Monday, April 12, 2010

First Lesson with the Driving Trainer

Though I know it is the day after a show, scheduling worked out and Louie and I had our first lesson with driving trainer Steve Wood, of Wildwood Sleigh and Carriage. I have heard amazing things about this trainer from fellow borders at my barn, seen him at the Horse Expo, and based on his methods and ability to work with horses, I thought he would be a perfect match to help Louie and me in our driving adventures.

We started out just working Louie like I always do, long lining, showing our new trainer Louie's abilities in the long lines- walk, trot, slow jog, extended trot, halt, stand, and turning in both directions. We did all of this starting work without the blinders, but then added them in to repeat each exercise both with and without the blinders. After briefly becoming acquainted with how Louie works, we started some "testing." The goal of today's lesson was for Steve to determine how far along Louie and I were in our training, find any gaps, and come up with a plan for how to procede from here.

The first test we did was with the scary sled. Steve introduced the sled to Louie and then analyzed his reaction to the sled in each of his 3 zones. The parts of a horse's body are broken up into 3 zones, from which he perceives inputs and reacts to them. Zone 1 is essentially in front of the horse's shoulders; this is the zone within which a horse likes to encounter something new. Within zone 1 he feels safe as he can look at it, smell it, bite it, and react to it. Zone 2 is from Zone 1 to the flank. This zone is fairly neutral, and Zone 3 is behind the flank- the zone where a horse reacts with forward motion to stimulus (such as a lunge whip or a lion chasing him). We worked within these 3 zones, assessing Louie's comfort level within each. We quickly determined that Zones 1 and 2 were pretty comfortable, but Zone 3 provoked just a bit of anxiety. Nonetheless, I don't think Steve was very impressed with Louie's reaction to the sled, he really handled it quite well. Each time Louie raised his head and showed his concern, we stopped (teaching Louie that if he stops, the scary noise also stops), and Steve brought the scary sled up to Louie's Zone 1 and let him see it and learn that we are in control of the scary noise and we will protect him from it.

We moved outside with the sled, to reproduce the stimulus that gave Louie and I such trouble last summer- the sound of the sled on the coarse sandy ground. We repeated the same exercises, this time a little bit more thoroughly- I long lined Louie while Steve dragged the sled in each of Louie's 3 zones on each side. During this exercise, he taught me what kinds of body language signals Louie was giving and what to watch for. The first is the head position- when a horse raises their head up it is a sign of worry. When they drop their head down into a working position, it shows that they are comfortable with the input that they are receiving. The second body language sign is the ears- a driving horse should always have one ear back, turned toward the cart and the driver. With the one ear steadily positioned back toward the cart, it is a sign that the horse is comfortable. When they start flipping their ear(s) forward and back, they are looking for an escape, a way to get away from a stimulus.

In addition to watching the head and ear position, Steve was watching for Louie to bend his neck just slightly to look at the sled out of each eye, and be comfortable with seeing it from both sides. Every horse has a dominant side and a side which he will protect. Usually items seen on one side of a horse's field of vision on their dominant side are well received and not seen as threatening. A horse tends to guard his non-dominant side and perceive items on this side as more threatening. Apparently Louie's dominant side is his left, which is unusual. According to Steve, most horses are more dominant on the right side, as they are used to being protected by a human on their left. (I think I remembered that correctly- there was a lot we went over!) Speaking of vision, we discussed the use of blinders and Steve believes that Louie may actually be better suited to driving in an open bridle, as he looks to me for reassurance and without his vision, Louie is limited in his senses which he can use for defense and reassurance.

Another test for Louie, in addition to seeing and hearing the sled in all 3 zones on both sides and being totally un-flappable, was to change the rhythm of the noise. A steady pulling noise does not necessarily provoke a lot of fear, but when the rhythm changes- you hit a bump, brush up against the wall, etc- that provides a new input for the horse, just like when you add in other inputs- cold, windy weather, nearby horses running and playing, other driving horses passing us, etc. We dragged the sled over tires, kicked it while dragging it behind him, and Louie didn't mind one bit. He was actually so cool with the sled today, he kindof made a liar of me. Well, at least it was in a good way. :)

Finally, we went inside and worked with the cart. We repeated the same procedure with the cart, working in all 3 zones on both sides first, then putting Louie between the shafts (not hooked, just with the cart in position). We practiced Steve's 1-3-5 step method, starting with 1 step, then graduating to 3, then 5, etc. A very interesting thing that I learned today is that a horse will decide his reaction to an input in 4 strides. Once I understood this concept, it was quite clear and easy to pick up on. Louie would show us with his head position, and consistently, at 3.5 strides into walking in the cart, Louie would drop his head, showing that he was comfortable with his work in the cart. We also worked on having Louie feel the shafts on his sides and not react to them, and having him feel the shifting weight of the cart when he came to a stop. When we were done, we set the cart in the arena and walked Louie up to it, showing him that we were still in control of the cart.

Overall, Louie did great, and Steve was very impressed with the amount of preparation we have done and our overall readiness to drive. He was impressed with Louie's calm and sensible temperment, and thinks that Louie will be an excellent driving prospect. Our plan is to have a few more farm call lessons and we should be driving very soon!


  1. I am so envious of your training resources. If there are schooling shows and good trainers in my area, I've never heard of them. Perhaps that is the biggest advantage of boarding. You must either live in a much horsier area than I do, or you are just much more plugged in to the social network.

  2. Brita- I think I probably live in a horsier area than you do. Granted, our driving trainer probably drove almost an hour to come and work with us- VERY nice service! There are a lot of boarding barns and opportunities in my area, most of which I don't even know about. ;)