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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

US Border Patrol Horse Patrol Seizures of Marijuana

Border Patrol agents with the Ajo Station (Arizona) Horse Patrol Unit on Sunday, March 12, discovered 340 pounds of marijuana that smugglers had abandoned near Ajo.  According to a news release from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agents conducting surveillance saw 10 people walking in the desert, and the horse patrol was dispatched to the group's last known vacation. Agents found eight bundles of marijuana worth more than $170,000.  

The smugglers were not caught.  This time they did not shoot at the agents as they ran away.  The marijuana was taken to the Ajo Station for processing.  And the Border Patrol still will be using horses, mostly Mustangs gentled by Federal Prisoners, to access remote areas in the desert that are inaccessible to motorized vehicles or restricted as is the case of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Horses continue to fit a niche in patrolling where vehicles cannot go or observation devices cannot see.  Horses are quiet and can be intimidating once a horse patrol encounters a group. 
Smugglers, both illegal immigrant and narcotics smugglers, exploit remote and rugged areas, sometimes taking days to cross the border and access a series of safe houses, transportation cells including pre-arranged load ups on Interstate 10.  See the solar panel in the photo above right?  Helps re-charge cell phones for communications between groups and transportation cells.  It is common for now for illegal aliens being smuggled to be made to carry a burlap bundled load of marijuana made into a backpack to help pay for their trip and increase smuggler profits. 

The majority of the American population has no idea of the situation along the Southwest border.  Rampant corruption along governmental officials in Mexico, from local to federal law enforcement, to municipal and state governors continue to set up an environment that is conducive and prosperous to smugglers.   There is a corridor between Tucson and Gila Bend Arizone running North to Interstate 10 and further into the Case Grande and Phoenix areas that are highly active.  See map at left. 
Arroyos (dry river beds), hills, heavy cactus and brush all providing concealment and cover for smugglers, as well as narco scouts reporting on law enforcment presence and activity in the area all conspire to make it very difficult to detect and interdict illegal activity.  This is where the thick boned, hard footed Mustangs excel and earn their feed.
Bandit crews, preying on illegal alien traffic as well as ripping off drug loads are active in the area as well.  These bandit groups are heavily armed and have no compunction about shooting at American Law Enforcement officers as the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.   In fact, the 5th and last bandit responsible for killing Agent Terry was apprehended by Mexican authorities a few days ago. Hopefully he'll soon be joining his criminal partners in a U.S. prison soon.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Preparing Your Horse for an Obstacle Challenge

On Saturday 8 April 2017, if you are in the area please join me at Livery Arena, 898 Horizon Blvd, Socorro, Texas, where I've been invited by the Lower Valley Horsemen's Association (LVHA) to give a demonstration of Preparing Your Horse for an Obstacle Challenge. I'll pretty much be following what I've written below.

If you don't like the word "desensitization" then you can substitute it for "just getting the horse used to something", because that's all it is, but like most anything it can be overdone.

Obstacle challenges can be conducted in an arena or field - hence the name Arena Obstacle Challenge (AOC), or on trail courses like the Competitive Trail Challenges (CTC's) ran by Equine Trail Sports (ETS) or the now defunct American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA).

The Extreme Cowboy Association (EXCA) also has a form of obstacle challenges however these are time based, as well as a score on horsemanship and performance, evaluated by judges, and are not really a forum for novice riders.

Not all the things you have to do on horseback at an Obstacle Challenge is associated with a physical obstacle like a tarp on the ground, or bridge or any other horse eating apparatus. Some of the tasks may be a maneuver such as demonstrating a turn on the fore hand, or side pass a certain distance, or even demonstrating a walk to trot transition.

The process of getting your horse sacked on obstacles is, in my mind, pretty much the same as preparing them for a safe trail ride. However, I think the purpose for working a horse to accept an obstacle is lost on some people. If I set up a big blue tarp on the ground and work my horses on crossing it willingly, I am not, at least primarily, preparing them to cross blue tarps anywhere I ride - I am instead working on getting them to think instead of just reacting to their survival instinct, which is pretty much fine tuned to a razor's edge. It's how you go about doing it that makes the difference.

One process is basically to wait on the horse, building on small levels of acceptance or tries. If I'm riding a horse towards something that is giving them anxiety or making them nervous, it will be evident because of the horse's slowed gait and head set (head goes up) and ear position (ears are forward), the stiffness in his body from the head/neck and throughout his body. The horse will almost always cease forward movement at some point. Sometimes the horse will lower his head and maybe snort, may be looking left and right nervously or even turn left or right to get away from the scary object.  The rider first has to remain relaxed,....ready but relaxed,... because of the horse will pick up on your physical tension if you become scared that he may spook or bolt. The rider at this point needs to keep the horse faced to the offending object. Don't let the horse turn around and put his butt towards the object - this is defensive behavior.  I'm not too concerned about him backing up.  If he backs up and I can keep him straight, pointing towards the object, then we'll just start from there.       I know, easier said than done, but move the horse's front and back ends independently to keep him as straight as you can.  

The horse will, at some point - maybe 10 or 30 seconds or maybe 2 or 3 minutes which should make no difference to you - will get more comfortable with where he's at. You'll feel his body tension reduce, his ears will rotate around, he will look around - this time not looking for an escape route. The mistake riders will make is to misjudge the horse's comfort level at this point and urge him forward before he's ready. If you are sure of the horse beginning to accept the object then you can ask him to move a step or two forward, but don't insist.  The horse will usually move forward when his curiosity is bigger than his fear, just open the door for him.

As the horse moves forward, if he stops again it is because he needs to, let him do so. Rider's will get frustrated at this point then push him forward when the horse is not ready. I've done this many times, much to my regret, as bullying the horse across an obstacle does nothing for him. If you fore him across the horse will not think "Oh, I was worried about nothing!", instead he will think "Whew, that was a close one - I almost got killed!"

The point about letting the horse stop on his own, and proceeding when he is ready, is getting the horse to think rather than to react. Give him the time to think and to absorb that lesson - this is one meaning of waiting on your horse. Another example of waiting on your horse is in the picture at left, letting the horse descend on a short hill at his own pace. I asked him to walk down.  He hesitated, then moved sideways with short steps trying to figure it out.  I let him do so.  My reins are slack and he doesn't have to contend with any pressure created from me, only the task in front of him.

Another way to get a horse comfortable with an obstacle is at the early outset of the horse showing some anxiety, ride around the obstacle in a circle, or riding back and forth in a line parallel from the obstacle.

 When you turn or change directions, turn the horse into the obstacle. Do this back and forth with some energy stopping the horse at the closet point to the obstacle after you have turned him to face it. Then do circles or back and forth again this time a little closer, repeat the stopping and facing at the closet point. He'll discover that his rest point is closet to the obstacle and start getting used to it.

A common obstacle for challenges is dragging a bag of noise making tin cans, see pictures above. It is the rare horse who has never done something of the sort to accept a rider pulling a noisy bag towards them or dragging it behind them.

From the beginnings of getting a horse halter broke, I begin spinning lead ropes around a horse as I am leading them on a halter. Even the spookiest horses will soon get comfortable at this. Start as far away as you can then get gradually closer based on the horse's acceptance. A mistake people make is to stop spinning the rope if the horse spooks. Or they stop whatever they are doing.  You are then teaching the horse that moving away or avoiding it makes that pressure go away. Instead, once the horse stops his feet moving then reward him by stopping the pressure of the spinning rope. Give him a minute to absorb what just happened then begin again. As you go along, ask for more. More maybe asking him to show signs of relaxation - head drops, ears relaxed, body tension gone, cocked back foot, etc., before you remove the pressure.   

Then you can proceed to flip the rope over his body, around his front legs, around his butt and back end all desensitizing the horse to this feel. This is really necessary in case your horse turns as you are dragging or pulling a object and the rope pulls taunt across his butt or hocks. I've seen a rider start to drag a bag towards them only to have the horse turn into the rope placing it across his butt causing him to bolt forward and rider get un-seated. This type of desensitizing is also necessary to prepare your horse for getting caught in wire - you sure don't him blowing if that happens.

One method for helping a nervous horse overcome fear or anxiety on a drag bag or similar object is to have someone pull the object walking away from you so you can follow along on horseback. This helps to build the horse's confidence. Just like you would do when exposing a horse to cattle for the first time, as cows will move away from you just like horses in a herd will move away from a dominant horse. As you follow the dragging object you can get closer and closer, have your helper stop so you can let him approach and drop his nose onto the object. It may take several stop and go's, but you'll be able to tell when your horse becomes relaxes, even becomes disinterested, understanding that the bag is no threat. I would do this first before I would attempt dragging something towards him.   

Much has been written about building a partnership with your horse. I have no doubt it is a partnership, where you develop a level of comfort between each other, and contrary to what some people believe, actually mutual trust.   It is a fragile thing. You have to protect it. But it is not an equal partnership. You have to be the leader. In the absence of a leader, the horse will step up and assume that role. And if you ask the horse, he will always reserve that right! As this pertains to doing obstacles, one description of leadership is to get someone to think your idea is theirs then get them to execute like it was their idea. I think this is kind of leadership most, if not all, horse to human relationships need.