By Susan Chandler, CHR Trainer
Through the last couple of articles, we have seen our little mare, Huckleberry, make huge progress towards being emotionally open and trusting of the people that work with her. This incredible breakthrough was made possible thanks to a thorough and fair training program that gave Huckleberry the motivation to break through her mental barriers. With this extremely sensitive horse who was highly unforgiving of human mistakes, we had to make sure we were consistent in our training and careful to address even the most basic of concepts. In this final post for Huckleberry, we will take a deep dive into her training program and share what a typical day of schooling looks like for her. We will also display a few of the major techniques that have helped her develop into the friendly horse she is today.
Huckleberry’s training begins as I arrive in her pen. Currently, she resides in our Training Camp area with a shelter and run all to herself. This not only makes her much more accessible to catch, but also takes away the distraction that another horse’s presence may cause. In this way, I can make sure that her starting environment is consistent. With the first steps that I take into her domain, I am mindful of my movements and aware of how they affect her. Even though my goal may be to catch her, I want to create an initial setting where she feels comfortable and safe around me before putting her in a position where she may feel trapped. To help get her into the training mindset, I start with a technique that I know she truly loves: touching the halter with her nose. This encourages her to willingly enter my space in order nudge the halter and receive a reward. With a horse this shy, this is a great confidence-building game and an important training tool. It is also a wonderful alternative from trying to force her with pressure to stand still and have me walk up to her. In the past, the latter technique would leave her panicked and likely to react with either flight or fight.
Only when I feel that she is comfortably engaged with me will I start the haltering process. I go slowly, not to sneak around her, but to make sure she is handling all the movements incorporated within the haltering process. If I notice her becoming at all worried, I will start from the beginning and go through the motions again and again. I mark relaxed behavior with my bridge word, “good”, and reward her with a treat. This method exposes her to the haltering process several times in one sitting with the hopes of making her more comfortable and confident the next time around. All the while, she is learning to not go into a panic reaction when she feels that stress. Instead, she knows she can look to me for direction and trust that I won’t make the situation worse. Once haltered, I do a quick walking test to ensure she is following willingly. After that, we make our way to the round pen.
For the sake of building trust, I always like to start with Huckleberry loose in the round pen. The theory is that if I can develop a good form of communication with no strings attached, when ropes become involved the situation will be less stressful. By that time, she should already have an idea of what to expect from me. A ground work session at liberty (free from the halter) entails asking her to move into walk, trot, and canter based on the pressure I give with my feet and body language. Bigger strides and more energy from me add pressure for bigger strides out of her. A smaller stride and a release of pressure from me ask her to follow the release down to a slower speed. Stopping my feet or adding pressure in front of Huckleberry asks her to turn in and face me. This exercise then evolves into me asking her to follow, using pressure to both drive and block her as needed. All the while, I mark calm behaviors and rewarding them with a treat at the halt. Huckleberry excels in these activities and uses this time to express herself playfully while also keeping a good line of communication.
Once re-haltered, we work on similar groundwork with the rope attached. With the positive reinforcement aid, I start by making sure Huckleberry can follow simple directions such as following at a safe distance, backing up when asked, and yielding around me calmly. Once that is accomplished I end the session by pushing her a few more steps outside of her comfort zone. The past few months this has meant desensitization to different objects. Starting out with carrot sticks touching her all over, we have progressed to working with the saddle. When introducing any new object I pay special attention to Huck’s mental thresholds, the imaginary boundaries that she sets for herself which determine flight or fight. I take the object away and out of her immediate “bubble” before she gets worried, which would breach that threshold. If Huckleberry feels like she needs to move around, she is allowed to. I never want her to feel like she is trapped; however, she only receives a reward once she’s standing calmly. With this method, I can build her confidence with an object so that her thresholds begin to diminish and she learns to more new things.
With her sensitivity and significant lack of confidence, Huckleberry proved to be a training challenge. With a training program capable of adapting to how she thinks, and that could be respectful of her thresholds, Huck was able to make a great deal of progress in a short amount of time. Today, Huckleberry is still looking for her adoptive home, and is in need of an owner who has immense patience and care. We know that with the correct partnership, Huckleberry will only continue to thrive!