Monday, September 17, 2012

Summer Camp Sojurn - Day One

This past weekend we loaded up P2 and S's mom's horse Josh (a big perch) and headed for a 3 day clinic at Summer Camp.  While I'm familiar with the goings on there, I was excited for the opportunity to haul in with P2 and attack some of the foundation elements I know we lack (which also gorging on great food and playing with P1 some too).

There were a few other clients participating with us which meant not only would I get to watch/learn/listen with Prairie, but also to see other issues and concerns addressed with a couple other ponies as well.  All in all, a great set up for a good weekend.

Friday we managed to hit the road by 1ish (courtesy of Josh opting to load in 20 minutes as opposed to his previous 2 hours..) and me stopping for snacks and gas. But, both the horses got on and hauled great getting us to Summer Camp by 4 pm with plenty of time to determine some goals watch the herd and play with P1.

Prairie was in full heat (courtesy of the show last week) and spent the entire trailer ride peeing everywhere, and falling in love with Josh.  She then proceeded to pee everywhere and make eyes at the entire herd which sent (newly loved then spurned) Josh into a protective, gelded craze trying to chase Prairie up her run and away from other suitors.

The Boy talks about how fantastically interesting it is to just sit and watch the herd interact - and I have to agree with him.  Especially with a few new players in the mix it only takes about 30 seconds of observation to realize that what photographs like a still life of horses grazing independently, is really a dynamic conversation with the lead mares pushing individuals off resources, evaluation position, geldings moving on mares, new comers hovering on the outskirts and one fat little pony weaving through it all. 

So fascinating. 

What impresses me with the herd is how effectively the top of the pecking order controls the bottom.  we watched as the #2 mare flicked an ear at a lowly gelding from 40 yards and he deflected his path choosing to head away from hay and water out to the open field. 

S caught the observation and while discussing it with Cowboy Man we realized that sort of impact and influence is exactly what we wanted to focus on.

In fact, it's a basis for so much of Cowboy Man's training.  Control the feet, then the nose, and do it all from a distance.  If Boss Lady Mare only has to shoot a glance to redirect a herd member, there's no reason I should need a chain, or a spur, or a harsh bit to correctly lead my horse on the ground, move them off my leg or apply brakes.  It works, but not absolutely and it results in a horse that isn't "with you." 

So, that led into the goals for the weekend:

For P2:
 - Respect my space on the ground
 - Respond to Poll Pressure (don't snap cross ties)
 - Tune in under saddle (no drama llama-ing or scooting)

A tall order, and by no means something to magically fix in a weekend, but all issues that we can begin our work towards changing.

For Joshy-Pants
 - Respect personal space on the ground
 - Stop bolting when being led

Also, ongoing issues that have emerged slowly and because they were never corrected or dealt with.  But now he's a full sized elephant with little regard for his humans.  He's not mean, or "naughty" per se, but anything with a butt that big dangerous in the wrong situation.  (or at the very least disconcerting to handle)

Our first exercise was to lead the beasts on a hand walk around the full property (on a newly mowed trail).  This was a wonderful demonstration of how little control I have of P2.  She nearly ripped my arm out of my socket, and had me sucked up to her shoulder the whole time.  The only "tool" I had for gaining her attention was whacking her on the butt with my lead rope which resulted in resetting her position for approximately 2 minutes before her mind wandered off to a bird, or a tree or a horse next door.  Josh was much the same, and at one point when Prairie spun up on a particularly tight portion of the trail I just dropped her line and let her go.  Josh has a similar moment and both S and I were left feeling like terrible horsewomen who don't deserve their creatures.

 But it was a great highlight of our weaknesses and how our ponies viewed us - which is to say that we are basically annoying flies that often pester them enough to do what we want, but ultimately have no importance in their decision making.  Not exactly the absolute obedience and deference that I'm looking for.

That moved us into our first ground exercise which involves asking the horse to stand (politely) and stay standing while controlling their movement from a distance (about 10 ft.).

The baby beginner version of this is to bring the horse into the open barn, stand them up against a wall (for support) and give them a snack to encourage staying put (I'm assured this isn't cheating).  Then, as the handler, you back away about 10 ft on a long line. 
Big Josh starting his snack and the standing exercise

The idea is the horse stands quite happily as long as there is food.  All the while you're talking in a nice soft voice, "good mare, very smart mare, what a good mare.  Such good standing, what a star, great mare..." broadcasting all sorts of relaxation and happiness. 

Eventually, the horse gets bored (usually when they run out of food) and starts exploring.  When they step out of an acceptable "box" (to start this is like a 10' by 10' space), as the handler you put them back.  But you aren't allowed to touch them, or put tension on the line.  So there's usually a loud "shhhhhhhttttk! ah ah, back back back" accompanied by big waving arms and a stomping foot.

If you're one of the herd members, you move off and yield to the noise/pressure from a happy healthy distance.

If you're P2, you look at me like "omg, crazy human, she must need a snack." and then continue on exploring. 

This is where Cowboy Man usually takes over and shows you how big, sharp and quick you can be and how well horses go "ohhh" and move away from the noise. 

Of course most horses don't just acquiesce and allow you to be the alpha herd member.  They evaluate their options and look for a method of escape. Usually either by backing into the depths of the barn, or trying to blow right past you (this is where the long line comes in).

Recapturing their attention usually involved a nose pull on the line, and then immediate release.  Sometimes they get "lunged" in a few circles until they tune in and get shooed back to their standing spot using noise, movement and no line pressure (again, from a distance). 

Prairie testing boundaries, and CM as close as he ever got

Prairie took about 2 repetitions of this before she realized that Cowboy Man was dominant and he had a say as to where she put her feet.  It only take ten minutes because it's a language that makes sense.  While the snack is a jump start to licking and chewing, P2 would oscillate from a slightly anxious "this is weird get me out" to a calm, licking and chewing sigh in no time at all.  Just as she would quickly figure out what mare in the herd dictated when and where she ate.

When I took back over and tried my hand at it I realized how quickly I wanted to a) step in and close the distance between me and P2 and b) tug on the line.  Both were corrected by Cowboy Man since the idea is to increase the distance you can control your horse and also, to avoid any mechanical control.  Even using the line as a way to get her attention made the exercise a mechanical one instead of a social one (damn). 

I knew I would have to focus in order to change my own instincts, but holy crap, so much harder than I thought. 

After about 30 minutes Prairie was so tuned in that a slight lean in her direction and a foot stomp would raise her head from her snack and have her waiting for social pressure to move.  No violence, no physical restriction, but a horse who was looking to me for where to go and when to do it.

The more advanced herd members at Summer Camp go through this exercise without a line or halter.  and they don't need the physical "gravity" of the wall either.  They can get "put" anywhere on the farm and stay there until Cowboy Man asks them to move off. 

Of course they test the boundaries and every once in a while there's a bolt, but he just runs them down, joins back up and returns them to their spot without fail. 

Building on that foundation I took Prairie out for another walk and managed to maintain about 6 feet of slack line between us the whole time.  She still looked and oogled things but she was not allowed to bulge in on me, pull on the line or treat me like an annoying fly.  It's a long ways to a soft, easy hunter round, but I could see the connection and I was loving the response...

We finished the evening by watching Cowboy Man work a few of the horses around the property (P1 being one of them) and it was fabulous to watch her cantering in and out of the trees over hills and through water.  When he was done with his exercises I hopped on (with a halter and lead rope) and ambled around the property admiring how loose and calm my fiery red mare was. 

Untacking (note P is tied, Bella on the left, is free)
S and I closed out the night by having a fabulous meal and fabulous wine while we digested the lessons of the day.  Even if that's all we did, there's so much value for me in changing my perspective and interrupting patterns that I don't even think about with my horses. 


  1. Very interesting. Sounds like a great weekend!

  2. That place should have some sort of scholarship or something. I would be absolutely ecstatic to have my horses there for even a week. Of course, I am a super poor super recent college graduate that lives in NC, so, that can't happen for any number of reasons. Thank your for always talking about your lessons with CM!

  3. That exercise sounds totally awesome!!! I'll have to try it with Chrome. I honestly have no clue how he will react. We've worked on ground tying a little, but he does like to be in my pocket, so there's no telling. :D I look forward to seeing what he does. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you and P2 are learning some fun things to help your connection together. Keep up the great work!


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