March 2, 2010

Hup, hup, hup!

Once I became comfortable tying Rose, everything else was less of a drama. I was able to give her a real bath with the hose, and start grooming her. She quickly became accustomed to and enjoyed getting brushed, on the front half of her body. It became blatantly clear that she did not trust anyone going near her hind end. I immediately recognized that we might have a serious problem.

Unsure of how to tackle the problem, I kept working with her until she was comfortable with brushes on her rump and hind legs. Anytime I got near those hind feet though, she would send out an almighty kick-out (at this point it crossed my mind that perhaps wearing a helmet to groom her would be an advisable thing to do*) Regardless, our farrier was scheduled to come out and shoe my barn mate's gelding in a couple days. I was told that Rose "stood for the farrier" and although I hadn't managed to get my hands safely on her back feet I hoped that he would have the magic touch or training suggestions. I have simply never had any experience with a horse that wouldn't let you near it's feet, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I've worked with green broke babies but have never bred or started a horse. I had no idea how to tackle this issue.

Our farrier, Rick Pickar is a magician with the horses, but even a magician needs a well trained assistant. He was able to trim her front feet that day, but even he wasn't getting near her hind end. I was desperate to fix this problem before it became worse and Rick suggested I try the "old rope trick". I'm a visual learner, and learn by doing or seeing. So, after a brief description of the technique from Rick I quickly searched the internet and found some you tube videos on the subject. This basic training technique is brilliant in its simplicity. Fundamentally it uses the basic concept of any horse training, negative reinforcement. That is applying pressure with the reward of release.

The Old Rope Trick
With rose standing still and her lead rope in my left hand, with my right hand I looped a second cotton lead rope around the back of her rear pastern. Gently, I applied upward pressure and said hup (to associate a verbal cue) to ask her to lift the foot. Once she give in the slightest, I rewarded her by releasing the pressure (making sure that I never abruptly dropped the foot on the ground). If she tried to kick out, I hung onto that lead rope with all my might until she stopped, then I would release the pressure. Then I repeated the same thing over and over again, on both sides, asking for more each time and immediately rewarding once she progressed further. We did this for about a week, and then I added my hand to the mix. Once she picked up her feet with my hand cue I stopped using the lead rope all together. It was all so simple and so affective.

On a Saturday afternoon, three weeks after his first visit and on one of the last lingering sunny dry days of late October, Rick met me at the barn prepared for a fight. To my great relief, he was shocked and extremely appreciative of all the hard work I put on her and what a transition Rose had made. While I held her, she stood perfectly quiet for him while he trimmed all four feet without one single attempt at kicking-out. It was one of the most rewarding moments I have had with Rose, and although she has a long way to go, I new at that moment I had found a special horse that was going to take me a long way.

*A note about the helmet thing: I've come to the habit of wearing a helmet anytime I try something new with Rose, to the amusement of my fellow barn rats. I recognize that the sight of me working my horse on the ground whilst wearing a helmet might be reminiscent of a six year old in a lead line class, but I figure self preservation comes first and I'm not getting any younger theses days. After-all, no one ever got hurt because they wore a helmet, but quite the opposite.

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