put her into endurance competitions for three years--until I was reasonably sure that she could do the work correctly. Remember, she is always learning. If she learns that one of the things she can do is throw a bucking wobbly at the start line of a ride, it might take years to convince her to quit doing that.

Instead, she learned that camp is a place where you go stay for a week, and you have to work every single day, so it doesn't take much for me (now) to convince her to walk quietly through camp and over the start line.

I took her out in crowds whenever I could--to local poker rides, to playdays, and to trailheads that I knew would be crowded--and I enforced the requirement for good behavior while she was there.

I put all kinds of bizarre tack and equipment on her, and then asked for the same good behavior.

I took her for my riding lessons, and insisted that she try new things. When she is naughty, she has to work harder. When she is good, she gets quiet praise and sometimes a cookie.
She learned that the things we do together are FUN, and that often there are cookies.
When I find something that she feared (white plastic bags, for example), I incorporate that thing into her everyday environment, by hanging the scary thing on her fence, or having it poke out of my pocket. Her feed in camp comes wrapped in white plastic bags!

Horses can't learn to cope with something if you avoid the situation. Rather than say, "my horse can't do endurance because she hates being in unfamiliar places", I taught her to accept new places. Rather than say, "I can't use white plastic bags", I taught her to control her impulse to flee from them. This is ongoing, BTW, she still hates them.

In fact, it's all ongoing. Every time I interact with her, she learns something, and she will continue to learn stuff for the rest of her life.

So, there's my philosophy of horse training: Whenever you interact with your horses, you are always learning and you are always teaching. Pay attention to what you are teaching your horses, and pay attention to what they teach you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In which I share some nice team pictures and silly stuff from Klickitat

In the Pacific Northwest region, our teams compete for regional points. Grand prize for the highest number of points is awarded at convention--sometimes a trophy, but sometimes it's matching sets of underwear for all the team members. Clearly, it's my kind of competition.

Our team is the Pirate Nation, and I am Captain Terrible Crabmeat. Allow me to introduce some of my crew and some other goofballs that were hanging around camp last weekend:
Cassie is our newest recruit. Notice that she has a valuable captive on her lap.

That puppy isn't really dead. She just really enjoys having her tummy scratched.

Also new to the team this year are Amanda and her trusty steed Cato.
They had a fun day on Saturday, but Cato was, alas, lame at the finish line and so they didn't "finish" the ride. The rules say that the horse must be "fit to continue" (i.e. in shape to go out and travel another 15 or 20 miles) at the finish line, and Cato's lameness was consistant--probably something simple but aggrevating like an abcess.

Ah, well, if you travel enough miles, you'll have a story like that to share at the fire someday.
Buster gave Pirate Morgan a nice ride on Sunday, but her young gelding was a real handful on Saturday AND they got blown off-course and did an extra 12 miles in order to complete the competition. The young gelding is for sale, by the way...he comes with a compass that doesn't point north.

Her hubby Steve has a lovely young gelding too, and Colt is NOT for sale. He had fun on Saturday and stayed in camp on Sunday.
Autumn is a seasoned Pirate riding borrowed horses this year, because her "real" horse has a heart murmer. At Klickitat, she borrowed a big ol' mustang called "Red". We had to leave camp before she got to the finish line--I hope she had fun!

Speaking of people having fun, here's some pictures that made me laugh:
Fiddle went shopping at the Healthy as a Horse booth, clearly wondering if the sheepskin would look good with her outfit.
B-dog advised Fiddle to just stick with purple.
I know I already posted this picture of Brian in the wheelbarrow at the ride meeting, but it's so silly I have to post it again!
I need to make a Venn Diagram to accompany these photos, to indicate that the intersection of endurance riders and fashion sense equals null set. See what I mean? Anna may look goofy in that shiny hat, but I'd never tell her so--she's the best dang ride timer in the region!

And then, there's this lil' cowpoke:
Could I deny him, when he very seriously asked me to pulse his pony and watch his trot out?
His pony had a good strong heartbeat, which didn't surprise anybody, especially me.

Life is good!

Monday, June 7, 2010

In which we cross the bridge and ride in sun and rain and have a story

We went.

We rode.

We finished.

We had fun!

We took pictures.

We do have a story--but not the kind where folks got hurt or trucks broke down or anything.

It was a great weekend.

Maddy and I loaded Fiddle and Luna into the rig on Friday morning and headed out under dark and rainy skies. The route is familiar to us--we've both ridden the Klickitat Trek several times, so we relaxed and chatted as the miles rolled along.

We had to drive over The Bridge.

(trip, trap. trip, trap. trip, trap. Oh, sorry: wrong bridge)
The Hood River Bridge spans the Columbia River between Hood River, Oregon and White Salmon, Washington. It is tall and narrow. There are frequently high winds (windsurfers love Hood River!) . If you drive a little car, it's no big deal.
If you drive a truck with a camper + a horse trailer, it's a white-knuckle experience. I've done it many times, and I've gotten more comfortable with the experience over the years, but I don't think I will ever enjoy the Hood River Bridge:

After the bridge, the drive uphill away from the Columbia River is absolutely beautiful--and the weather started to clear up, too! Hurray! After 3 weeks of rain, we were ready to see the blue skies waiting for us at ridecamp in the Glenwood Rodeo Grounds.

We set up camp, and then took Fiddle over for her vet-in.

She is pretty mellow about the whole "ridecamp" experience, thanks to nearly three years of camping before she ever started competition.
She still thinks she should be able to pin her ears at other horses, though. Naughty!
When I first started taking her to camp, she thought she should be able to squeal, lunge, and chase other horses to try to kick them, so "just" pinning her ears is a big improvement. Her training is, as always, a work in progress.
I took her out for a short shakedown ride on Friday night. She saw a herd of deer, a herd of cows, and a herd of zombies. I didn't see the zombies, but she knew they were there. We practiced pushing cows, which she thought was a crazy thing to do. She did it, though! I was very proud.
Saturday morning, I was in the saddle 45 minutes before the start time, so that we could have a slow, easy warm-up.

Carrot stretches, both directions.
Getting a bite of grass before the start.
By start time, she was relaxed and ready to move out.
My chiropractor is really working with me on my posture, which has gotten really skewed by all the driving I have to do (I commute 2 hours each day for work). It helps to ride with my hand behind my back, to keep my shoulders balanced. Looks funny, feels good. Personal dignity isn't really a big problem for me anyhow.

The footing was excellent,
the weather was beautiful, and my horse was happy to get out and go.
The 17-mile vetcheck was a busy place, with horses pulsing down at the in-gate, vets watching trot-outs, and riders busily refilling pockets and packs with supplies for the next leg of the journey while their horses chowed down on beetpulp and hay. Fiddle found a pile of alfalfa and munched on it steadily for 45 minutes without looking up once. I just dumped her beetpulp on top of the alfalfa and let her eat.
Then, we headed back out on the trails for the 13-mile trek back to camp. She was happy to be out on the trail.

She still pinned her ears when we passed another horse or were passed by someone, but she moved out of the trail to make way without arguement.

Early in the ride, a fellow on a grey gelding was having difficulties ahead of us, so we cut a wide bushwack around him to get away. A few minutes later he came thundering up behind us. I warned him to keep back--that red ribbon in Fiddle's tail means "stay back--this horse kicks" and I'm not kidding around when I put it there.

"She'll kick you into next Tuesday if you crowd her," I told the guy, but he said he couldn't keep his horse back. Grrr.

"Get ahead of me then," I said, but he said that he'd get bucked off if he went in front. Double grr.

Finally, Fee and I cut a fast wide bushwack away from the guy and didn't see him again for 20 miles...and by that time, he was somebody else's problem. Sheesh.

Late in the ride, I had another horse crowd Fee, despite my warnings and her obviously pinned ears. That one got kicked square in the chest before I could stop her, and really, it was hard to blame her (I still gave her hell for it, of course). Nobody was hurt, and the rider actually thanked me for possibly teaching her dumb horse a lesson. Yeah, but I still don't want my horse to kick!!!

At the finish line, she pulsed down before I even took the saddle off. Then, Fiddle immediately dropped into the sand for a lovely dirt bath:

As soon as she stood up, it was her turn to vet, so Dr. Jenn had a lovely dusty horse to check.
Her vet scores:
The only scores that were low were her gut sounds, but since she was literally grabbing bites of grass along the trail all day, and stuffing hay and beetpulp into her mouth at the vetcheck, I didn't worry too much. When I listened to her guts on the trail, they were loud and burbley--so the vets were probably listening during a quieter period.

Dr. Jenn has a rather unusual filing method for vet cards:

At the award meeting that night, most of the crowd was happy and relaxed. Brian was maybe more relaxed than most.

One of the traditions at KT's ride meetings is the opportunity to tell good ride stories to the crowd. One of the ride managers told the crowd that she'd taken the truck and horse trailer into the town of Glenwood, about 4 miles from camp, to get supplies. While they were there, a horse came high-stepping down the main street of town. She said, "That looks like an endurance horse!" and grabbed him, and tossed him into the trailer.

When they got back to camp, his worried owner claimed him...and at the ride meeting, she asked for a volunteer to ride him on the 30-mile distance Sunday morning, since he clearly hadn't gone far enough on Saturday!

Madeline volunteered for the job, and so she and "Glenwood Kit" headed out together on Sunday.
Saturday's blue skies were gone on Sunday morning, so Madeline and I revived the old tradition of me loaning her a raincoat for the ride.
Susan was checking off rider numbers at the start line. There were quite a few people who decided not to ride in the rain, but there were plenty of brave fools who didn't mind at all.Susan had to keep the clipboard under a pizza box to keep it dry.

While Maddie was out on the trail, I broke down out camp, wrung out the pirate flags, and hitched up the rig, so that we could head out for home as soon as she was finished.

She got to the finish line with a smile on her face!
And she finished 10th, which meant she was eligible for Best Condition. Kit had won BC on Saturday, before his little jaunt to Glenwood. On Sunday, he competed against fresh horses who hadn't gone out on Saturday, so we didn't think he'd win it again, but it's always good practice to show.

Clearly, they had a good day together.
Then, it was time to head home: down the hill, and back over the bridge.

We had a great weekend, but it's good to be home.
Tomorrow: silly photos from ridecamp.