Thursday, April 27, 2017

Obstacle Preparation Clinic

I did a demonstration for a Horseman's Association Expo a few weeks ago, talking and demonstrating how one may go about preparing a horse for an obstacle challenge. I posted a pre-event article on the basis for the demo and mini-clinic.  As I began, I said most of us have came to understand the process called desensitization and while some people don't like the word desensitization (I'm not sure I do after all these years) as it connotes dulling a horse, but I asked everyone to think of it as not taking something away from the horse, but instead giving the horse some time - just trying to put a pause in the fear reflex.

We go about desensitization through use of Pressure, Release and a pause in between before starting to apply pressure again. I went about explaining that the pressure we put on a horse is usually physical but it's always mental pressure as well. That's just fine because what we are trying to do is to get through to the horse on a mental level, to get him to think - again a pause, in between receiving a stimulus and acting out of pure instinct which is usually to be wary if not outright fearful and sometimes that results in spooking or bolting. And the timing in the release is critical to getting the horse to understand what he did in order to get the release, and a pause after the release of pressure is critical as well for the horse to understand that lesson.

One easy way to explain pressure, the release, the timing of that release, and a pause to get that settled in a horse is though getting a horse good about handling his head and dropping it on cue. On a halter broke horse it only takes a minute or two to see a big difference in the horse and that's something observers can understand pretty quick as well. This keeps their interest while I can get horseback and demonstrate asking a horse to drop his head - get his nose vertical. I ask for softness a couple times showing an accurate timing of the release then explain that if the release wasn't timed right the horse won't understand how he got that release.

Then I ask the viewers to watch what happens when I don't give a release. So I'll ask the horse for vertical flexion again and stay in contact with the horse's nose (or it can be the bit if you are using a bit - I was riding a hackamore). Most horse's not well acquainted with vertical flexion will root their nose out. If that happens I'll release contact and ask what the horse learned, and that of course was that he can root his nose out to escape the pressure. Then I ask the horse for vertical flexion again, staying in contact, and even if the horse gives at some level I don't give him a release and make him search for the answer.  Usually horse's will start to back out of the pressure.  I release then then ask again what the horse learned. Obviously the horse thinks that backing is the right answer - that's where he got the release.   One more time I'll ask the horse for vertical flexion as he tries to root his nose out then backing to escape the pressure.  I'll stay in contact, he will eventually stop backing and seeking the right answer will drop his nose to some degree - that's where I'll give the release.  I explained I'll give him 10 seconds or so to think about it and try it again a few times, each with a pause in between, and have the crowd watch closely as the horse rapidly gets better about getting soft when I ask him for it.  I think is a effective way to demonstrate pressure and release.    

I explained that it is common problem where people are handling horses to put pressure on a horse and when they get a different reaction then they want they'll release the pressure to get a better position or to choke up on a rope or reins, only to not realize that they have already began getting the horse to learn something wrong.

It's helpful to demonstrate lateral flexion as well in the same manner as vertical flexion.

Overall I spent about 90 minutes demonstrating how pressure, release and a pause may be used and I went into initial rope training a halter broke horse; introducing a slicker to a horse; getting a horse to accept something draped across his head blocking his vision (blindfold training); crossing a ground tarp' and dragging a nylon bag full of tin cans. I spent some time explaining that before you go about dragging things, the horse has to be good about the feel and friction of ropes across his butt, hocks and heels.

All along I thought that most of the people attending the Expo would have heard about Pressure and Release at some point, and have their own opinions on desensitization.  I thought that I would likely be just presenting a slightly different way to look at it and just maybe some methods they could use, but the amount and type of questions I received afterward as people came into the arena made  me think that the foundations of natural horsemanship still have a long way to go before they are common knowledge for average horse owners.

I left the crowd with asking them to never to punish or jerk on our horses for spooking or having fearful behavior - they are just doing what they think they need to, and that we all owe it to our horses to give them the time to necessary to accept things. In the long run it's going to make a better, more confident and safer horse.

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