Monday, April 26, 2010

Revisiting the Scene of the Crime

Today was another big day in our lesson with Steve. We accomplished a lot, and by the end of the lesson, Louie was comfortably pulling me around in the sled in the outdoor arena- both at a walk and a trot. We started the way we usually do, adding in inputs one at a time with the shafts, the sled, etc, then we hooked him to the sled and let him pull it around without me in it- with Steve slowly working farther and farther from the sled so that Louie realized he was pulling it and not us.

As you can see here, we were working without our blinders as Louie is definately more comfortable this way.
Here you can see Steve testing Louie by changing the rhythm of the noise of the sled by stepping on it as Louie dragged it along.
Louie did great with this first part. So, we decided it was time to go for a ride!

Off we went using Steve's 1-3-5 step method, and though we had to repeat the 5 step phase once, Louie settled in nicely that second time and we kept moving ahead.I finally relaxed and put my arms down too once Louie settled in a little bit.
Sitting on the milk crate in the sled was a great addition- my bum didn't get so hot this way, and Louie had a little better view of me. Since we know that he worries about me when he's driving, it was great for him to be able to check in out of the corner of his eye and make sure I was still there. Also, this way I could see his head and ear position better so I knew how Louie was responding to this stimulation.

Louie felt comfortable driving along as he had Steve, who he trusts as the keeper of the sled, nearby, as well as Mom in the back, watching out for him.
He did just a great job today, and if you look closely, you can see his happy lips (and tongue) here as he stops for a second and relaxes.
After a few trips around at a walk, we tried a trot, just down a single straight away, and Louie did great with that- the added pressure and a lot of resistance to overcome pulling my weight against the friction of the sandy arena.

We unhooked Louie and headed out to the scene of our accident last summer with the sled (loaded down with a 50# bag of alfalfa cubes to increase the friction and the noise on the gravel). I long lined Louie and Steve operated the sled (he got a great work out!)- doing our usual desensitizing routine in each of Louie's 3 zones, assessing his comfort with seeing and hearing the offending object on each side, and finally crossing behind Louie from side to side, making him switch eyes from which to watch the stimulus. Louie did great. He had two quick moments of spooking where he broke into a trot when Steve quick zipped from his left side to his right side, crossing behind him dragging the noisy sled from one field of view to the other, but Louie responded appropriately by stopping and standing, and letting Steve remind him that we are in control of the noise of the sled, and reaffirming the correctness of him stopping in that situation. After a few repetitions, Louie was doing great, switching eyes and hardly responding at all to the noisy sled.

Steve has said that one of the most difficult things to overcome is location, so it is essential that we work Louie in this location to get over our past issues. The key is to take it step by step and only add in another input when Louie shows he is ready. While our goal (and Steve seems quite confident that we will accomplish this) is to be able to drive Louie comfortably with the sled on the gravel that gave us such trouble last summer, he does anticipate that we should be ready to hook Louie to the cart next week, assuming all goes well between now and then. Steve is quite pleased with how well prepared Louie is and what a great thinker and learner he is, and is impressed with the speed in which he is progressing to pulling the cart. The major thing that Louie needs to improve before being fully ready for the cart is pushing with his shoulders- crossing over with the front feet and pushing his shoulder into the shaft to turn the cart. We need to firm up our turning in the shafts if possible, and one way to do this is to use a whip where I would use my leg if I were riding to ask him to turn on his haunches. With a little bit of this preparation, Louie and I should be ready to take on the cart without becoming claustrophobic.

At the end of our lesson, I asked Steve if most driving horses ever accomplish this much desensitization and preparation. His simple answer was no, most do not. And it is unfortunate, as these types of simple exercises, though somewhat tedious and not always as exciting as the end product, are very easy to work on and with these experiences under his belt, Louie ought to be much more prepared to handle a variety of situations down the road. With all of this desensitization and work in the sled, Louie will think pulling the cart is a cake walk, as it will be both physically an easier load to move, and also have less sensory input.

So my homework for this week is to work on turns and getting Louie to push into the inside shaft with his shoulder when going around a turn. I also got the all clear to hook him to the sled and drive in the indoor or outdoor arena so long as I pay close attention to his head position and work up to hooking with the various elements as we have been doing. I am excited, but also somewhat nervous to start driving him in the sled again, but I know we are getting close to pulling the cart and I know both Louie and I will be better off having overcome our fears rather than avoiding them.

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