Oct 102012

Ah, my poor horse Elsie. If you put her under the slightest bit of pressure, she just falls apart in a panic. The good news is that she’s willing to try and learn. So by exerting just slightly increasing pressure over time, waiting for her to adjust to it at each stage, she makes good — but very slow — progress.

For example, last Monday morning, I locked her in the barn — via a chain across each door and with Lila in the stall next door — for about an hour with her food. For any other horse, that’s a lovely opportunity to eat and snooze. Not for Elsie!

Mind you, locking her in a stall used to be completely impossible: she’d burst through the chains in less than a minute. She’s gotten much better over the last few weeks of consistent work, such that she’s used to being locked in her stall for 15 or 30 minutes at a stretch. I’ve been working on this behavior in particular because winter is coming, and I need to be able to lock Elsie and Lila in the barn with the doors closed overnight during snowstorms.

On Monday, she was in the stall for longer than ever before. Alas, she felt the difference. She was clearly in a bit of a panic when I went back down to the barn after that hour. (But hooray, she’d not burst out of the stall!)

I didn’t release her right away: I wanted her to calm down a bit, then reward her by releasing her. So I told her to settle down, I got a few treats from the tack room, and then I let Lila out of her stall. At that point, Elsie was agitated, but not wild. So dropped the chain, then I did our usual routine of a few steps forward and then a few steps back coming out of the door.

I’ve been doing that because she has a habit of running out the stall door. The moment that she realizes that she’s free, her brain screams “GEMME OUTTA HERE”! She bursts through the stall door, sometimes banging into posts or people. Then, the moment that she’s free, she returns to being her calm self. Obviously, that’s not just rude but dangerous for everyone. So I’ve been working on that via this back-and-forth movement out of the stall: she’s required to be consistently under control, and she’s rewarded for that. It’s made a big difference.

In this case, she did that “two steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back, and so on” pretty well, given her state of agitation. Then she was released, and she relaxed immediately.

So… good girl, Elsie. You try hard, and your progress has been remarkable. But wow, these are such 1st grade skills for a horse. Okay, maybe 2nd grade now, but still.

Happily, I’ve learned a whole lot by training Elsie — and not just about training methods. She’s a horse that requires the utmost in patience, calmness, and self-discipline. I must be firm with her, but any expression of frustration is hugely counter-productive, and perhaps even dangerous. That means that I’m training my own character as I’m training her character.

For me, that need for psychological self-awareness and self-improvement — as well as the bond of trust with this half-ton beast that could kill me with ease, if so inclined — is what I love so much about training horses. The challenge is mostly psychological and intellectual, not physical.

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