Friday, May 30, 2014
Lately I've been having second thoughts about my relationship with Starbuck. On the face of it, things seem pretty great - she neighs at me when I get to the stable, she comes when I call, she generally sticks her own head into the halter, she's much more affectionate (well, at least more tolerant of affection) than she was a year ago, she's obviously comfortable with my presence and she generally behaves quite well under saddle. And I would say that 80% of the time, I'm really proud of what a well-adjusted mare I have.
Of the other 20%, part of that is just basic mare/fillyness like screeching or pinning her ears at other horses when they get in her personal space, which I'm honestly not too worried about - I kind of like her bitchy. But there's also a residual rebellious streak where she'll just decide to try to do whatever she wants, then I say no, then she says "you're not the boss of me", then I say "wanna bet" and it escalates into a "who's the stubbornest of them all" battle. For example on the ground when she wants to run around me in the other direction instead of calmly walking by something scary or when there's a yummy looking patch of grass she suddenly veers off towards. Or while riding - she'll very deliberately cut a corner or go from a canter to a full out gallop interspersed with rodeo bucks or decide that she just doesn't feel like trotting.
But what really lurks in the corner of my mind, slowly eating away at my confidence is her spookiness - it's improved but is still definitely there. Something I've read again and again about spooky horses is the idea that if they have a good enough leader, they generally trust this person not to put them in dangerous situations and thus don't tend to spook. If this is the case, I obviously haven't gained Starbuck's unconditional trust yet. And maybe I never will, and maybe like Marina claims, sometimes she spooks "for fun" or at least as a momentary distraction from the hard work of a lesson. But I do think that reducing the amount of conflict between us and increasing her trust in me are two things definitely worth working toward.
I was trying to explain the conflict thing to my husband this morning giving the example of me trying to train her not to scratch her neck and chest against the tying post. At first I just started punishing her ("ssht" noise, then a louder "ssht", then a "ssht" with a slap) every time she scratched herself, which worked OK as long as I was there, but as soon as I walked away she would start scratching herself again. And of course it makes me the wicked witch of the West - always nagging and saying "no". But then I thought, instead of telling her NOT to scratch herself, what if I gave her something else TO DO which prevented her from scratching? So I've been reinforcing her early training of "stand still" and now when I tie her at the posts I back her up a few feet until she can't reach the actual post anymore, and tell her to "stand still". If she moves forward, I simply back her up and ask her to stand still again, and if she stays where she is I praise her periodically with a "good girl" or by giving her sporadic cookies. And it's working pretty well - I can now leave the tying post and as long as she knows (or thinks) I'm paying attention to her, she'll stay where I put her. As soon as I start talking to someone she moves back and starts scratching again, but as far as I can tell this strategy is much more effective than constantly punishing her for something I can't blame her for in the first place (poor thing, being itchy sucks).
So I basically want more of this, which I think will improve our relationship, reduce my "pigheaded frustrated dominant hag" moments and perhaps eventually will even lead to her increasing her trust in me. The trouble is that it's easier for me to be reactive than proactive and I'm not terribly creative about finding positive ways to structure her behavior, so I got an e-book yesterday called "The Power of Positive Horse Training: Saying "yes" to your horse" by Sarah Blanchard. So far the theory seems pretty sound and there are a bunch of different exercises to discover the rewards you have to offer your horse (neither food nor clickers are featured which is a plus as far as I'm concerned) and to learn how and when to give them appropriately. I already have plans to spend some quality time finding which spots she likes to be rubbed on can be reached from the saddle, to be able to give her a good reward while riding. If I find something which works particularly well, I'll share it here.
By the way we're progressing well on the Spanish Walk front - for a couple of weeks she just picked up her feet but finally she figured out the "striking" motion and we're currently practicing this. When I can get her to do the striking with just a voice command ("march"), we'll try to add some forward motion. So one-two-march-march, or if that's too complicated, one-two-three-march.
Also lately I've been riding her with a running martingale so she can't throw her head up and avoid contact with the bit - Marina recommended using one for a few months and like everything else, we'll try it and see how it goes. Try different things :-)