Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Less than One

As in, it took Robin less than one minute to halter Sham. He is back to feeling quite comfortable with us, and it is really starting to show.

We took both Sham and Steen to the outdoor arena. It was the first time I'd set foot in it, and I believe the same was true for all of us. It is pretty large, and most of the grass is solidly grown in. Just one spot on the end is a bit muddy.

In the arena we groomed them and did some groundwork. Sham was a little aloof in the groundwork department, but he had no problems when we let him graze and went to work with the curry combs and brushes.

The work ended with Sham coming into the indoor arena and getting a nice treat of chopped alfalfa. The big door to the arena was open, so I think that helped him feel more relaxed in there. But the way he is carrying himself now suggests that he is not worried about us causing him pain. That is a very, very good sign.

When we turned them out in the feed lot they were both interested in hanging out and getting more treats. Robin fed them a bit, and I snapped some photos. Sham and Steen are getting to be better buds than we thought. Sham is certainly in charge, but he doesn't needlessly push Steen around. And when Robin was giving them grain today, their noses were touching as they chomped away and pinning ears was the furthest thing from their minds.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Feeling Better

Today Robin and I went to the barn with more or less the same plan as yesterday: she catches Sham and continues to work with him while I grab Steen and do an easy ride.

But things didn't quite go as planned. Some things were better, others not so much. We knew Cal was being picked up this morning by her new owner (a cute 13 year old girl who will no doubt dote on her for a long while; we think it a great match). But we didn't know her leaving would stir up Doc so much. And while Doc and Steen are no longer in the same pasture, the distance wasn't enough to stop Doc's stressful cries from making Steen anxious.

In some ways it was amusing. Steen is very good at the ground work games we put him through. So good that he can do them in his sleep, or as the case may be, in times of stressful anxiety. So while he ran around with a bunch of energy, head held high in the air, emitting the occasional call, he also went through some of the fastest disengages and backs I've ever seen. I didn't know what else to do with him after that. So I just let him graze furiously on the strip while I hung out with him. He wasn't too stressed to eat, but he wasn't relaxed about it either. He would bite, lift his head to call, chew, and then step to bite again. Also amusing.

The good surprise was that Robin caught Sham in 10 minutes. And she probably could have done it faster, but she didn't want to push things. When the two of them joined Steen and I on the strip we thought it best if I had some positive hangout time with Sham while he grazed and Robin got Steen to relax. He is very, very much her horse. So I stood with Sham and alternated petting him with the stick and watching Robin and Steen.

Then we traded again. Robin proceeded to continue Sham's lessons (he's getting better at them everyday), and I did some more groundwork with Steen. He had stopped being anxious (mostly due to Robin's calming effect, but it also might have helped to have another horse nearby), so it was a little more fun running through the exercises with him. Still, doing groundwork with Steen can get boring. Even when I get the signals wrong he knows what I'm asking for and just does it. So after a few minutes I let him graze in the new grass (like me, he can always use the extra calories) and continued to watch Sham and Robin.

Things went great. And after we were done we put both of them out in the feed lot. Together. For the next month we'll be keeping Sham in the feed lot. Its amenities include less space, fewer horses, and daily interaction with people that will feed him yummy things. We think this will help with getting him to want to come to us.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Swap!

Guest blogger Robin here, posting on the Sham blog for the first time.

Today Brian and I decided to switch horses. Since "The Game" can take quite some time and only one person can effectively play, when we are at the barn together one person ends up playing and the other ends up watching. Watching is even slightly less fun than playing (and playing is not all that great). Today we decided I would catch Sham and Brian would use his barn time to hang out with Steen. So, I went into the pasture lot and Brian went into the feed lot. My horse walked up to him and his walked away from me. He groomed, tacked, and rode my horse while I caught and did groundwork with his.

Catching Sham went well today. I've started taking the stick out there with me, and having it helps a lot. For one thing, I can reach into his bubble and start interacting with him without having to first persuade him to let me get close, and I can reach back and rub his withers from quite a ways off, which always starts to make him relax. Second, it's a big help when Sham goes to one of the bale rings. I've found if I approach his head with my arm and the stick held straight out to the side, it makes him think better of turning his butt to me, and he'll usually side-step a few times and then move calmly off the bale without the undesirable act of pointing his rear in my direction.

Last time I caught Sham we hope he learned that catching can be totally exhausting for him. He can run around like mad, stir up the whole herd, gallop and evade and try everything, but I'm still there pestering him once he out of breath and sweaty. The only time he gets any relief is when he's near me, letting me touch him. Today we hope he learned that he can choose to make catching be pretty easy. It took about half an hour for me to get his halter on, and most of that time we were in close proximity, with me petting and soothing him. I've found going very, very slowly from the start makes the whole process faster, so I wasn't pushing it even when things were going well.

Once I did halter him, he was again a bit difficult to get going. As usual, though, once I unstuck his feet with some quick disengages and backs, he gave up resisting.

I took him to the strip of grass between the pasture and the cornfield where we did more groundwork. He was even more relaxed today than yesterday, to the point that I had to get his attention a few times by swinging the stick in pretty large arcs in the air behind his butt (not actually hitting him). Once I got him turned 'on' things went well. He is already learning to give me the responses I'm looking for with most of the exercises. I also made sure to include plenty of downtime when I just let him stand quietly so he can hopefully start learning that being with people isn't work all the time.

I did about half an hour of groundwork with Sham and then put him away. In the meantime Brian had a very positive day with Steen, so all in all we came away feeling good.

Tomorrow I will (hopefully) catch Sham again, have another day of easy groundwork and then instead of putting him back with his herd, we're going to put him in the feed lot with Steen for a week or two. We've decided the addition of a once-a-day snack to his routine might be a good way to include a positive daily interaction with a person that is neither demanding nor particularly interested in him personally. We also think he'll be easier to catch without his whole posse acting as his wingmen. Let's just hope he doesn't start picking on Steen...

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Game Continues

And on Tuesday Sham scored his first point. We were 45 minutes into a rather frustrating round of the game when things started to look better. I could see he was fatigued, and from a dozen feet off he put his head down and calmly walked right towards me. I let him sniff around me and then slowly started to rub his face with the halter (he doesn't love the halter wrapped around his face, but he does love these kinds of face scratches). I must have made a move or done something he didn't like, though, because he quickly turned his head to the side and bit my right forearm.

Not hard, but hard enough to leave a little purple circle and a little pain. He had been giving these testing nips to me all day. But none of them actually touched me until this one. On some level he must have known this wasn't a good idea, because before I could respond with a smack to the face he took off.

I was frustrated enough that afternoon that I had already resigned myself to the fact that I might not catch him (which is a faux pas in the game, one must always succeed, that is how it works). But I really couldn't let the score end with Sham 1, Brian 0. So I sauntered after him.

And he was not that happy about it. So he went to the bales to eat and ignore me. The bales present the biggest obstacle for me in the game, but I was a little angry about the bite and mustered some resolve to get close to him and move him. I made sure to move slowly and in a non-threatening manner, though. But Sham noticed. He started pinning his ears at me. Not a good sign. Then when he moved to bite again I smacked him in the face with the halter. He turned back to the bale to think about that one for a second. Then he tried it again.

I didn't even have time to hit him. I just raised my left hand and Sham about jumped out of his skin. He turned away from me, gave Leonard a huge bite on the back, and then galloped to the other side of the pasture. I counted the score as Sham 1, Brian 1 and decided to leave it at that.

Robin has been having much better success with Sham than me. She had a positive day on Monday, and another fairly positive day on Wednesday. On Thursday we both had the afternoon off and we thought it might be best if I watched Robin do her thing and see what I could learn.

More than once I was happy to be on the other side of the fence. There was lots of frisky horse running from the entire herd. And at one point Sham popped his hind end a little closer to my wife than I found comfortable. But she was unflustered by it. She is the most patient and thorough trainer in the state of Iowa. Perhaps I'm biased, but no one has yet shown me they are better.

Thursday's version of the game was the longest yet, 80 minutes to get the halter on. And after that Robin had to spend many more minutes to get his feet to move forward. But the day ended positively. She has a nice write up about it, including some not-highly-exciting video.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Game

On a sunny, windy day, I trudged out to the pasture in muck boots, rope halter in hand. Robin graciously hung out in the airlock and watched as I picked my way to Sham in the far corner of the pasture. He was nibbling at the first real grass blades coming up.

As I hoped, he picked his head up and walked right to me. I remained relaxed and let him sniff my hands and jacket. After a few moments I stepped toward his withers just a bit to scratch his neck. Success. Then I reached for the withers and he stepped away. I stood up and stared.

And thus the game began. I did my best to slowly stay within 10 feet of him and stared right at him until he turned to face me. Then I would release the pressure. If his eyes drifted somewhere else, I applied more pressure. He didn't like it, but he wasn't totally bothered by it either. What bothered him was my persistence. I never let him rest. If he moved, I followed and stared. He only received release when he would come up to me.

He figured the rules out rather quickly (he is a very smart horse) and obliged me by coming up and getting a few pets. In the beginning he didn't hang out too long. He'd investigate for as long as he felt necessary, then he'd wander away. I simply stared and followed. A few times he got agitated enough to run around somewhat vigorously and even do some rolling. I kept the pressure on. He kept coming to me. Eventually we got in some nice rounds of big pets and lots of praise, but no treats. Not yet.

After one such round I offered him the rope halter. I had unclipped the lead rope and draped it around my shoulder. I thought this might be easier for me to work with and less of a threat to Sham. It was. He let me slide the halter over his nose with no trouble and even lowered his head a bit so I could tie it on.

And then he walked off again. No big deal, I thought, I had scored the first point. So I followed and stared as he wandered around and eventually settled at the round bale. This caused me my first problem. The bales are big, difficult to move around, and there are always other horses there. And Sham was not uncomfortable enough with my staring to not eat. He didn't like it, but he kept eating. So my first thought was to get him off the bales, and I think I started doing this a bit too aggressively. I could move him, but he would usually present his backside to me. I didn't feel comfortable with that. It was supposed to be me making him uncomfortable, not the other way around.

Robin could see how this was playing out from her chilly place at the fence. She suggested that when he is on the bale I approach his head/neck in a very non-threatening, head down manner. This worked much better. I could get him to move, but he was not physically threatened by me.

So the game continued. Partially on the bale, and partially off the bale. Eventually I got him to stay in the open area, and I felt much better about this. I initially thought the open space would be the hardest, but I came to take comfort when we were isolated. I could be much more effective, and he was much more uncomfortable. He wandered over to a salt lick, perhaps thinking it was as safe as a bale.

Not quite. I could casually walk up to him, pet his neck, pet his withers. When he pulled away, I stared. When he came back, I smiled and relaxed and looked down. When he went for the salt lick again Robin suggested I try to clip the rope on. I took hold of the halter, gently pulled his head up, and clipped it on. As I led him to the gate I could tell he was exhausted. Not physically exhausted, but mentally exhausted.

As a reward I worked to keep things easy. We stood in the airlock and gave him pets and some grain. He was a little pully and fidgety, but I would disengage his hindquarters and then he would stand facing me. After just a few minutes of this I put him back in the pasture. He was still a tad fidgety, but I got him to stand and he was very quiet as I took off his halter.

At that point relief must have swelled through all 15.3 hands of him. He took off in a gallop, charged past one round bale, and then leaped over another pile of hay that was at least 2.5 feet tall and equally as round. He cleared it by more than a foot and continued to blow off some steam in the pasture by running some very tight circles. It was fun to watch.

Since I was able to halter him, and then later on clip the lead rope to the halter, I consider the score to be Brian 2, Sham 0. Of course, the game took a full 70 minutes. I hope the next one is shorter.

Vacation Homework

Sham has been a little tough lately. He is certain that he is the boss, and as a result, I can't catch him. So in my frustration (which nicely coincided with some vacation time in sunny Arizona) I went back to some of the training books we have around the house to see what I could learn. Downunder Horsemanship is my favorite. It is clearly written and full of great information. Plus the two horses Anderson uses as test cases are way worse than Sham, so that always makes me feel good.

This time the book didn't have exactly what I wanted. Re-familiarizing myself with being the boss and how to start the groundwork training really helped; I love the apply continual pressure until you get the desired response and then reward the horse with release concept. But he didn't talk about catching a horse, or how to do this without already having a rope halter and lead line connecting the two of you.

After a little Google searching I did find some good and not so good articles on catching a horse in the pasture. And all the good ones talked about applying pressure and rewarding with the release of said pressure. The pressure is simply standing in a tall and deliberate manner and staring your horse in the eyes. If he turns away, you slowly follow in a roundabout way (being sure not to actually chase him). If he takes a step toward you, release the pressure by relaxing and taking your eyes off him. Eventually he will learn that it is more comfortable to go to you than it is to stay away. As Anderson says, "make it easy for your horse to choose correctly."

Some people call this the mirror game, staring down, or even walking off your horse. I'm simply going to call it 'the game.' I'm sure there are other games I will end up playing with Sham, but until he willingly comes to me for haltering, this will be our game. And it could take awhile, but I'm excited to try it out. And I'm curious to see how the time off affected Sham. I'm thinking the R and R will have a positive result, but we'll see.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Shock to the System

Thursday's spook near the gate turned out to be worse than we thought. What actually happened is the charge in the electric wire arced through the puddle, zapping Sham through all four feet. I was fine in my rubber boots. I was lucky in that all the work I did with Sham after that was positive and pain free.

Nevertheless, we discovered on Saturday morning that he would go nowhere near the gate because it had a large puddle on either side of it. So with my parents hoping to spend some time with him, it was rather disappointing to have to leave him in the pasture. I was able to get close to him and feed him grain, but there was no way he was letting me put his halter on. So we went and got Steen instead.

On Sunday we unplugged the electric fence and received some help from the barn owner. As a barn owner with decades of experience she was very helpful in catching Sham. She does have a different training philosophy than Robin and I, though, and we fear some of the post-catch antics caused a little backsliding in Sham.

Today was dreary and foggy, and Robin and I went out to the barn with the intention of making Sham want to hang out with us. I spent much of today reading about horses and watching some rather interesting training videos. In the back of my mind I hoped Sham would be happy to see me and come right over. But that was not to be.

Thankfully we had a strategy to work off of. I walked around Sham with a bucket of grain and made him very, very interested in me. I started by walking up to him, feeding him a little bit, and then walking away. We had some really good following this way. He let me get in lots of pets, too.

Then we stopped and got a very, very muddy Steen. He was also a well behaved Steen, which was nice. So the two of us double groomed for quite some time, but there was no getting all the mud off of him. We put him back out to wait for his dinner.

Then I went for round two with Sham. Initially he wasn't as interested in playing the follow game. But I started walking up to him and then past him. He didn't like this and started following almost immediately. I kept this up, and after a couple of feeds he had really hooked on to me. His body language was relaxed, he let me pet him all over, and he had almost no visible fear in him. I ended the day with one final treat and then walked away from him without looking back. He was still curious, certainly a good sign.

Sham is definitely going to challenge me, but in the end I think we will have a stronger relationship because of it. And in some ways it is a blessing to be forced to do this kind of work early on and not after some larger disaster.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Back to Riding

Exactly one week after Sham got his teeth done I decided to see how he liked the bit, and if things went well I hoped for a nice ride, too.

He continues to be great coming out of the pasture. He is already in the habit of pooping and then coming up to me. He came right out into the airlock and let me halter him up. At that point he let the mud, water, and fence spook him. To be fair, he did receive a shock from the fence earlier today. Robin and our friend Gay were hanging out and feeding him. Robin gently warned him a few times about the fence, but he bumped it with his nose anyways. That sent him running, and it left him keyed up for a good part of the afternoon.

So off Sham went to the other side of the airlock. Spraying me with a decent amount of mud, too. I did get him to come back to me with no problem. I do feel lucky that he likes me.

Inside we got to our usual groundwork routine. He was nervous, but I am getting better at working hard and being effective, and he responds right to it. And since I was planning on asking more of him today, I followed Robin's advice to do intermittent ground work throughout the tacking up process. So we groomed, put on his new saddle (which looks quite good, by the way), then worked on more groundwork, then picked hooves, put in the bit (he was not thrilled about this, but he acquiesced), and then did more groundwork.

At about this time something in the arena made a zapping noise and Sham had his third big bolt of the day. Sham's pretty big, you can hardly see me in the picture below, so his bolts are also big.

This time I was a little bit more prepared, and I hung on to the lead rope. He sheepishly came back to me for lots of pets. I did my best to remain calm, but I was a wee bit nervous. So after more groundwork, Robin offered to hop on.

And he was pretty good. He thought he hated the bit at first, but then he realized that it actually wasn't that uncomfortable. So we are thinking his mouth is close to healed. She just walked around on him for a minute or two and then I climbed up. He was the best he has been so far. We walked lots of figure eights and then did a little bit if easy trotting. He has such a big trot, and he's not used to the indoor arena, so it was rough at times. But we still both remained calm. And I was happy that I didn't need to test out my new helmet, which is rather comfy.

This weekend my parents are coming up for some riding. And with the warm weather forecast, we should be able to get outside in the near future. I think both Sham and myself will be more relaxed on the strip.

Monday, March 1, 2010

After the Dentist

While I was up in Wisconsin for the Birkebeiner, Robin graciously took care of Sham for the vet visit (I really have an amazing wife). He was mostly good for the appointment, but still I worried that he would hold onto a few bad memories when I went out to see him next. Afterall, I've only had him for about two and a half weeks.

But when I trudged out to the pasture today he looked up and came right over to me. I had carrots in my pocket and a bucket of grain mixed with alfalfa. He was more than happy to venture into the airlock for snacks. And after much chomping and petting, I haltered him up with very little difficulty (he only pulled away once).

Today he led like a dream. It was almost as if the dental visit never happened. But after he was inside for about 60 seconds the worries came flooding back. So I concentrated on our leading exercises. We did lots of easy, short, sharp turns and I gave him many pets and words of encouragement. Within a few minutes we had some nice and relaxed head carriage going. We slowly worked into a few of our other groundwork drills, and I was back to feeling surprised at how well he behaved given his past visit indoors.

We finished up our evening with some grooming and tacking. He is getting more comfortable with the tie stall and isn't creeping forward nearly as much. And he picks his feet up like he's standing on hot coals. It is amazingly fast. Sometimes it is so fast I'm not ready for it.

After the untacking and final grooming I left him in the pasture as the sun dropped in the west. He turned down the come-ons of one of the pasture mares and hung out with Robin and I instead. Sham is turning into quite the companion. I can't wait to see where we will go this spring.