Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Scary Things Walk

We weighed Galahad the other day. He's over 1000 pounds now, compared with less than 600 when he was rescued nine months ago. He hasn't quite doubled his weight, but darn close. His shoulders and front end are starting to fill out really nicely, catching up with the back end. Gorgeous boy!

He and I often play a kind of game that we both enjoy, one that I've actually started to teach to other people around the barn. I call it the Scary Things Walk. It's just a method of what the horse trainers call "desensitizing." I talked about it in a post the other day.

Our way is really easy. I just walk around with him, paying close attention to his body language. Every time he gets the least bit interested, curious, or worried about something, we stop and have a look. I give him a gentle pull on the halter to encourage him to investigate whatever it is.

If it's something that makes him nervous or downright scares him, we sometimes have to look at it for quite a while before he'll move forward. These are the really important things, though. I use the classic, natural-horsemanship pull-and-release method to encourage him: I talk to him, point at the object, and hold that gentle forward pressure on the halter. When he makes the slightest move forward, I release the pressure instantly. Horses learn from release of pressure, so he knows immediately that moving toward the scary thing was what I was asking of him.

We continue the pull-and-release until he moves close enough to sniff whatever it is. Then I ask him to touch it with his nose. Might take a couple of tries, but finally he investigates it, often tasting it or pawing it, until he's convinced that it really is safe. At first progress was slow, but nowadays he pretty well trusts that if I tell him something is safe, then it's OK to go up to it.

The benefits of this game are huge. First, it builds the horse's confidence. He gets to explore his world--and horses are very curious creatures!--in a safe and controlled way that lets him learn that most things aren't going to eat him. As prey animals, they have an instinct to run half a mile first, ask questions later.

Second, it builds the relationship between you and the horse. The horse learns to trust you to tell him when things are safe. This is enormously helpful when you're on his back! If he spooks, he learns to look to you, to check your energy and your voice, to see if he needs to be afraid. He starts relying on you, rather than just his instincts.

Galahad has benefited enormously from this game. It's getting much more difficult to find things that spook him around the farm. Even things he's never seen before don't get that automatic flight response these days. Last weekend we got a demonstration of just how powerful this technique is.

A woman was working with her horse, desensitizing it with a VERY scary thing: a white plastic trash bag half-full of aluminum cans. She was dragging it around the barn on a rope, making a big noise and scaring her poor horse half to death. Horses in the barn next door were frightened.

And what did Galahad do, when I took him over there to look at it? He picked up the bag, shook it all around, swung it over his head, chewed on it, and didn’t want to give it back to me. Good boy. Show ‘em how it’s done!

I wish I'd had my camera!

[Note: This picture shows him with an empty plastic bag, which is his favorite toy. We have to be careful to only give him heavy plastic to play with, and not to let him chew it up. Plastic bags are potentially deadly if the horse swallows them. But it's worth desensitizing a horse with them, because unfortunately it's very likely you'll encounter one blowing around out on the trail.]

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