Saturday, October 27, 2012

Griffin's summer

I think I owe my blog an update about the summer events around here.  I've been putting it off for so long that I'm afraid my memories are tainted by the future decisions I need to make, but I'll give it a go.

The last time I wrote, I had just left Griffin at Jessie's place for a month of training/riding.  I'd worked with him with saddling, ponying, yielding to the bit, moving off of pressure on his sides, and yielding the hindquarters and fore-quarters separately.  He was lunging well, and responding in a relaxed manner.  A couple weeks before he went to Jessie's, I mounted him for the first time and asked him to just flex to the bit and yield his hindquarters to a leg cue several times.  He was pretty relaxed and did not once over-react, so that lesson was brief but ended on a good note.  I was afraid to continue with him because I felt like I didn't quite have the confidence that he needed to go further. 

I had a little bit of apprehension, mostly because I hadn't been able to work with him as often as I'd like, and I'd not yet been able to do all the crazy things that I had done with Chico to convince myself that he would not buck with me on him.  If you remember, I had ponied him off Cody, lead him through the woods, saddled and unsaddled, and he was unflappable through it all....yet, there was just something that I couldn't quite identify that put me at unease whenever I thought about giving him his first few rides.  I felt like he trusted me and he would let me do anything to him, but I also felt he was holding back a bit with his trust.  I had him lunging well in the round pen at the walk and trot, and he was catching on to voice cues, but I also felt like even though he seemed to go willingly, he wasn't quite as free as I'd like.  I hadn't worked much with him as the canter because my round pen footing was not very good, but I don't think that had anything to do with the apprehension that I had.  The things that I noticed in him were very subtle and I had a hard time explaining to any one else what it was that I felt uneasy about, and no one else that wasn't intimately involved with him like I was could see it at all.  My husband scoffed at my fears, and I chalked a lot of them up to having a lot more fear of what could happen on horses in general now that I was a mother.  I felt more vulnerable.

So given my lack of confidence, I thought the best thing to do for Griffin was send him to someone I respected who I also knew had the confidence to ride a young mustang.  I knew that Jessie would know how to read him, and would feel him out and see where she could get with him.  Jessie spent the first week getting to know Griffin on the ground.  She said the first time she went to catch him in his paddock, he wouldn't let her near him, but she just worked with him in there and in a short time, he gave that up, was facing up and letting her approach and halter him.  This is pretty typical for a mustang that has only been handled by one other person.  After the first lesson he became pretty easy for her to catch. 

She spend the first week doing groundwork and working him up to saddling.  She reported that he was very respectful and seemed to have a great foundation.  I glowed hearing those reports.  The first time she rode him, she said when she put her legs on him, he just wanted to pivot rather than go forward (probably because that's all I had asked him to do the first time I sat on him).  He eventually went forward, but was very spurty.  She got him going.  I asked her about whether or not she felt like he was a little "sticky" because that was the only word I had been able to come up with the lack of freedom of movement I felt from him.  She thought that rather than being "sticky", he seemed to be "calculated".  Once he was moving forward in the small arena, she said he was extremely smooth to ride, like he knew exactly where he was placing every foot.  She said, often, other horses she rode had a hard time with the uneven footing at first as they learned to carry her weight...but not Griffin.  Then again, he was 5 years old, so mature and balanced.  She progressed with him, moving at the walk and trot, turning, yielding hindquarters, then moved to riding him outdoors in the larger paddock area.

She had been riding him for about 2 weeks when one day, she was asking him to move at a trot, then turned him from going on a circle to the left to a circle to the right, and pushed his hindquarters to the left with her right leg at the same time.  He seemed to panic, pull his head straight and set to bucking.  She said he bucks really hard and he is really strong, so she couldn't pull him up and she came off.  Thankfully, she was okay, so she then took him back to the small indoor arena and was able ride him in there without any issues.  On a ride shortly after that (I'm not sure if it was the next ride or not), the same thing pretty much happened again.  Again Jessie took him to the indoor arena and rode him fine.  And then it happened a third time.

At this point, she decided he had some holes somewhere that needed to be worked through.  He needed to learn to deal with more pressure without over-reacting.  And she wanted to teach him that bucking was not the answer to any problem.  She worked him from the ground using a flank rope that she could immediately loosen and give him relief when he quit bucking.  He was starting to understand that bucking was a lot of work and was reacting less and less to the flank rope.  She also worked with desensitizing him with a feed sack tied to a rope.  Her thought was that he had panicked and bucked the first time because he suddenly saw her out of his right eye - he just seemed a little one sided and she wanted him to get used to seeing things following him out of both eyes.  She used a long rope tied to the feed sack that she could loop over the saddle horn and hold on to, so that she had control of where it dragged as he moved.  She also could toss it toward him and get him used to objects moving quickly.   Jessie reported that with the feed sack, she got to see Griffin's "wild" side.  This was all conveyed over email and she didn't go much into detail, but we decided he'd stay with her another 2 weeks for a total of 45 days to see if she could get him past the bucking.  She didn't have time beyond that because she was starting a new job in August. 

Two more weeks passed, and it was time to go pick Griffin up.  Jessie has warned me that she had not been able to ride him much in those two weeks...there were days when he was so tense she didn't even feel she could mount up.  I wanted her to show me all the work she'd done with him so I knew where to pick up.  When I arrived with the trailer, she was saddling him up in the barn.  She said he had learned to stand ground tied and he always did accept saddling without any concern at all.  She also wondered if his bucking might have had something to do with her saddle not fitting right, and she had added another pad to it.  Griffin is narrower than most of her other horses.  Then she proceeded to show me the ground work she'd been doing the last few weeks.  He was definately reactive with the flank rope still, but really not bad.  He would hump and jump a few strides but then quit and stand and face her.  Then she got out the feed sack.  I could immediately see the tension rise in him.  The feed sack was all tied up in a tiny ball, not even big, loose and floppy.  But still, the meer sight of it got him ramped up.  She tossed it at him...he alternated between strong reactions, and then just flinching as it came at him...but he wasn't accepting it, just barely tolerating it.  Then Jessie looped the rope over the saddle horn to let him drag it.  As soon as it started following him, he started scooting forward, occasionally kicking at the feed sack that was dragging about 10 ft behind him.  At one point, when he kicked at it, his leg got tangled in the rope and the feed sack was sucked up against his leg - then all hell broke loose!!!!!  Griffin went crazy bucking, kicking, striking, all the way around the arena until the rope came loose and the feed sack and rope fell away from his leg.  Then he skidded to a stop, facing Jessie in the center of the arena, blowing hard with a little bit of a confused look on his face.  WOW!!!  He bucks BIG!  He got huge air in those jumps.  Jessie said THAT was the "wild" side she was describing before.  He was super defensive about that feed sack and absolutely did not like it.  He seemed to tolerate it okay during some lessons, but when something unexpected happened, like during this short lesson, he'd come unglued.  Jessie just shook her head at him.  I could see that she was a bit confused by his reactions too.  Why did he seem so calm, but yet so "wild"?  Why was he going so well at first, but then seemed to have this huge setback.

Well, I took Griffin home fully understanding what he was capable of.  To say I was intimidated was an understatement, but I also thought maybe he reacted so strongly to these things because he didn't fully trust Jessie?  Maybe he trusted me more, since I'd worked with him more, and he'd settle down with me?  I'd also never quite pushed him to the extent that Jessie did, and maybe he was pushed too fast?  But then again, maybe I was holding him back by not pushing him along a little harder?  It's difficult to know when you need to actually push a little bit to get the horse able to increase the size of his comfort zone, and when you might actually be pushing too much.

Now I have to share this little side embarrasses me to no end to share it, but it illustrates Griffin's steadfast nature...the rock solidness of him that makes me question how he can be so worried of certain things and so sticky and...well, let me get on with this story.  So, on my way back, it was about a 3 hour drive.  I checked the gas guage on the way down and estimated that I should be able to make it home without filling up.  Well, I underestimated how much extra fuel it takes to pull a trailer and I wasn't paying close attention to the gas guage, so I ran out of gas...ON THE INTERSTATE!!!!  Yes, I was going along when the power suddenly started to stall out.  I immediately realized the stupid thing I had done and started searching for where to stop.  Luckily, I saw a road crossing the wide, treed median (I was in the left lane), and was able to pull into that between the two lanes as the truck died.  I felt this was a better option than alongside the road on the right side because I could be farther away from the traffic, and there were a few trees.  So another awful fact that made this such a stupid thing was that it was 99 degrees F!  Griffin was just fine going down the interstate at 65 mph with tons of airflow through the trailer, but he was going to cook in there while we waited for my husband to bring a tank of gas (we were now only 30 minutes from home).  I had no choice but to take him out of the trailer and stand under the trees.  I had awful visions of the terrible things that could happen to a loose panicking horse on the interstate as I opened the trailer doors.  But Griffin just stood calmly, a little confused about trailering in general.  He was totally unconcerned as I lead him out of the trailer into the bright, hot sun with 4 lanes of heavy traffic (including semi's!) whizzing all around us.  We walked into a little pocket between some trees where the state trooper usually likes to hide and got to know eachother a little better.  I rubbed him, and let him graze the drought ridden grass.  A state trooper did pull in to see if we were alright, and then my husband showed up.  Griffin loaded right back up into the trailer no problems at all, and we were on our way home with no further happenings.

Once home, he was ecstatic to be back with his herd.  Right away, I started working him again.  He had become so reactive simply to ropes touching his legs while he was moving (he had never been reactive before the feed sack), so my first goal was that he had to get over that.  We spent several lessons dragging a long rope tied to the saddle horn that touched his legs that he occasionally stepped on.  When stepped on, the rope pulled at the saddle horse.  The first lesson, he did buck some and kick at it repeatedly, but he did get over it.  I pushed him to keep moving at a trot while the rope touched him.  I wanted him to just ignore it completely.  The second lesson, I started with a shorter rope, then progressed to a longer rope and he really did well, only bucking the first time the rope touched him going in one direction and not at all after that...just a little scooty at times.  After several lessons like that and also working with a rope draped around his rump without negative reactions, I decided to start with long-lines.  I had not done this with him before, but thought it would be the best way to make him deal with things touching him on the sides, legs, and also dealing with bit pressure at the same time.  When I use long-lines in the round pen, I stand in the middle and have the lines looped through the stirrups (tied together under his belly) to the bit.  He has to deal with the outside rein either over the saddle, over his rump or around below his rump above his hocks.  He has to follow bit pressure and turn to the outside to change directions when asked.  This is a lot to deal with and he was absolutely awesome the very first time. 

We did this several lessons.  He was so awesome that at times, if he chose to turn the wrong way and started to get all wound up in the ropes, he would stop, think and then turn back the other direction and unwind himself, all without getting reactive.  I decided at that point that he should be able to deal with a rider, especially since he'd been ridden successfully for a few weeks before he every started bucking.  As I got ready to mount, up I did the same pre-mounting things I did every lesson, flexing to the bit, slapping the stirrups against the saddle.  Then I stood in one stirrup and laid across the saddle.  I asked him to flex to the left, no problem.  When I asked him to flex to the right, he would turn, but then immediately pull his head straight again.  As I did this repeatedly, standing in both sides of the stirrups (but not mounting fully), I could see his head coming up higher and higher, and he was getting more tense.  And still, when I asked him to flex to the right, he seemed to not want to see me out of that eye at all.  At that point, I chickened out and decided I was not going to mount up and try to ride.  And then my husband pulled up to check on me, as I had told him I was going to ride Griffin and I needed someone to be there, just in case.  I showed him the tenseness and one-sidedness I was seeing and he didn't seem as concerned as I was.  So I asked him if he wanted to get on, and I'd just lead Griffin a couple steps.  He made friends with Griffin, petting and rubbing him and mounting slowly, then continuing to pet and rub while he was up there.  Griffin knew he was up there, and was hesitant, but seemed okay.  I asked him to take one step forward and then stop.  When he stopped, he swayed a bit with uneasiness, but I petted him and talked to him and he steadied.  Then I asked for another single step...that's when all hell broke loose, again.  I had told my husband to just bail if Griffin started bucking, so he was already half ready with his feet out of the stirrups, but that didn't help him any.  I felt totally helpless watching as Griffin went crazy bronc bucking, with the one I love stuck in the saddle.  He finally cleared himself and landed in the sand, and Griffin stopped bucking immediately.  My poor honey was mostly unhurt, just a few bruises, a cut on his eyebrow and a black eye (from the saddlehorn).

Needless to say, I was mortified.  I could have gotten my husband seriously hurt.  And I felt that there was really no reason for Griffin to have reacted as strongly as he did.  Sure, my honey is heavier than I am, but he is also fairly familiar to Griffin too.  I felt that bucking episode was uncalled for and illustrated to me that he had learned that it was okay to buck to unload what was making him uneasy.  He'd done it 4 times now. After the bucking, I lunged him aggressively to make him work hard, but neither of us was about to mount him again.

Now I want to clarify that I'd checked Griffin's back when he came home from the trainer and he wasn't tender in any areas.  He seemed equally flexible in both directions.  He moved readily at all gaits in the pasture.  I'm pretty sure his one-sidedness is in his brain.  And Griffin is definitely still leary of people.  Even with me.  When I have him caught in the round pen or on the lead line somewhere, he is really obedient, willing, and calm.  When he is loose in the pasture, I can approach him readily, but it doesn't take much to make him move away and take off.  If I'm walking near him in the pasture, he almost always takes a few steps away from me, then turns around to face me.  I generally stop moving and wait till he stops and faces up, then I can walk right up to him.  I always have to let him sniff my hand, then I can move to rub his neck and halter him, or just rub him  or pick up his feet if I don't have a halter with me.  Another interesting note: Jessie said she was catching him pretty easily right up until she started working with him on more desensitizing after his bucking episodes - then he decided getting caught wasn't fun and she had to work to catch him every day.  And the first time I tried to catch him in the pasture at home after bringing him back, he couldn't let me near him.  I decided to bribe them all into the mustang pen with grain so I could close him in there and then catch him, but all I really had to do was start calling all the horses.  Then he walked right up to me, almost like "oh!  It's you!  I remember your voice!"  Then I never had another problem catching him.  Of course, I use treats, and Jessie doesn't. 

So, I think that Griffin needs a LOT more work.  His little bit of distrust and stickiness has turned into a HUGE problem.  I don't have the experience, nor the time to work him through that.  I'm just not sure what else I need to do to earn his trust, other than to push him harder to deal with scary things.  I feel like I've already been working very slowly at it and it hasn't gotten us very far.  Maybe he does just need more slow work.  I don't think that Griffin is beyond help, but I also know that I can't get him to where he needs to be.  To put it simply, I am not going to risk my safety to do it.  It really sucks, especially considering that I have a lot invested in him, emotionally and financially.  Even if I was able to justify spending the money to send him to another trainer for several months, I could never guarantee that I could keep him going when he came back.  I wish I had known what life would have thrown at me later before I adopted him, but I didn't know.  I think if he'd have been as easy as Chico or Catlow, the time wouldn't have been an issue really.  But the point is, I can't do it.  And I also can't justify him living out the rest of his life here as a pasture ornament.  He is only 5.  I want him to go to someone who wants to work him through his issues, but I have contacted several trainers, and Jessie has also asked around in the mustang world, and no one is willing to take on another horse.  I've been looking for several months now.  Part of the problem I think is that this has been such a bad year for hay.  Very few people want to feed another mouth this winter.

I just recently listed him for sale on craigslist.  It's sort of my last hope.  I really want to be sure that he goes to an experienced home, because he is going to need it.  And I fear what might happen to him if things don't work out, or where he might ultimately end up if I lose track of him.  I would feel better letting him go knowing he was with an experienced mustang trainer, but no luck there.  I have few other options.  I've been hesitating describing Griffin's story because I'm still not sure how it is going to end.  And I go back and forth constantly on the decisions that I make regarding his future.  It doesn't help that sometimes he is really sweet.  For example, today was in the 40's but sunny, so I hauled my trimming equipement into the pasture to work on Catlow and Cody.  Griffin hung out with me the whole time, standing nearby, sniffing my hair, overturning my bucket of rasps and nippers, and then when I turned to him to pick up a hoof, he was ready and willing to stand without a halter.  He loved me brushing the burdocks out of his mane.  Sometimes he can be very appreciative of me, but often he is a little reserved until his curiosity gets the better of him.


Shirley said...

An interesting story, with no easy answers. The way you described the first part with your reservations about him that seemed a little unfounded is exactly how I feel about one of my horses; I'm just that little bit unwilling to trust her although I have no reason not to trust her... just that feeling. In her defence, she is still really green and has never bucked. But still....
I hope the right person comes along who has the time, skill and patience to make Griffin a good horse to ride.

Anonymous said...

There's something going on there inside him that's got him worried enough to go to all the effort of bucking. What part of the country do you live in - I might have a suggestion of a trainer who could work effectively with him. I worry if you sell him that he'll end up on a meat waggon, although I don't blame you at all for wanting to sell him.

Kara said...

I'm in west central WI. I'm not going to sell him indiscriminately, though of course I have no control over what happens to him after he leaves this place. If the right person does not come along, euthanasia is also on my list. I'd rather that be his end than him ending up on the meat wagon.

Anonymous said...

The trainer I used to sort out my issues and those Pie and particularly Red had is a woman named Heater Burke. She's in Cedarburg. She's one of Mark Rashid's few student instructors worldwide, and treats both horses and people with respect. I think she'd be able to evaluate your boy and get to the bottom of his problem, and would honestly tell you what would be needed to get him right - she's very no nonsense. She ended up working with Red for 90 days - that's how long it took so that's what we did. I also went up and worked with her and my horses two days a week so it was also about training me. She typically works the horses 5 to 6 days a week. She's quite young - 20s - but has been riding with Mark for 10 years and is very skilled, particularly with horses who are troubled, and has a lot of experience starting horses.

E-mail me privately and I'll give you Heather's e-mail and phone number.

I do understand euthanasia as an option - my daughter had a rescue horse that was extremely people aggressive - she made great progress but it became clear the horse would never be comfortable around other people and couldn't be safe with any other handlers, or even barn workers - she attacked a lady who went in her stall to fill water buckets and it was a miracle the lady wasn't seriously injured or killed - so the difficult decision was made to euthanize.

Anonymous said...

Not sure my next comment made it - e-mail me privately (my contact info is on my blog) if you'd like the telephone number of my trainer in Cedarburg who worked with Red, Pie and me - she's a student of Mark Rashid's and is very good. I think she'd be able to get to the bottom of what's going on with him, and also work with you and your relationship to him.

Kara said...

Kate, thanks for the information, but I'm not interested in sending Griffin off for more training. I can't justify putting more money in him when I already have 3 good riding horses and my time is very limited for the next 2 years. I'll be lucky if I ride 4 times per month and keep up on hoof trimming. Even if a trainer got to the bottom and worked him through all his issues, I couldn't give him the riding time he needs to become solid once he came home. I'm looking for someone to take him on completely. As in I no longer have to worry about being the person responsible for making him a useful horse. That's a lot to ask and I haven't yet found anyone willing to take him on. There are plenty of people who would work with him if I was the paying party. I am afraid I just can't afford how much it might actually take to get him over this. I'm not trying to make money off him either...he is free to someone who I think might have a shot at getting through to him.

Anonymous said...

He's the sort of horse Mark Rashid might take on - that's how he gets most of his horses - people give them to him when they run out of other options.

Judi said...

Please consider clicker training. It changes the conversation. Trust comes easily and it can make a huge difference. I started my horse, Cole Train, with a clicker. In the past, I only used the normal methods. The difference in the way he acted with the training was amazing. He was very enthusiastic and engaged with the process--and is to this day.

There is a lot of information on line on clicker training horses, and I have several years worth of blogs on it explaining Cole's training from the beginning as well as my previous horse, Mingo, and a little bit about my sister's horse, Ranger. They were both older and already trained when we began with them.

Please consider it. It can be magical.

Kara said...

I use treats as positive reinforcement. My method is very similar to clicker training, but different, I use "good boy" more as my click. And he definitely is engaged with it, but not as much as he could be. My other gelding responded wonderfully with this method.

Kate, I would love if Mark Rashid would take Griffin. He lives kind of far away from me though.

Anonymous said...

As I was reading this post and you kept mentioning how he was more spooky/reluctant on his right side or going to the right, not wanting to flex to the right etc. I started thinking about your post about his eye injury. I searched for that post and it was his right eye. Do you think maybe his sight is a bit compromised on that side so he isn't seeing things for what they are (thinking its a predator) and gets so scared he blows up?

Kara said...

I've thought about that too. In that eye, his cornea is clear, except for a little tiny extension of the cloudiness into the very edge of the cornea on the lower rear part. It would not be in line with a rider up higher, I think. It's only a little cloudy and not completely opaque there. I'll see if I can get a picture to illustrate it next weekend. I think this right-sided uncomfortableness is not only something that has happened after his eye injury, but is something that he has always had. The first time I touched him with the bamboo pole was on his left side because he liked to tuck his right side up against the panel and away from me. I think this is just an issue that hasn't been addressed enough and has perpetuated, eventhough when I first started with the bamboo pole, I definately made sure to work both sides. The other issue with Griffin is that he does get claustrophobic feeling. I think he is so good on the ground because I am not right in his space all the time and when I am in his space, I give him breaks often and he can also just back away from me when he feels overwhelmed (which he does occasionally if I'm confusing him). With a rider, he can't get a break when he feels overwhelmed...the rider is always there. His only relief is if he unloads his rider in that instance. I think it is just a big example of the little places where he is still uncertain, even after all these years of working with him...

Anonymous said...

Kara - I'd suggest going ahead and emailing Mark to see if he would be interested. He travels the country a lot and might be coming through nearby at some time. Also, Heather Burke (listed on Mark's website) might also be interested in Griffin - it wouldn't hurt to ask her and mention that I sent you (not that that would necessarily help, but just to make a connection.