Monday, August 25, 2008

Twenty Minutes in Photos: Trust-Based Training at Work

Back in May, I wrote about the beginning stages of gentling Sandstorm, who arrived at In the Night Farm as a completely unhandled bundle of nerves. I haven't been able to put nearly as much time into her this summer as I hoped to, but we've spent about fifteen sessions laying a foundation of trust in anticipation of future work. Here's a series of photos taken last Saturday during a twenty-minute lesson on the cusp between gentling and training:

I started by moving Sandstorm around the round corral a few times in each direction, allowing her to check out any changes in the surroundings and prepare to focus on me.

When her inside ear was on me and she showed interest in stopping, I shifted from a driving posture to an not-threatening pose, inviting her to turn inward. I approached her at a medium walking pace, gaze and shoulders dropped. Her body language demonstrated that she was quite unconcerned. This represents major progress since the early days, when I had to creep toward her, inch by inch, while she trembled on the verge of panic.

Sandstorm is distinctly right-eyed. She's doing much better, but sometimes still goes to great lengths to avoid watching me with her left eye. Here, she was thinking about twisting her head around to look at me over her withers. It was this behavior that led me to put a halter on her, though I had to put her in a squeeze chute to do it. She was learning that she could avoid me by turning waaaay away, so I spent a few sessions teaching her to give to halter pressure so I could gently bring her head back around when necessary.

As usual, I touched from poll to tailhead, under her belly and down her legs. My hand on her withers provided a mental anchor, enabling her to better sense my movements, and giving me warning if she was about to leap away.

Notice, too, that I stood with my body touching hers. For humans, this takes some getting used to because it feels unsafe, but to the horse, it is a great comfort.

I've spent hours working on getting Sandstorm to allow me to touch her face, particularly from the near side. It's been a painstaking, inch-by-inch process, but she's finally begun looking forward to getting some rubs on her itchy spots.

Incidentally, I can also touch both ears, inside and out, without the slightest reaction. It's amazing what you can do when you take the time to develop trust instead of forcing a horse into something for which it isn't prepared.

That goes for training a horse to pick up its feet, too. This mare can't be haltered without restraint, barely leads, and is far from being ridden, but she lets me handle her feet better than many a seasoned show horse. Why? Simply because I gave her time to choose to stay. She could run away, but she knows she doesn't need to.

This was only the second time I'd picked up her hind hoof. Notice that I stood well forward, with my right knee soft. If she'd panicked and kicked my leg, she'd probably have knocked me down, but hopefully my knee would have escaped serious damage.

I only held this foot up for a second or two before releasing it. This was critical, because I was asking her to compromise her most basic defense -- the ability to run. She needed to be released before she felt trapped.

Next, I brought out a soft, cotton rope. I rubbed her all over with it, just as I had with my hands at the beginning of the lesson.

At this point, we moved beyond review into mostly new territory. I touched Sandstorm with with the just end of the rope, allowing her to get a good look at the way it stretched, snakelike, between us.

I worked on each step from both sides of the horse, spending more time on her weaker, near side. However, because it was Sandstorm's first time having a rope tied around her neck, I tied the knot (a bowline, which won't tighten under pressure) while standing on her right.

She took a nervous, sideways step when she realized the rope was attached. I let her move but followed, keeping the distance between us the same. You can see by the angle of her ear that she was nervous about the rope, not about me.

If she had chosen to turn tail and run, I'd have not only let her go, but moved her around the round corral, dangling rope and all, until she settled down with her attention back on me. Then, I'd have proceeded calmly as if nothing had happened.

I put light tension on the rope to ask for a "give" in my direction. Sandstorm responded immediately with several, tentative steps. Not all horses will move their feet when first asked to lead, but Sandstorm had the advantage of some earlier "give to halter pressure" lessons performed at the end of a lunge line several weeks ago.

After a few minutes of leading practice, I laid the rope over Sandstorm's neck and picked up her off-side hooves. She stood calmly even when I slapped the bottom of her front hoof with my palm.

When handling her hind hoof, I didn't bring it behind her as I will eventually for cleaning and trimming. That step, which puts me in a potentially dangerous position, is better reserved for when I have a handler at her head.

So, there's the update. It doesn't seem like much...until I recall the days, not so long ago, when this horse shook if anyone so much as eyed her from a distance of twenty feet. When I look at it that way, Saturday's lesson seems just shy of a miracle.


Spartacus Jones said...

Nice session.
Good photos, too.
Thanks for sharing.


Susan said...

Tamara, Great job! I was surprised to see how much of your technique feels like it was taken right from the School of Inner Awareness Wild Horse program. Some things looked a bit like Monte Roberts (shoudler head thingy), but much seemed like you studied old technique I had developed years ago for gentling and training wild horses using inner awareness. Regardless it was very nice to see how you are progressing with Sandstorm.

Oh and she is a nice filly. Love her butt!

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Hi Susan! Can you point me to any School of Inner Awareness Wild Horse Program literature? I haven't studied it, but I'd like to.

You're correct that Roberts uses a version of the non-confrontational body language technique, though I saw it used by others first. I tend to think in terms of where I am directing my "force" or "center" in relation to the horse.

Susan Catt School of Equine Inner Awareness hehehe said...

The School of Equine Inner Awawrenss Tamara, was founded by me. I ran it for 16 years and apprenticed several ttainers during that time. The school was founded before Monte Roberts and several others made it to the lime light. The bottom line is common sense tells us that certain laguage and applications work. No one has the magic ingredient. One thing I learned trainign horses over a 37 plus year period is that we never know anything about training. Not any of us. We pass through an experiential revolving door. Every time we meet up with any one horse(s) we are passing through the door and experience whatever is there to be experienced at that time. In other words we are on an infinite learning adventure. What impresses me is when I see others so many years later using similar techniques regardless of where or how they picked them up, and using them to a similar end reulting in a truely inner awareness connection and partnership with their horses. Especially the wild ones.

I admire your training approach!

I was writing a book, when an ex personal relationahsip partner severed the relationship I had with my co-writer. Since my co-writer assitant trainer once apprentice, was the focus of the book, I was not given rights to publish. Five years of writing down the tube.

I do have most all of the photos for the book though. I have threatened to rewrite it from a third horse/person perspective. If I do I'll be looking for an editor who understands the principles and has good writing abilities.

Anyway, Impressed!