January was so mild, it was easy to start thinking of winter as nearly over. Then February hit with a vengeance. Last weekend we got a huge snow storm, and also I finally caught the cold Brian has been battling for a week.
Friday and Saturday I made it to the barn. On Friday I did a little bit of groundwork with Piper, then gave my groundwork lesson, and rode Steen. Saturday, Brian and I both went out. We brought Piper up to the grooming area and started working on teaching her to stand. She did surprisingly well with this, though at times holding still became too much for her, and we had to head back to the arena for a little more groundwork.
Before my weekend work with Piper, I ended up reading two articles by Jeff Derby (who is one of Bruce Sandifer’s students). The theme of both articles was on getting and maintaining a horse’s attention. This had been on my mind, because it’s my number one hurdle with Piper. Paying close attention to a human is something she’s never been asked to do. The stress of the new environment, the reality that she doesn’t understand much of what I am asking her, and the extra complication of having two four-legged cheerleaders who call for her incessantly every time she leaves the herd has set the situation up so getting her focused is a bit of a challenge.
On Friday, I did my groundwork without removing Piper from the pasture. I did this because I was a little pressed for time, but I think it actually worked to my advantage. I haltered Piper and took her up to the driest corner in the winter pasture. There we worked on various yields and a little bit of circle work. She was more relaxed from the beginning. I think that led to her being more able to stay with me mentally, and thus think more critically about what I was asking for.
Saturday, Brian and I brought Nevada and Piper in together. Piper was definitely more stressed inside, but we turned the two girls out and let them explore and romp a little. Then I did a little liberty work with Piper, and she got the idea to come to me pretty much immediately. I haltered her again, and we did some groundwork. I was impressed by how big a leap we’d taken since the day before. She wasn’t nearly as sticky with her feet, she was yielding to light pressure with less delay, and she was mentally with me for a much higher percentage of the time.
The biggest change was with flexing. Our two slowest things to improve upon so far have been backing and flexing. Like a lot of horses who have been haltered and led but not really taught to yield to pressure, Piper has some braces in her neck. On Friday, every flex was taking quite a while. When she did yield, she wasn’t really turning loose in the jaw and poll.
So I was surprised when I checked in with flexing on Saturday and Piper immediately softened up and tipped her nose to the side. Thinking it might have been a fluke, I tried again. Again, she came quickly and was soft all the way through the neck. I went to the other side, and she was equally soft there. The next time I asked her to back, she turned loose vertically when she moved her feet for the first time ever. Very cool.
We did have a few less ideal moments. Once or twice when the calls from outside got really frantic, Piper completely lost it and had to call back and move around a little. When this happened, I just sent her off in a big circle and asked her to move out. I’d ask her to change direction from time to time, until she was able to start thinking more about me than than the herd again.
Brian also took a couple minutes of video. One thing I’m approaching a little differently with Piper than I have with other green horses I’ve worked with is how I’m approaching circle work. Right now, Piper hasn’t learned how to stay back when she turns around. Every other time I’ve worked with a horse who doesn’t understand this, I have jumped onto that as something to fix first thing.
But this was something Peter Campbell specifically addressed during the video we watched the other day, and it made me think a little differently. With Piper, her main stickiness is in the head and neck. She has a hard time moving backwards off pressure because she learned to lean on the halter a little before we got her. She doesn’t understand much about yielding in general, and she has defenses built up around her face. She can get easily troubled if I push her there.
Always before, my solution to horses wanting to come forward when disengaging the hind would have been to come in with enough firmness to convince the horse to yield back. But the number one thing I’m trying to focus on while working with Piper is “less.” It’s a concept I seem to be hearing about from every trainer I admire lately. I think it’s so easy to default to “more” when you see a horse isn’t doing something “right.” I think we do this because it’s hard not to start to feel a bit threatened or inadequate when you’re working with a green horse and things aren’t shaping up in a textbook fashion.
But as Jeff Derby reminds us in his articles, Ray Hunt said, “First you go with the horse. Then the horse goes with you. Then you go together.”
In this video, one of the things I’m doing is asking Piper to change direction without really showing her how to do it. I’m just putting a little barrier in place, then leaving things open for exploration. Since getting and keeping Piper’s attention is still difficult at this point, being too picky about how she’s answering my questions can easily make her to feel persecuted, which only encourages her to take her mind somewhere else. I’m trying to do enough to keep her trying, but not so much that she feels picked on.
At this point, I have less then two hours of groundwork on the books with Piper. Considering I couldn’t get her to walk forward for more than a step without getting majorly stuck, she had no idea how to soften up and look towards me when I asked for her attention, and definitely couldn’t continue to move when I touched her with the flag just two days ago, I’m pretty happy with where we’re at. I’m even rather surprised at how quickly she’s changed.
Unfortunately, the storm blew in on Sunday and our barn owner advised folks not to attempt to come out. I’ve been sick all week, but I’m looking forward to more Piper time this weekend.
Horseback Hours YTD: 11:10