Prelude to a Scratch (Solving a Problem with Hoof Handling)

I bought Libby for my non-rider husband and she came to me as a 25 year old with some age-related issues:  arthritis, sore hocks, and lameness in her left spavin.  Yet she impressed me by making a ten hour trailer ride from northern Ohio and trusting me enough to follow a stranger (me) off that trailer (in the dark) and into her new stall.  In the glaring light of day I could see she needed the attention of a good farrier before I could even consider riding her, so all I asked of her in the beginning was to stand still for grooming.  She stood well enough for grooming, but resisted picking up her feet.  I persisted, and was twice bitten on the calf when I tried to pick up her right fore.  A more experienced horsewoman would have known that Libby was saying “OUCH!” but it took me a bit longer to figure it all out. Over our next four years together Libby grew to love grooming and scratching but was always, no matter what, difficult when it came to lifting her front feet.  We went through several farriers (the ones that bullied her and used a twitch were never called again) and by now I had figured out that she was in pain but even a dose or two of anti-inflammatory prior to the farrier visit wasn’t enough to allow her to easily hold those feet up for trimming. We also weren’t able to ride her because of her physical limitations so she became a companion horse.  One day she slipped and fell in a wet pasture and the ensuing...

Grass – The Carpet of Motivation

I wrote this article several years ago.  It had gotten lost in the shuffle of updating my website.  Unfortunately the video that had gone along with it is among the missing.  But, here is the article anyway.   –Sharon Here in New England one of the things I really miss in the winter is the ability to ride outside on grass.  Or, as we like to call it, the ‘Carpet of Motivation’.  The reason it has earned that name is because of all the food rewards we’ve offered—and we’ve used just about every possible treat under the sun—none have the reinforcing impact of grazing.  I started the practice a few years ago and have since introduced several horses to it with excellent results.  The rule is let the horses tell us what they find reinforcing.  The horses tell us grazing is good! Getting Started The first thing you have to do is explain to your horse how the Grazing Game works.  Before starting your horse should already be familiar with the clicker, targeting, head lowering, and backing. Begin on the ground with the horse in a halter and lead rope and let him lower his head to take a few bites of grass, then ask him to raise his head by following your feel.  Click for any response, even a momentary hesitation in chewing.  Then let him graze again.  Just a few bites, then ask him to lift his head.  Click for reply then let him graze. If your horse doesn’t respond to your request to lift his head don’t jerk it up.  There are there several ways to illicit...

Finding what motivates a change

This week I worked with Libby, a 30 year old Quarter Horse mare, for the first time. Libby and her owner, Kirsten, were referred to me by Libby’s massage therapist, Heather Davis. Libby suffers from some lameness due to injury and hard use (before Kirsten). Not surprisingly as a result she holds her body very tightly. The massage therapy has helped Libby but Heather believed that if Libby could become more mentally relaxed that it would help her body to relax as well. This is where I come in. Kirsten had started a little bit of target training with Libby before I arrived. I was curious to see how Libby responded to this. Did she ‘get’ it? Was she willing to work for food? How hard? With all of Libby’s prior history I had a feeling that this sort of free shaping work might be too big a leap for her. So I decided to go into the stall with her and work on some basic lessons in feel…. look at me, follow me, turn… on the lead rope. As always my first objective is to capture the horse’s interest and cooperation. With some experimentation I discovered that Libby loved…LOVED…scritchies. Particularly in the udder area. This was, for her, way better than food. So, I began to click and scritch rather than click and feed. Historically, Libby would only put up with any kind of handling (like for trimming) for only a short time. Then she would begin to fuss and struggle making the whole procedure unpleasant for everyone involved. I saw this happen when we opened the stall...

How to get a horse OK with clippers

Here’s the thing about using clicker training for stuff that the horse is afraid of (demonstrated by some escape behavior), like using electric clippers on whiskers, if you try to click ‘for’ letting you approach with the buzzing thing you are invariably going to get the timing wrong.  They are already thinking of leaving long before you click and if you click when they are thinking of leaving then you will only make matters worse. So, what I would do, is pretty much the same as what I said last time about mounting.  🙂  It isn’t about the mounting (or trimming) per se it is ‘can you continue to follow my feel in this uncomfortable situation?’ Prior to attempting to work near the horse with the trimmers on, I would do a lot of heavily reinforced ‘rope work’.  Meaning, following a feel on the line to look at me, follow me, turn, and so forth.  Make all that stuff something the horse feels good about.  Then what I’d do is find out how far away the clippers need to be before the horse becomes concerned about the buzzing noise.  Let’s say it 20 feet away.  Turn on the clippers and set them down 20 feet away.  Then proceed with basic ropework. I like to use a simple change of hand (figure eight) done in front of me.  That requires that the horse be able to follow the feel forward and through turns in both directions.  A handy test of the horse’s attention, lightness and softness. The presence of the clipper noise will cause a WEE bit of distraction.  You’ll...

It is Not About the Food

I thought I would follow up with my own observations of the experience with Danke and the massage therapist. As you may recall (and if you missed it you can read about it here) Danke was not OK with having Heather standing on the hay bale while she worked on her croup area. This was the first time she had attempted to work with her like this. In the past if Danke needed to move Heather would just stay with her till she settled. But, since Danke is so tall (17+hands) it was necessary for Heather to stand on the hay bale to get a better look and feel of this particular area. As such it was necessary that Danke stand still. HA! Initially I simply blocked Danke’s efforts to leave. However, when Heather invited me to join her on the hay bale to look at/feel a particular knotty area the problem escalated when there was no one up front to keep Danke still! So the first problem we solved with clicker training was just getting Danke to stand still long enough so that I could see what Heather wanted me to see. Then it was time for Heather to get to work. It was quickly becoming clear that just telling Danke not to leave was not helping her feel good about the process. That’s when I said, “Well, you know, we could click her for standing here while you work. Do you think that would be too distracting?” As you know Heather believed it would be. But, I felt that it was worth a try because we weren’t...

Getting a Horse to Work WITH her Massage Therapist

By Heather Davis I am a certified equine “massage” therapist, applying principles of touch to encourage horses to release old neuromuscular strain patterns and relearn how to exist without previously held pain and resistance. Much of my work is informed by the work of Ida Rolf (known as “Rolfing” or Structural Integration), osteopathy, shiatsu, and myofascial release. Many horses, when asked to “let go” of old tension and memory stored within the body’s vastly intelligent network of innervated structural soft tissue, will take some time to relax into the willingness to release. I am asking horses to tune into parts of their body that may be uncomfortable. These are areas where, often, the horse has spent a great deal of time and energy avoiding. So, it is not surprising to see horses feeling fidgety or anxious about my request for their attention to be brought back into these areas. Usually, when confronted with this “fidgety” response from a horse, I take it as a message to readjust my approach. It can take a bit of time initially to figure out how to get the horse willing to be with me and make releases. When I began working with Danke, Sharon’s tall and lovely chestnut warmblood mare, we had a little difficulty getting her to settle in and relax into the release process. Even the simple presence of my hand on or near some of her troubled areas would find Danke tossing her head, pinning her ears, and moving her body to avoid the touch. Since my work’s goal is to inspire release, it certainly wasn’t helpful to be battling...