Friday, October 23, 2009

The untouchables

What do you do when you cannot even touch your horse? I've had quite a few of these horses in this year and have assessed a few more, so obviously this is not a rare problem confined to the odd horse-owner.

I recently received the following email from a friend:
I have a girlfriend who got this 4 yr old mare who had never been touched and now a year later (she doesn't have much time) the mare will follow her around and eat out of her hand but she can't pet her cause she either takes off or she begins to shake horribly... she has spent a little time with her everyday and no matter how much time she spends she can't get close enough to this mare to pet her never mind halter her (she has never been haltered)... I am not sure what to suggest other than lots of undemanding time and friendly game... but she says it still isn't helping... and she is getting frustrated cause this mare has never been dewormed or had her feet done and they need to get done!!! Any ideas or suggestions?

Here was my response:
Are you sure she was never touched before? I just say that because usually a horse who has not been touched before comes along pretty quickly (in fact, they're my favourite to work with - they're a clean slate). It's usually only the formerly abused horses who shake (I've met a whole number so far this year) and who take so long to trust. It's just a thought to consider.

With a mare like that, I would push her a bit now. Obviously, lots of undemanding time. Friendly game (touching her all over, etc) - use approach and retreat. But I would probably do some liberty work with her in a roundpen (heck, even in a small paddock, but a roundpen is much easier; though not just simply running her in a roundpen) - getting her to "catch me" (check out the Parelli Liberty - Beyond the roundpen DVD). Also, I would work with her over a session or two with approach and retreat, and liberty work, until I had a halter on her (even a rope at first - you can rope a horse or even corner a horse, to catch them, without sending their development backwards and losing their trust, if done correctly, with the appropriate body language). Then, it would be to teach her the 7 games and later the patterns. I find the 7 games do a lot in themselves; they teach a horse that you are predictable, they teach the horse its own language "in your words" and thus they can read you better and are not be afraid; they teach a horse to think, to be calmer, and to be braver, they teach the horse you can act like a prey animal - like a horse, rather than a predator, etc.

My last suggestion, which can have the biggest impact I find (especially in combination with the above), is to have her in a seperate pen if possible - completely away from other horses (not even within sight, if at all possible). Feed and water her daily (even if it means leading her to water when she finally gets a halter on) so she is completely dependant upon YOU for food, water, companionship, and security. It's a temporary measure - horses are herd animals and they should be kept in herds if possible, but if she can be in a situation where she is as dependant as possible on her owner as her "herd" (just as she is with her herdmates), she'll learn to trust her more and will progress further.

A lot of this though is really dependant upon how well your friend can read this mare; she needs to know when to approach, when to retreat, how to portray herself as another horse rather than a dangerous predator, etc. If she's having trouble reading her or still has trouble handling her, I would recommend a professional helping her out with the mare (lessons, training, etc) for greater success.

Each E-News letter the Parelli team sends out, they include a Q&A. The following is from a recent email:

I am currently studying Level 2 of your program, and I am having lots of success with both of my horses. I have had my mare since she was 4 years old, and she has never been any problem to halter out in a field until about a month ago. She started running away from me when I went out to the field to play with her and is basically playing the "you can't catch me game." At first, she would play this game for a few minutes and then "catch me" and put her head into the halter. However, the time period for playing the "you can't catch me game" has continually and dramatically increased. I feel that this is becoming a bad habit for her, so I decided that I needed to move her into a smaller space so I can be able to put continuous pressure on her until she yields her hindquarters and catches me (versus being out in the field where she can just run and I cannot put pressure on her to influence h er behavior). Is it fair to keep her in this area so I can have the opportunity to play the catching game lots, or am I just going to make the situation worse by keeping her somewhere where she is uncomfortable?

By isolating her you will have less problems catching but this doesn't necessarily mean she'll maintain the behavior when back in the big pasture again. What you need to do is establish a spot in the relationship where she comes to you when you see her or call her. And it's actually quite easy. First of all consider her situation. She has her friends, can play all day if she wants, has plenty of food and water. Why does she need you? We always make sure our horses need us in some way and if ever we have a horse that is difficult to catch we set up a little pen around the water tank. We then open the pen for access to the water two times a day (or more if it's really hot). We also do all the feeding in that spot. Pretty soon you'll see your horses watching for you and then even waiting for you by the gate. Their first thought on seeing you is "Oh boy!" not "Oh no" and if you combine your approach with a special call or a whistle, it soon becomes a habit to come running when you call. Keep the fence around the water and you can eventually leave it open all the time, only closing it if the horses start not to need you anymore. Also, set your feed and water situation up so it's by the gate and this encourages horses to hang near it. A lot of people have feed and watering areas that are a long way from the gate and this teaches horses to stay away from it and even to run away when you turn them loose.

We recently acquired a Paint who was originally abused. I never isolated him, however I spent some undemanding time with him, about half my time playing games on the ground with him, and the other half taking him out on the trails for some "undemanding" quality riding. He was slowly coming around, but the most dramatic change in him occured during (and thereafter) a roundpen session. We essentially played, in the roundpen, all our 7 Games at liberty with lots of Friendly game (ie. rubbing) interspersed to create lots of draw. Playing with a scared horse at liberty, I find, can make a huge difference because they feel less trapped by a leadrope (with a predator on the other end, I might add). Should they feel the need to leave, they can, and they do. It allows you the opportunity to communicate to them in such a way that earns their trust and draw (draw meaning they are inclined to come in to you, they want to be around you - you want to develop a balance of about 51 percent draw, 49 percent drive - where your horse respects your space). Giving your horse the power to make the choice to be around you or leave, allowing your horse that power, can create in your horse more of a desire to be around you.

Another thing I did with Cody (the Paint) was to leave him with two of our other horses, who had a lot of draw. Anytime I came out they would be in my face, trying to nuzzle some attention out of me. Of course Cody would follow and observe. Studies have been done that indicate horses do learn from watching other horses; I have shown a horse what I want a number of times now, through demonstrating what I want with another horse, in front of them. The horse I was teaching definitely demonstrated obvious improvement after watching the "demo horse". Lastly, though the horses were on grass, I fed the horses at least once a day - morning feed (minerals in some grain) and sometimes a "night treat" (handful of sweetfeed each)...this created a sort of limited dependance on me. My rule with Cody though was that he was only allowed to eat his grain (which he really wanted to do) if he allowed me to rub him. At first he was pretty skittish, but by the end of our stay a the ranch, he was allowing me to walk up to him and rub him without any complaint.

Last year, I acquired a Warmblood mare for training - she had been abused by the last trainer and deemed "untrainable". She definitely was not entirely touchable. First thing I did was put her in a small paddock by herself. I fed her daily, I spent undemanding time with her, and I played the 7 games on the ground with her. Eventually she allowed me to catch her easily and as time wore on, she started to actually look for me and whinny when I appeared. Now (I am currently working with her again this year), catching her in a herd situation is not a problem.

So! Those are my tips on earning an "untouchable's" trust, particularly one who has been abused; they're all techniques I've used seperately or in combination with one another that I've found to really work well. Have any of your own? Don't forget to share! The next couple of blogs will be short ones on what to do if you have got a horse who is skittish or shy of being handled (or dangerous) and how to get their feet done in a desperate situation. Also, how to deworm a horse who doesn't care for that lovely and scrumptious paste ;)


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