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.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Remember This?

If you have been following Louie's blog, you probably recall our incident with the sled last summer (if not, here is a refresher:

Well today, with the help of our driving trainer Steve, Louie and I put the pieces back together and he pulled me in the sled again, something I was unsure if we would ever do again. Of course we worked up to this with the training shafts, dragging the sled, etc, but we were finally able to bring up some of those old memories and start making forward progress on our near disaster from last summer. This time, we took one step at a time, following Steve's method, and everything went smoothly.

By the end of the lesson we had Louie hooked to the sled in the outdoor arena (with the plastic sled on the scary, noisy sand), pulling me around in it at a walk in both directions- without blinders. Steve noted that Louie was definately not as comfortable (but not bad, just didn't fully let go and relax) once we hooked him to the sled as he was before when he was just in the shafts with Steve pulling the sled behind him- strange that it would make such a big difference, but I guess Louie usually expects a human to be by the sled, and this time it was following him without anyone attending to it. As we progressed from Louie pulling the sled with me long lining beside him to me sitting in the sled, some of Louie's discomforts definately came out. He didn't do anything bad, and I think he is learning to just stop every time he starts to feel uncomfortable with something (which is a great thing), but I think there were several new inputs at play (and probably the resurection of bad memories for Louie as well)- the shafts pushing against Louie's hips around turns (so that he had to step over with his hind end when he felt the shafts at his side), the feel of the weight in the breast plate over his shoulders, the sound of the sled scraping against the hard sand, and the loss of me in Louie's line of sight as I was hidden behind him in the sled.

We really learned by the end of the lesson that Louie looks to me a lot for reassurance, and at the end of the lesson as we were about to approach a corner, I could see Louie looking over his left shoulder then his right, looking for me for reassurance. Well, it's hard to see me because I am sitting on the ground behind him- pretty much. In a cart, I'll be easier to see. Steve pointed out that for this reason, he really believes Louie will be best suited to an open bridle to learn to drive, as he is more anxious with the blinders on as he is unable to look to Mom for comforting.

Well, it was a good day for us, lots for Louie to think about, and lots for us to work on, but Steve still believes we are very close to being ready to drive and thinks that Louie has got an excellent chance at making a complete comeback from what many would consider a career-ending driving accident. We have got a lot to work on to put this issue to rest, but if we take this process one step at a time, separating out the inputs and dealing with each aspect of driving as individually as possible, pulling a cart will be a breeze, and Louie will be more than prepared to be a rock solid driving horse. It may seem like we are going backwards or adding insult to injury, but by doing these "15 second lessons"- provoking anxiety for a few steps, then backing off and re-grouping, we are bringing up and dealing with all of the inputs that caused our issues in the first place, teaching Louie that they are not scary, and helping him to overcome them, one-, three-, and five steps at a time.

Ahh memories- and this time so much stronger!

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!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Our First Blues

. . . and not the bad kind of blues. Our schooling show today went really well! I had planned to do W-T-C classes, but Louie has been a bit of a stinker this past week and I didn't want to push him too much and make him hate the show ring. So, we just went and did the walk-trot classes, which were fun.

Mary came to watch us and as usual had awesome advice for me on how to get Louie to settle in to our warm-up and focus on me rather than gawking at the warm-up arena surroundings and taking me for a high-speed pony ride. After a few exercises and some direction from her, Louie was listening, using himself nicely, and we were riding in a much more controlled, confident manner.

Our first class was pretty good, I was a tidge nervous- remnants from a bad case of show nerves I developed with my last horse. But Louie performed really nicely, with a beautiful flat walk, controlled trot (not our usual racing around like a roadster), and he listened to my legs and my hands pretty well. He did spook once at one of the speakers positioned on the rail at the corner of the arena, but he recovered after only a step or two and continued on nicely as if nothing had happened.

Our second class he was maybe even a little better, I really focused on my equitation and I am finally getting my legs to work more like I should as a hunt seat rider (yay!). Louie still showed some of his baby mannerisms and inconsistencies in both classes, but in the second class I was able to push him forward just a tad when he sucked back behind the bit.

Overall, he was pretty bright, willing, and he did a nice job- good enough for 1st place in both of our classes. Granted there were only 3 horses in each of our classes, but it's the solid rides and irreplaceable experience that count. Also, before the show started we got a nice compliment from a former big time Arabian trainer on what a nice horse Louie is. That was so nice, and of course I think he's special too.

Perhaps the thing I was most impressed with was the simple fact of how easy it was to take Louie to a show by myself. It has been years since I was able to just pack up and go to a show by myself, but we did that today and gosh, what a great feeling that is. I didn't need to bring a buddy horse for Louie, I didn't need to bribe a helper to come along for a hand, I didn't need a babysitter for Louie standing at the trailer, and we didn't need help loading and unloading. That, to me, is HUGE. It is so great to be able to be independent, I have missed that, and I am SO proud of my boy for being such a good sport about everything I've asked of him. He loaded, trailered, and stood at the trailer like an old pro. What a good boy.

Of course my thanks go out to all of the Melodee supporters that came out to participate and cheer us on at the show today, particularly Mary for all of her words of wisdom and patience with us, and to Melissa for taking a gazillion photos (thanks girl!). :) Without further ado. . .

Hanging out at the trailer hoping for some pets.

Our beautiful mane and tail braids.

You got some more food for me?

Very nice flat walk.

Trotting past the scary speaker!

Placements- good boy Louie!!

Smile! Are we having fun yet?

Yes we are!

Though we're not perfect, I think this is my favorite photo.

Showing off the Saddlebred tail
So Proud. :)

Relaxing at the trailer after the show, standing parked out, just begging for me to oogle over him- of course, who wouldn't give in to a cutie like that!?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Got Alfalfa?

I've been working on some feeding changes for Louie since our vet recommended discontinuing our barn mix sweet feed about a month ago. Obsessive calculations, research, email discussions with feed reps, and hours of sweat and tears later I still don't have the best answer, but I think we're getting close to deciding on the best feed option for Louie.

One of the items I have added to his daily rations is a mash of soaked alfalfa cubes. While these can be fed dry, I think it's a little safer to soak them to prevent choking. I have been feeding about 2 pounds of dry cubes per day, and mixing it with an equal amount of water, letting it sit for a good 15-20 minutes, then hanging it up for the wolves (aka Louie).

The first time I fed Louie these soaked hay cubes, he turned up his nose, tried to dump the pan over, and stepped in them. But with a little perserverence, Louie has decided that he loves his cubes, and he REALLY looks forward to his evening snack of soaked alfalfa cubes. See? You can tell by his alfalfa mustache.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Little Jumping Progress Video

Well, right now I think we are doing pretty well with our jumping! Especially considering we've had like 1 lesson. So, I took advantage of the fact that Sandy came out to the barn today and got a few photos and video of what we've been doing. It looks pretty decent to my novice eye, but I'm sure you hunter/jumpers in the crowd will have much criticizm for me. And I'm sure in the future, once we're a little further educated and experienced, we'll look back and be able to pick these pictures/videos apart as well. But for now, I think we're doing okay!
So here are our two photos (Sandy had technical difficulties with the camera timing, so this is the best we've got):
And our short video:

By the way, I know that this saddle is way too small for me. I am in the process of finding a new one and had this one out on trial from a local tack shop to see if I liked the feel of the saddle. We are in the process of ordering one in my size for me! :D