In the last installment of working with the mustangs "Mustangs 2 year old year 2006", I described how by leaving Chico be, he decided that maybe he'd like to be with people after all. By that fall, I could approach him and he'd follow me all over the place, but he wasn't quite easily haltered.
I'd spent that previous summer ignoring the mustangs and riding my 3 year old quarter horse who had been with a trainer for 30 days in the spring. By that fall, I was wondering what we were going to do with the mustangs. People had told me that no one would train mustangs because they were "crazy" or "wild" or whatever they used to describe it. These people who told me these things don't especially like mustangs. Now, I'm sure that if I had asked around, I could have found a trainer, but at the time, I was also concerned about how much it would cost to send them to a trainer, so I decided that I was going to do it myself.
I had never trained a horse before, ever, so I started by reading some books, and I researched some videos. I had a few older books that talked about exercises to prepare a young horse for the saddle, but I didn't have anything that described behaviors to watch for or how to continue if a horse presented a certain behavior as a response to something you did. I understood basic horse behavior, but on a subconscious level. I could ride well and my horses were fairly sensitive and soft in the mouth, but I didn't necessarily know how to teach them further things. I'd only ever worked with or ridden horses that were already broke. While I had taught Chico to lead using pressure and release, I didn't completely understand that to teach a more complex activity, you have to break it into simple steps with pressure and release concepts. That is why I had difficulty with getting Cody to walk with me on her back in the round pen. I hadn't gone through the prior steps to teach to to move in response to cues. I know horses are likely to explode when they are balky like that under the first ride, and I know that I will fall off it they start bucking. I also had great respect for the power of horses and I honestly was a bit intimidated with the thought of working with the mustangs and especially riding them. I knew I had a lot to learn. Looking back, I know that concept of breaking an activity into smaller steps was what was missing in my understanding, that I've since learned and been very successful at applying it to work with the mustangs.
I also knew that I wanted to use treats as rewards for desired behaviors, primarily because it was through treats that Chico became interested in working with me. I didn't want to destroy that interest in me...it had taken all summer before he, by his own choice, decided that I didn't always just have annoying things to do to him. I thought treats would be a great incentive to do what I asked. One of the first books that I got (shopping on half.com) was called "New Sensations for Horse and Rider: Introducing Voice Training" by Tanya Larrigan. This book introduced me to the vast capability of horses to learn voice cues. The author also used treats as reward for behaviors, and it worked well. Then I received an early Christmas present from Todd "True Horsemanship Through Feel" by Tom Dorrance and Leslie Desmond. In this book, they discuss the concept of feel and working with horses so that they understand. One of the first exercises that I used in this book with all three of the horses was leading up real free and dropping the head to halter pressure. I think the dropping the head exercise is a great one for teaching a person the concepts of pressure and release. This book was great, but still didn't quite give me the step by step "how to get a horse ready to ride then ride him" that I was hoping for. My parents knew I wanted horse training books, so for Christmas from them, I got Clinton Anderson's "Downunder Horsemanship". This book has many exercises that I applied right away (ground work ones), but again, still didn't have that "How to Start a Horse" section. Then I discovered horse training videos on Ebay. My friend's trainer had recommended that she see Clinton Anderson's groundwork videos to really learn how to deal with her huge, dominant, fearful horse, so I focused my search on his video's. The first ones I got were "Roundpenning" and "Gaining Respect and Control on the Ground, series 1". Then I got "Starting Under Saddle". With that repertoire of information, I was able to get Chico from wild to willing (to steal a phrase from Kitty Lauman).
First off, I needed to get him to accept the leadrope and haltering. Late summer, he was still not excited about getting caught, although he'd willingly approach me. He had a halter on all the time, and with treats I was able to clip his leadrope on. But I wanted to be able to easily catch and halter him if he didn't have on one. So, I got a bag of horse treats, stuck a bunch in my pocket, then, I brought him into the round pen in the barn to work with him. I took his halter off, then practiced sliding it back on over his nose. He really fought that (he still isn't 100% with letting people just touch his face), but I started with just rubbing the halter on the side of his face, and on his neck. And I tried to touch him all over with my hands, and when he stood still (instead of pulling back away from me) he'd get a big "good boy!" and a treat. He wasn't too thrilled with me pulling the halter over his nose, he really tried to pull away, but I bribed him with a treat (or rather, dangled the incentive in front of his nose) So there I am, standing next to his head, holding the halter just right with a treat on my hand so he'd have to stick his nose into the halter to take the treat. Chico stood there indecisive reaching then pulling up, then reaching again, and finally, he decided he wanted that treat more than he hated that halter touching his face, and he reached in and took it! While he chewed, I buckled it behind his ears. Then I slid it off and we did it again. This time, he didn't hesitate at all. We practiced a few times until I knew he understood it. After that session, I took his halter off and he has not worn it while in the pasture since. It was easy to halter him, once he understood that he got a treat reward for letting me halter him. He very quickly got to where he'd approach me, and stand with his head just right and his nose tucked in so I could slide the halter on. Then as soon as I had buckled it (or later, tied it), he was bobbing his head waiting for his deserved treat. Chico's previous difficulty with letting us catch and halter him probably had a lot to do with a lack of respect. I don't think he really feared people at that point, but he did dislike all the things we did and he chose not to let us get near enough to do them.
Next, I started working Chico in the round pen. I just want to clarify that all my training and working with him was done in the confines of the round pen, unless I was leading him out on the trails. I wasn't always "round penning". In fact, I didn't "round pen" much at all, only in the begining. When I did, I used the methods taught in the Clinton Anderson videos (keep a consistent direction, turn to the inside, stop and face up). I never had to be aggressive to urge Chico forward, he's a naturally forward horse, and he's very sensitive. With the round penning exercises, he responded beautifully. He became very in tuned to my body language, and because I rewarded him when I asked him to whoa and come into me (treat), he was always looking for the next way to earn his reward. All I can say is that he was very willing. I then started combining the round penning with teaching him voice cues. For this, I kept him on the lunge line. When I was first teaching the cues to him, I had to use my body language to cause him to speed up, if that was what I was asking, or slow down. Sometimes I had to pull-release on the lunge line to remind him to listen to me when I asked him to slow down. It was very easy to teach him the voice cues and within a matter of weeks (a few sessions each week), he was obeying my words the instant I spoke them. My cues were "walk", "trot-trot" (said very staccato), and "can-ter" (said fluidly with an upturn in tone and a clear "t" on the -ter), and of course "whoa". To ask him to slow down from a canter, I said "easy trot" in a very drawn out voice. Because "whoa" was the command after which he generally got a treat, he learned that cue VERY well. (I have to be careful when I ride him, because when we are cantering, I tend to talk to him quite a bit, and if he hears a world that sounds like "whoa", he'll come to a sliding stop. It's nice that he's that in tune to my voice). I started with just "walk" and "whoa" and when he was really good at hearing those cues, I sped it up to "trot-trot" and eventually to "can-ter". I like the voice cues, and I've taught them to all my horses. The best part is when we are out trail riding and I can feel them get ready to pick up the trot, all I have to do is catch it before they do it, and say "walk" firmly and they'll come back down, without me having to tug on their mouths.
Once he was getting the voice cues pretty well, I introduced him to the circingle. He was pretty relaxed when I first introduced it to him (although I wasn't sure what to expect from him). When I slung it over his back and he stood still, I gave him a reward. When I buckled it, just barely snug, and he stood still, he got a reward. When I asked him to walk out and also trot and canter with it, he completely ignored it! I think, because he was busy cueing in on me for the next thing to get him a reward). I rewarded him everytime he did a desired behavior when I introduced something to him for the first time. In no time at all, he was walk, trot, and cantering with with a completely tightened circingle without batting an eye at it.
Chico was a little obese this late fall. Todd's mom had gotten pelleted feed in addition to hay and was often giving it to her horses free choice (mine were pastured with hers). I think the feed was alfalfa pellets so everyone scarfed it down and became quite fat that year. Look at Chico's rolls!
These pictures are pretty bad quality. They are the only pics I have of working with Chico because I did everything myself and did not carry a camera with me then. I had a friend along this session, so he took some pics.
During these times, I also got Chico flexing laterally, then progressed to ground-driving him with long lines through the circingle rings. He did great. Chico was always looking to do what I was asking. He never even bucked when I saddled him for the first time! The very first time I brought the saddle out, he wasn't sure about me swinging it up on his back, but I did it all in steps with throwing the saddle pad over his back a million times, then throwing the saddle over, and then taking it back off. Chico is generally wary about new objects the first time they are introduced to him...not scared, but wary. He has to investigate the new object, and if you try to force it on him before he has a chance to check it out, he will run away, and refuse it. But if you step back and let him check it out, he will calmly accept whatever you want to do with it. With the saddle on, I repeated laterally flexing to halter pressure and did the ground driving exercises (with the longlines through the stirrups). I also did a bunch of desensitizing exercises with the saddle. I slapped the stirrups on the saddle skirt repeatedly, until he calmly accepted it (first time I did it, he freaked). I also practiced putting weight in both stirrups without actually getting in the saddle. I'd half mount up, hang there, then get down while he was standing still and give him a reward. Because I wanted to desensitize him to everything he'd experience with a rider in the saddle, I filled 2 liter bottles with water and hung one on each side of the saddle, rigged just right so that they'd hang and bump him where my calves would if I was riding (the very first time, the 2 liter bottles were empty so that he didn't completely freak out). He accepted the bottles with no problem and never a sideways look. Like I said, he was always very focused on me in the center of the round pen.
The three that winter. Cody on left, Catlow in middle, Chico right.
Cute picture of Cody napping and Chico standing watch over her
Check the next post as the continuation of this post…