Dandy on his third day with me. Lose in the round pen for his second “hooking on session”
Tuesday, March 2nd. My buddy Claude, a fellow photographer who’s come to discover and like horses through photographing my Portugese cross boy Joli has driven over to meet Dandy and properly document the start of our journey. Claude had grown very found of Joli, and is equally curious -and hopeful- about the new kid. He’s about to find out no two horses are alike, and this one has a lot of “horse power” under the hood…
Still much the fire breathing dragon, Dandy is pacing in his stall, snorthing occasionally and calling out miserably to other horses. I look at him through the bars and feel deeply sorry for him, again. I realize though 22 mths old, this colt has never been properly weaned. Sure, his mom was taken away at some point, but he immediately refocused his whole social attention to his same age buddy, and they acted together much like the acted with their moms. Dandy was the trouble maker of the two. Red was even bigger and sturdier, but Dandy still constantly nagged him, wanting to play rough and wrestle over stuff. Plus he had his two humans who’d show up daily with food and showered him with lovey scratching, but no discipline at all. He probably had any horse’s perfect life… until the day I picked him up and made him miserable by weaning him from his friend and imposing strict rules on him. So yeah, I sure feel sorry for him, but I know it’s a necessary evil, a phase he needs to go through, to come out the other way a changed horse, and good equine citizen that will find his place in our modern world. My concern with any horse I own is to educate them well enough that they’re a pleasure to be around, have worth in this sense of the term, and can always find a family wanting to have them, in case I need to part with them. In other words, the end goal of everything I do is to protect a horse from potential slaughter, at any time in his life.
Working in the round pen, a communication starts to operate
Like bits and spurs, a round pen is nothing else than a tool. A very useful one if you ask me (especially when dealing with unruly, potentially dangerous horses), but a tool just the same, meaning it can do all sorts of things, depending on how you use it. My friend Daniel Dauphin (of Dauphin Horsemanship, in Louisiana) has this wonderful saying “Bits are like bricks. With a brick you can smash someone’s head in, or you can start building a hospital, school, or church. It’s all in the intention and the way you use it”. Round pens work the same. Some people have misunderstood the use or a roundpen, or have chosen to use one as yet another way of abusing a horse’s mind and body. But proper roundpenning is a fantastic -and safer- opportunity for both horse and human to get a communication going, lay down some rules, and build the start of a safe and mutually beneficial relationship. It’s not a must-have (I never had access to one the whole 18 months I kept Joli and took him from can’t-walk-a-straight-line green to ribbon winner) but it sure is nice to have.
That second round pen session, photogaphed by Claude, went pretty well, building up on the foundation laid the previous day. My goals were to get Dandy’s feet moving, at my preferred speed, in my chosen direction, have him change it by turning to the inside (no outside turns allowed !), and offer him a place to stop and face me. We achieved all that, not without glitch, or some challenges, but we ended up much better than we started, which is the whole idea to begin with. Then I wanted him to want to keep both eyes on me, and turn on his haunches to do so.
As in here
One side was no problem, but in the other direction, he wasn’t comfortable having me on this side, and tried to cut in to keep me in front of him
This is why you see me blocking his head with my hand
Horses have eyes on each side of their face, and they spend more time looking at two different realities (the left one, and right one) than focusing straight with binocular vision. They also need to change the angle of their head to be able to actually “focus”on whatever they’re looking at. Down and in for close stuff, high and out for distant things. And, closer than an average 20” (that’d be about 50 of our European centimeters), everything becomes “at best a blurry blob, and we all know how well horses like moving unidentified blobs.” (quoting Daniel Dauphin again, in this fascinating article). I used to be confused when reading, or hearing the master horsemen like Buck Brannaman or Ray Hunt mention things like “changing eyes”. I couldn’t figure out what the hell they were talking about. Then I saw one of Buck’s older training DVDs where he starts his own 3 yr old filly. He does this funny exercise of lose tying her to the round pen panels, standing behind her at a 45° angle, then putting a little pressure on her rear end so she’d step across and park parallel to the fence, having him in full view with one eye. Then he’d step behind her, very slightly to the other side of her bum, apply pressure again, and she’d fuidly roll her hindquarters the other way, and then would have full view of him in her other eye. This “changing eye” exercise I’ve done with Dandy later on and it’s proven very valuable. Why ? Because when you ride a colt for the first time, he suddenly sees you *with both eyes* for the first time (unless you have done some preparation, as we’ll mention it later). And even when you do your homework and do lateral flexions from their back at a standstill, they still see you in the eye on the side that is flexed, then on the opposite eye when you switch to bending them to the other side. And until you’ve done that… you can never know if the colt you’re sitting on belongs to those that seeing you in one eye, then very shortly after the other, will totally freak out.
Anyway that day I found that my colt was comfortable with me walking to his left side (which is no big surprise as right handed folks like me handle their horses mostly from this side), but not quite as much to his right, and I needed to block his head quite a bit to be allowed there. Note that, by then, he knew what my raised hand meant, and I didn’t have to nearly poke him in the eye to get credit anymore. He also was much calmer during the whole process, sign that his mind was starting to stay with me some more. After the “sensitizing” part, which consists of getting the horse responsive and moving off your cues, I switched to “desensitizing”, that meant getting him to ignore “white noise” signals I’d make around him, in the form of marching towards him and throwing a rope on his back, for this first attempt.
As you can see, he wasn’t fazed much !
Next step is to keep throwing the rope rythmically until the horse shows a small sign of relaxation. It can be blinking, sighing, lowering his head, yawning, licking and chewing… As soon as he does the slightest hint of one of the above, stop throwing the rope and rub on his neck for comfort
Here the raised head and ears towards his back tell us his attention is on the rope
Here he’s blinking and relaxing, hence allowed some “soaking time”
Once that was good I checked how willing he’d be to move his feed for me tethered to the lead rope, without getting upset about it. You can see he’s relaxing his neck all the way down, and totally ok with the situation. Buck Brannaman always compares a work session with a date and having to “quit on a good note”, so that’s when we quit 😉
In the next post we’ll talk about testicles again, and how we chose to part with them. Stay tuned !