In one of my recent horse lessons, I was working more on the use of the “friendly game.” That is desensitizing horses to their surroundings to make things less spooky to them. Horses are prey animals, and any wrong move or slacking off with their safety can mean death in the wild, so domestic horses are born with this too.
As a result, we as humans need to work hard to get horses to trust us as the alpha. You have to train your horse to trust you in everything you do. In other words, do things with your horse such as walking down a road and introducing your horse to many new things.
My instructor, Jolene, has a large, life-sized plastic or metal bull on her property. It is a nice item to use with horses needing to become less fearful of lifelike animals. I had Cheyenne approach it. It was a fearful thing for her. She was wondering, what was that creature and was he planning to eat her up? We would have her approach and retreat while I was holding on to the end of a 12-foot line for my safety, while she navigated through this thought process. I would ask her to approach it by looking directly at it and pointing a finger while asking her with the carrot stick to approach it. I have to remember to reward the slightest try from her. She looked at it and perhaps blew through her nose at it. That was a slight try, so I rewarded her for that by relaxing the pressure and then backing her to release the pressure even more.
We work with this rear side of the bull for a while on the approach-and-retreat method to get Cheyenne to eventually approach it. She did eventually touch it with her nose and in a relaxed way. We went around to the front of the bull for Cheyenne to do the same thing. I sometimes love watching Jolene show me how to work through it because I am a very visual person. She gets this conversation going with the horse. She points to the object and asks the horse by urging her to move forward by applying a little pressure with the carrot stick. There are many ways a horse answers — they could ignore your cues so then we up the ante to encourage her to move, she could change the subject by looking and touching somewhere else, or she could move in the direction of what we are asking. If she even so much as glances or takes a slight step with her hoof in the correct direction, all pressure stops. We reward her and then we could either back her up or ask her again to approach the object but try to get more of a try from her.
At this time, she is starting to get what we are asking for so she starts to move closer or perhaps she is afraid and can refuse. We keep insisting on her moving toward the object, and when there is a move forward towards it, we see a lick and chewing motion from her, or a deep blow out of her nose. These are signs that she is relaxing. We reward her for these signs. The funny thing is that sometimes before the horse decides to give us what we want, she might get a little ugly in her actions, like a huge protest to intimidate, but if we remain calm and assertive she eventually does what we want. There are times when it might be too overwhelming to approach, so we might work on the approach for a couple days, ending on a good note. This was not the case here. Cheyenne ended up touching the nose of the bull twice, but not without letting the bull know that she was the alpha mare, pinning her ears and gritting her teeth as she touches the bull. She was just being a bully to the bull, what a laugh.
The following week I wanted to do the same thing to Gypsy and see how she does with this same bull. She reacted a little differently than Cheyenne, but the bull was scary to her as well. She approached it from behind in not too terribly much time. Now we were going to approach the front of this object. Gypsy was a little uneasy about it but I asked Jolene to demonstrate how to do it. She did demonstrate and what I saw was amazing. She asked Gypsy to look at it by first pointing and looking directly at the bull. Then she spun the carrot stick for a reaction from Gypsy. Gypsy’s reaction was a glance in the correct direction, she didn’t look at the bull but over it, then she looked at Jolene with her ears up and both eyes on Jo as if to ask, “was that okay?” That was acceptable to Jolene, so she rewarded her by putting the carrot stick on her side and rubbing it around her neck and verbally telling her she was a good girl. Jolene asked her again to approach the bull and again Gypsy give her the same reaction except more intently and then looked back at her the same way. Jolene gave her the same reward because Gypsy had responded with more intention. This back and forth thing went on for a few more attempts to where Gypsy just got her nose closer to the bull but just couldn’t bring herself to touch it but made that gesture of ” I will give you this much more but I just can’t bear any more,” then she dropped her head to eat a few blades of grass. Eating the grass was changing the subject which is not encouraged, but since she so sweetly made a bigger attempt to touch the bull Jolene accepted and allowed it. It was exciting to see that Jolene was having a conversation with Gypsy. It was an incredible thing to see Jolene ask Gypsy to do a task, then have Gypsy attempt what she thinks to be the task that Jolene is asking her to do. Then she looks at Jolene to see if she got it right. This again kept going until Gypsy finally, in a relaxed way, touched the nose of the bull. Job well done, Gypsy! I was proud of my pretty Arabian mare. She did it.
Cheyenne then came out for the try the week after. It didn’t take as long as the week before. She was using more of her thinking side of her mind to work through things. However, there were a few times Cheyenne was just adamant to not touch the bull where we wanted her to. She did touch a horn as a reconciliation to not touching the nose. Cheyenne, being so intelligent, would do this quite a bit to let me know, “I feel like it is too hard to touch the nose but will this be acceptable?” We did accept but still kept asking for her to touch the nose. She did it twice while she was again gritting her teeth. We asked her to do it one more time and she did but she bared her teeth one more time but even more aggressively toward the bull. We accepted and laughed at her strong alpha position. She is a great horse and she was able to share it with us this way.
It was exciting to see Jolene work with my two horses and to watch the conversation going on. It was unbelievable to watch the trainer and the horse conversing between each other on what needed to happen. What a great lesson.