Thursday, April 30, 2009

Baby Horse- Untie Your Knots

Don't you just love the movie "What About Bob?" Today we covered a few basic, but very important, lessons with one theme in common: giving to pressure calmly and quietly. We are preparing for Louie's first ever field trial next week/weekend. This is his first time horse camping and trail riding away from home, and it will be a great experience for him to soak up as I know exactly what to expect. It is a 5-day Weimaraner (pointing dog) field trial (like hunting on horseback) in Eagle, WI, that my hubby hosts every year and I have gone to for many years with no horse to ride- and let me tell you, sitting up at camp while everybody else is out riding and watching can get pretty boring.

The horses are kept on stake outs at night time (or when not being ridden and not tied to the trailer), which consist of half a car axel pounded into the ground with a rope (wrapped in a garden hose) that the horse is tied to. They have about a 25 foot diameter circle to roam around, graze, lay down, roll, even trot around on if they so choose. But there is one rather large obstacle to the stake out- being tied to it. I haven't worked a ton on tying with Louie yet as we haven't needed to. And the concept of getting one's legs tangled up in the lines are quite another issue to deal with- in fact, this is the hardest part of the whole field trial concept in my mind.
At the trial, the dogs run 20-30 minute "braces" (aka courses) around a loop of trail that is a scenic mixture of open field and forest in a glacial bed. There are two dogs to a brace, each handled by one handler on horseback. The handlers lead the herd, then the two judges behind them, and then behind the judges is a gallery of riders, and a scout on horseback for each of the handlers (to go find the dog if it gets lost- scouts have one of the most important and challenging jobs at a trial). The gallery is where Louie and I will be riding and watching from. The course is pretty easy riding for the most part, a few pot holes in the open field and one or two rather challenging hills to climb, but for the most part, easy riding and good footing. The trial runs sun up to sun down each day, and I can ride in as many or as few braces as I choose- which is ideal for Louie's first time out- no pressure. There will be gunshots (blanks, which are quiet relative to other guns) while out on the course, along with other horses, dogs, and some natural obstacles (tree roots, hills, etc for Louie to navigate while riding. These will be relatively new experiences, but as a 3 yr old, his mind is a sponge, and as long as I stay calm and just ride and enjoy my horse and the trial, he should have a great experience and learn a lot. I don't plan on riding him too much or too hard as he is young and growing and I don't want to push him physically too much yet.
So those are the big obstacles that we will encounter on this trip (not counting the 6 hour trailer ride each way). So to prepare for this, we've begun some basic lessons on how to be a calm and happy horse and be smart while on a stake out. The first lesson today was rather simple: tying to the trailer. Strangely enough, Louie has not done this before, but I guess I haven't taken him to a show or anything where he would have had the opportunity. So we began here, at the trailer, while I groomed him. Maybe this is edible?
He wasn't very excited that there was no food for him, and he had nothing to do- so this is how he made use of his time.
I practiced walking around the trailer as if I was leaving- out of his sight, then re-appearing on the other side of the trailer (which sometimes spooks horses). Louie couldn't care less.
So we moved on to our next obstacle for the day: hobbles.
I have never hobbled Louie, but this is a traditional step in breaking a horse or sacking them out, as they learn to stand calmly when they get into a pickle. With Louie being as smart as he is, it didn't take him long to figure out this obstacle. At first he just stood in the center of the arena where I left him. Then he tried to take a step. Thinking he had stretchies on and not hobbles, he pulled his leg up off the ground pretty hard, expecting the chain to stretch. Well it didn't, and up came the other front foot. He took a bit of a hop, down to his knees, thought it out and got back up. He tried one more time, same reaction.
Then he figured it was best just to stand for a little while and maybe the hobbles would somehow magically disappear. He lifted a leg, this time expecting the chain not to give, and pulled at it, but to no success.
He tried again a couple of times, just checking it out to see what his limits were, but he never got stressed out or scared by the confinement. My old trainer taught me that you have true control over a horse if you have control over his feet. I think this is a very true statement. Louie stood and licked his lips a little bit- looking so sad that he was stuck in one spot.
"But Mom. . . . "
Then he quickly realised that he could take little tiny "baby steps" and get himself over to the fence to get a few bites of grass from under the fence. I'm so happy to have a horse that is so easily amused by food.
After sucessfully mastering the trailer tie and the hobbles, Louie moved on to the final obstacle of the day: the stake out. I pounded the stake out into a nice grassy patch in the center of the horse pasture (no horses turned out on it currently). I led Louie up to the stake out, reading his one track mind- "look at all this green grass!" He thought he was in horsie heaven. I walked him up to the stake out- "eh, not interested." I showed him the line with the garden hose over it- "eh, that's boring." I shook the line a little bit in the grass like a snake- "who cares Mom, there's food here." So okay, I hooked him up to it and led him around the perimeter so he could see the line following him. Now this got him a little perked up- he checked out the green snake-like object that was following him around- but that's all he did was look at it. Not even a flare of the nostrils. So I let him go to eat and try it out.
He ate for a while without testing the tie at all. His first 2 tests were when he stood on the line about 6 inches from his halter. He lifted his head up- at first pulled just a tad, then dropped his head and removed his foot. The second time he stepped on it he just thought, "okay, I've hit the end of the rope, I better put my head back down." Then he stepped over the line. When he lifted his head up this time, his pastern was caught by the rope. He was a little suprised by this, but he didn't panic, just lowered his head and moved his leg around until it came free. He did this a few more times without incident (of course I was standing there watching him with my heart beating a little fast in anticipation of some disaster).
The right foot might be different than the left:
After about 30 minutes of grazing, Louie got a hind leg caught over the line. He stood there, slightly more concerned than the front leg, but he wiggled and kicked his back leg around until it came free and went right back to grazing. After a short while, he had become pretty comfortable with walking over the line and figuring out how to get un-stuck. There is one thing I want to tweak on this stake out- since the hose comes quite short of the end and there are metal clips on the rope, I plan to wrap the end of the line in vetwrap to make it a little softer and safer.
Louie's first experience on the stake out really went without incident and I am becoming much more confident in his abilities to learn and adapt to new settings and new rules. I was quite pleased with how Louie handled himself in these challenges today- not that I thought he would panic or struggle with them, but Social was a bit of a stinker with the stake out, so I have the worst case scenario running through my head as any concerned horsie mother would. We will continue to practice these and other obstacles over the next few days before we leave for the trial in effort to be as prepared and desensitized as possible so that we can all go and have a great time relaxing and enjoying the trial. I was quite hesitant to even consider bringing Louie since Social was such a poor field trial horse, but I really have confidence that Louie will do very well. I am fairly certain I will bring him now, unless the forecast predicts storms the whole time (which sometimes happens- and is no fun). While I'm there I won't be able to blog on his progress, but I will post all about it when we return. As for now- the adventure continues with lots of practice.

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