My lessons with my groundwork student have continued steadily. On Sunday and today, I also worked with Loretta on my own.
Loretta has a pretty bad case of heaves, so in the winter she lives alone in a dry lot. She’s often skittish about being approached by people. Sunday was windy, and she got snorty and agitated the moment I approached her pen. I decided to start with some liberty work to see if I could get her to feel less threatened by my presence.
Starting off, I’d ask her to go by pointing in the direction I wanted her to travel. That didn’t work at first, so I’d follow up by driving with my rope. Loretta was on edge, so all it took was a tiny bit of pressure to make her explode off to the other side of the pen. At first, she was just running and scared. I’d let her move out for half a lap or so, then block her forward momentum so she had to turn around and go the other way. After a while, her turns and departures got slower. Finally, she stopped to look at me.
Of course, at this point I looked away from her and took a step back. She chewed on that for a minute, and I tried to approach. She took off again, so I went back to driving and asking her to change direction at intervals. We worked like this for another minute or two, until she stopped to look and I was able to walk up and give her some long, soft strokes along the neck. She was jumpy – flinching at my touch and startling in place any time the wind moved my rope or the fringe of my chinks. So I stepped away and asked her to move again. What I wanted was for her to go softly instead of in a panic. It took a while longer to get there, but before long she would leave when I pointed, moving with energy but not escaping. Finally, when I gave her an opening after she stopped, she took one step in my direction.
I gave her more pets and a break. By then, she was less reactive to my touch. Then I moved her off again, really soft and slow. We did a few circles and changed directions twice, smoothly, and she was moving around me by then instead of fleeing down to the opposite side of a pen. I opened a door. She turned, came off the fence, and walked all the way up to me with some really good energy. That was honestly a much bigger change than I was expecting. I gave her more pets, and finally she didn’t flinch when I touched her. I eased the halter on, and we went inside.
Indoors, she was tense. I worked on helping her tolerate the touch of the sound of the rope brushing her blanket, and releasing some tension in her neck by lowering her head. Although she was still a bit agitated. Her focus was entirely different than every other time I’ve worked with her. The horse that lives in the pen next to her was freaking out because Loretta was gone – calling and galloping just beyond the arena wall. Loretta never called back. I had her attention almost the whole time. She was trying really, really hard to stay with me. I kept the session short and positive. Loretta led nicely back to her pen, and stayed with me after I took the halter off – another first.
Today, I made it the barn alone in the late morning. I took Steen out for a jaunt through the fields (oh the joy of riding in the open!). Then I worked with Loretta again. We started with more work in her pen. Her response to my presence was quite different this time. She walked towards me immediately when I came in, but then her courage failed her and she shied off to one side. So I started with pointing and driving, but worked on keeping it soft from the start. Instead of escaping, she kept her attention on me from the get to. It only took a moment before I gave her a chance to stop and she came right up to me again. I haltered her and we worked on all our usual things. She was soft and focused, and wasn’t flinching away from my touch. I worked with her and the rope some more. She has a real problem when the rope goes over her back and moves out of one eye into the other. But she’s starting to take some support from me. She got rigid and almost left quite a few times, but never actually moved.
Of course, it was a calmer day too. The winds weren’t blowing, and it was super warm with the sun out. So I’m sure the change wasn’t all due to what we’ve been working on. Still, there were other things that were different. When we took breaks and I stroked Loretta’s neck, she would sniff my chinks in a curious, open way (which she has always previously found very alarming due to the way the fringe can flap), or just let her face lower into my hands and stay there for a minute or two.
So, working with Loretta continues to be interesting. Today I was feeling like she was pretty settled and hooked on to me. Now I just need to figure out a way to get that to transfer over to her owner.