We are on fire today! Feeling a lot better about Dante after today and hopefully this signals an upward trend.
About a month ago I noticed an issue – when Dante and I would do our ground work which required me to stand close to him (like shoulder-in) he would drop, and then eventually started dripping, all accompanied by his ur-urrrh (deep guttural I like you!). I’m not a prude but this needed to be dealt with and I wasn’t sure how.
First, I searched the internet and if he was unable to retract and was dripping all the time, without the ability to urinate, it could be a medical problem. But it doesn’t fit those parameters as he can urinate, and he can tuck up, and he doesn’t drip unless we are in this “training” situation.
He’s also not a studly horse – Tristan was far more studly (he could rear if too excited, was possessive of his chosen mare, and had been found to mount Pepper, which she allowed, as well as getting into a fight with ZZ when she went into heat). Dante doesn’t get vocal when leaving horses, he isn’t overprotective of the two mare ponies he is kept with, and gets along well with his gelding fencemates.
I got some great advice from some Instagrammers – @collecting_spots, @classicallytraining @modernhorsemanship on how to deal with this problem of him being a bit too excited. The input was to try to reward only when he is tucked up – don’t reward when he is dropped as this may be reinforcing this behavior by accident; and to try moving him out faster as he would naturally tuck up for protection.
Yesterday, I took him out of his pasture to work in some common areas. Where I keep the horses we have a long gravel road running down the front of the rectangular paddocks, as well as some open riding area in the back (where Tristan was buried), and a large pasture next door that is open for riding and that was just hayed for round bales.
Leaving the “safe” area that he lives in naturally caused him to be a bit more careful and he naturally tucked up though he remained overall calm. This will be an area I can work him where he doesn’t start thinking about what is between his legs so too speak. It would be a good place to continue reinforcing the behaviors I do want – while he won’t exhibit the behavior I don’t want all without having to constantly worry about what he is doing down there.
Today, I worked him in my usual area with the goal to tackle what I’m generally covering with him:
Stelling – which is bending the head left to right, in a lowered state so the Atlas is open and the movement travels from front to back, to the hip. (Bent Branderup and Straightness Training).
Moving weight from the front to the back. He is a downhill horse so he needs to constantly be reminded with half halts to shift weight back and to stand square.
Walking on a lunge circle with his head lowered yet remains in self carriage. I’m just now teaching him some half halts on the lunge to get him to be better balanced when in movement. Lunging in a circle started out more as ground work (Straightness Training) in a very small circle, but we are now progressing to doing it more as traditional lunging (Art2Ride) on about a 12′ lead.
You might remember that this is where he gets too close to me, making the circle too tight, and egg-shaped. So we’ve been working hard on this and I’m seeing improvement but it is slow going. How I got there was making sure that the whip would touch him on his shoulder if he closed the circle using the front half of his body, and using the whip in a windshield wiper movement (from front to back) in the space between him and me (never touching) in a manner recommended by Linda Tellington Jones for horses who follow too tightly. This swishing movement keeps him out on the circle and discourages him coming inwards.
Trotting on a lunge – before he would become irritated and act out. Now, he sometimes pins his ears for a few strides (more on this later) but is getting better about accepting it more calmly. Today, he naturally lowered his head more for a stretch which was great as this has been an issue (Art2Ride). Trotting is only happening for half to one full circle before he comes down to walk. Getting his endurance up is the goal.
Stopping him on the lunge where he assumes a correct position. He wants to turn to face me which is part of his evasion from work as it is harder to get him going again on the lunge when he turns like this. I’m tapping the whip on his shoulder so he stays out and good stops are reinforced by Clicker Training.
Leg Yield – this horse doesn’t know how to yield to pressure! He just stands there! So I’ve taken this back to step one. I tap-tap with my whip end where the leg would ask for the horse to move away and once he does he gets rewarded (Clicker Training). I know this sounds so basic – well it is and he doesn’t know it!
Shoulder-In – I teach this from leaving a circle at walk. We’ve had some progress here but he is far lighter going clockwise then counter clockwise. I’d like to see him feeling “lighter” going both directions. I’ve reinforced this with Clicker Training but this where he gets a bit too Man-Happy so now we do a Shoulder-In and immediately go into some trot work.
Quarters-In – teaching how to do this from the ground has me puzzled. Once I hit on the best method (I’m trying out some different ways), I’ll post more.
Mounting block – aligning to the mounting block (I’ll write more about this later as it is an interesting problem with him). This is taught using targeting and Clicker Training.
Today’s work clearly showed me that I needed to do more High Tempo work interspersed with Low Temp work. For example, I did Stelling and then walking on the lunge; moved to shoulder-in (where he then dropped) so I asked him to trot off in a circle (which caused him to retract and tuck back up). Another sequence was half-halts at the trot on the lunge, then back to walk and stops and then trots. Back to Stelling, shifting weight, walking on the lunge, half halts, back to trot, and then back to shoulder in.
What I noticed is this was the easiest time I’ve had to get him to trot. He did pin his ears for a few strides but eventually relaxed into it, even lowering his head at trot the lowest I’ve been able to get him to do!
Klaus Hempfling (What Horses Reveal) discusses the changes of tempo that some personalities require. After today’s experience, I do think he will need me to exchange the tempos of his work too keep him engaged and more up in his energy. Being a draft cross he can get grumpy if he asked too much (then return to low tempo) and he can get too lazy if not given enough challenges (go to high tempo).
He really did impress me today after weeks of struggle! Hopefully, this will give us the needed juice to go forward and see more improvements.