Monday, July 25, 2011

Tommy and The Curtain of Death

Over the weekend Tommy and I attended one of my mom's desensitizing clinics up in the mountains near Ukiah, OR. There were around ten people who came up to ride, and it was a lovely weekend - great hospitality, sunny weather, lovely ranch and arena, wonderful mountain scenery, and best of all GREAT food! What more could a clinic participant ask for?

The clinic was set up for people to work on "holes" that their horses have. (And believe me.... wether they are young or old, EVERYBODY'S horses have holes....) Tommy is still very young and has a ton of things that I haven't addressed yet, so this was a great clinic for him to attend. In my zeal and excitement to "just go riding" down the trail and sling my butt up into the saddle; I've neglected some sacking out exercises that are quite critical. One of them was the "curtain of death". A simple strip cut tarp that hangs over an entry gate. I've noticed in the past when I've rode him on forest trails he sometimes gets a bit ticklish when tree's brush against the saddle or my leg, or I have to push a low hanging branch out of the way when he go through the forest. Didn't think much of it, but well..... the curtain of death was a helping hand on that issue.

To start with, everybody's horses had trouble with it. (In fact, there was only one old dog broke gelding that really didn't care too much about it.) To begin with, we all led our horses through the curtain of death - which was a good safety thing. None of them besides the older gelding were ready to be ridden through it yet. Most horses blasted like rockets through it with their butts tucked up underneath of them like scalded dogs, and there were more than a few that locked up and absolutely refused to even start through it. Tommy made it halfway underneath of it, and then the motion above him scared the hell out of him and he ended up bucking the rest of the way through it. All that I could think of was - it was good that I wasn't in the saddle. But by the time that day two came to an end, we actually made the accomplishment of riding through the curtain of death in a calm and relaxed manner. YAY!!!!!!
Day one was focused on working on desensitizing tools. The first one was just getting the horses into the arena via the curatin of death. The second one was a plastic bag attached to the end of a stick.

This is where I have to get on my soapbox here...... a pet peeve of mine and one that makes me grit my teeth whenever I see it: witnessing people doing stupid liberty work - a.k.a. "chasing a horse around with a bag to make it run and act like a total idiot". Show people, (erh, should I say mostly arabian people?) are guilty as hell of this. They specifically train their horses to over-react to stuff like this. What happens when it's a windy day and a plastic bag blows up underneath your horses legs in the pasture? Or what heppens when you're riding your horse out on a trail and there is a plastic bag hanging off a fence or gate? What happens when someone wants to hand you your lunch that is wrapped in a plastic bag when you're out on a trail ride? Minor explosions and nervousness occur. I've witnessed liberty "chasing" in person, and seen more than one video of people getting their horses jacked up with plastic bags and rattling cans before they turn them loose into an arena to tear around like numbskulls in front of a big audience. What is the accomplishment in that...?

But anyway, stepping down off of the soapbox....the bag desensitizing exercise was great. I was able to get the bag up around Tommy's nose and face, and petted him down the neck on both sides with it. There was only one horse at the clinic that still couldn't be touched with the bag by the end of the day, but he was clearly much calmer and better about it being closer to him by the time the clinic was over. We also worked on dragging tarps around our horses and getting them used to stepping on them and walking all over on them. It was surprising to see some older horses that weren't too thrilled with it being dragged beside of them. Tommy didn't have a problem with a tarp being on the ground, he handled it like a pro. He just didn't like the tarp being elevated above him like how the curtain of death was.
Everybody worked with big plastic balls too. We kicked them away from the horses, and then rolled them back to their front legs. Some of the horses even tolerated them being gently bounced off of their hind legs. A well desensitized horse can handle having a huge ball bounced off of their butt and playing a game of basketball from the saddle. Tommy isn't quite there yet. He liked the ball and nibbled at it a couple of times and I was able to bounce it next to him and off of his front legs, but he wasn't ready for any hindquarters encounters yet. A lot of people in the general public have boredom play balls for their horses in the stall - but rarely play a zinging game of handball using the horses butt as the wall.
In the afternoon of day one we all had a group riding lesson to work on speed control and handling traffic. Nobody's horses were anxious or nervous about being in arena traffic, but there was one that was grumpy and didn't like being near the others. That rider spent time doing exercises to get him to not pin his ears so much when someone else rode up close to him. This traffic arena work was good practice for Tommy, because when we go out on endurance rides I don't want him tailgating other riders too closely, or else having a panic attack because he thinks that everybody else is leaving him.
Everybody worked on seeing how slowly they could make their horses walk and trot, and how fast they could get them to go without using their legs or reins. It's honestly a very hard thing to do to regulate your horses speed without using leg or rein aids when all you've got is your weight and sense of timing.
Trotting past the curtain of death. It was well worth the whole experience to be able to ride through that damed thing by the time the clinic was done! Although we won't be doing any extreme trail challenges any time soon, it was a huge accomplishment for Tommy to be able to calmly go through that.
Working on collection at the trot.
On the first day the flashy zinging little noisey pinwheels bothered him a little bit, (they were several of them positioned all over the arena), but he got very used to them by the time we were done.
Each one of us got an individual lesson at the lope (or canter). Some people had trouble controlling their speed - as their horses were wanting to go too fast and blast around the arena, while some other horses were wanting to be lazy in their transitions and just trot a million miles an hour to get into a lope. Everybody had different issues that they were working on. Some horses were very green and didn't know how to carry themselves at that speed very well and needed more help from their riders, while other horses were older and hadn't had the proper foundation in order to relax and smoothly lift off into a lope. Tommy's issue was in the middle. He had beautiful transitions and lift off along the rail and nailed each lead, but when we would come through the middle of the arena he would noodle around and look like a drunk sailor trying to decide which way to go. We clearly need to work more at that.
He's a lovely boy when he collects up. We worked on arcing the ribcage into the corners and keeping the shoulder out. A bit of "cowboy dressage", I guess.
On the second day there was an obstacle course out in the pasture that everybody rode through. There were tarps, logs, poles, barrels, and a big upside down trough looking thingy. We had to go in between two big telephone poles and back up the entire way out of it without touching the poles. Tommy nicked it the first time with his right hind due to my piloting error, so on the second time through we went very slowly step-by-step and made it straight back without touching either side.

It was a really nice weekend. There was more than one person who asked me what kind of horse that I was riding, because he looked so completely different from the other ones that were there. He got to experience camping in a strange place again, and also venturing out on a little Saturday night trail ride. Overall, it was a great experience for Tommy and I had a fun time too!


  1. Hey Shannon, sounds like a productive weekend! I really learned the value of arena obstacles and desensitizing exercises this winter - admittedly mostly because we couldn't get out on the trails - with Tommy's "bro" Danny. You are reminding me that young Andre needs to do some of those things too.

    On the subject of plastic bags on sticks, I learned something from Jamie Thomas, who works with mustangs and uses the flag so popular with some NH trainers. She was using it both as a driving tool and then as a desensitizing one and I asked her how the horse was supposed to know the difference. She demonstrated the purposeful way she used it when driving versus the loose, random way she moved it over his body. The distinction was clear to me once she said it - as well as to the mustang she was working with.

    So it is conceivable that you could use a plastic bag on a stick both to excite your horse and to desensitize him - though I suspect this is not necessarily done in the Arab show world. I have used it as a lunging tool - in front of the horse - Tekes are so curious that they will follow it and its a sneaky way to get them to lower their heads if you hold it close to the ground.

    Sounds like Tommy and you made big gains through the weekend.

  2. I use a plastic bag to excite my Arab while turned out in the arena, free jumping, and getting his attention during halter training sessions. I have no issues with flying plastic bags on the trail or handling crinkly plastic and plastic bags around him. He knows the difference between when I am engaging him during play or training as opposed to plastic bags in general. He is also not afraid of them, he will try to grab them from me while playing, if I let go of one he will chase it and paw at it. Having learned to ride and handle at a Arab breeding barn, I've found this to be true for the other horses as well. We get them to act animated by engaging them with play, not frightening them.

    I also play with a large rubber ball in the arena and he 'runs around like a total idiot' as well as engages the ball, nosing, pawing, and kicking it. Is he afraid of balls? No. He is a bold, confident, playful, and attentive horse. If we are riding and a ball bounces out in front of him he ignores it. He knows what I want at any given time.

    I do not think you give the horses enough credit. They are not total idiots nor are their handlers.