The past few months I've been working on and off with a client's left brain introvert(LBI) gelding with some sassy rearing and cow hopping fits. He's great on the ground minus the occasional head toss and snaked neck when doing circles; but under saddle he gets quite upset about asking him to move forward away from his precious grass. Not that he does anything "big" by any means, but it's a battle I'd rather not leave for his 2 little girls to deal with. He's a very sweet soul; but he's learned what he can get away with.
There are many ways to approach this issue, but I think it comes down to 2 basic values of what you'll decide: encouragement to do the right thing, or punishment for doing the wrong thing. Now I know it seems weird, how do you encourage a horse to not rear? When it's simple really. Go back to the basics. Instead of trying to fix the rearing while you are already in the predicament of a rearing horse; you need to find a way to encourage him to do the right thing. So he would never even think of rearing in the first place.
So this is where I decided to implement a treating system for positive reinforcement. I also invoked a "no eating grass" rule while we are working rule; so eating encouragement only ever comes from me. In one ground lesson I taught him how awesome I am with my treats; always treating him after he had tried to give the right answer to me, and always being very specific on how he gains a treat from my hands. No mugging, no pushing, no teeth. Only when he was relaxed and standing out of my space would he get a treat to his nose. This is also where I start "tag up" training. Basically before they can have a treat, they have to touch their nose to the top of my out stretched hand. It's how they tell me they are done and are ready for a treat. I stumbled on this behaviour by accident when working with my first horse, a RBE. Now it's a ritual in our work and he uses it as a way to show me he's done thinking about something outside of us too. He'll spook, be gone for a few moments and then when he comes back to connect, he touches his nose to my hand and says "Ok mom, what are we doing next? I'm ready."
This starts very simply as what you would ask from them when you are playing "join up". Every time your horse comes to you, you reach a palm down, gentle hand for them to touch, and as soon as they do; you lower that hand, wait a few deep breaths and then offer a treat. This allows for 3 very important aspects of trust to occur; you offered a physical connection, a spiritual connection and then a sensational treat. During this time remember to defend your space, once you drop that hand your horse needs to stay standing where they came to a stop in the first place. They cannot walk in to you to get a treat, it has to come to them. This is also a great time to use a "rest" as a reward too. Maybe you just did a 1/4 mile run around and it's time for a breather. Hanging out with you is a great place to have a well deserved rest, and it strengthens your ability to motivate your horse for other things. A horse is much more motivated to work for someone who will let them breathe after a hard work out, rather than a drill sergeant asking for the same boring work over and over.
Back to our LBI in training. I got him knowing to tag up and how to respect my space to receive a treat. These were two huge achievements for him; he was interested in listening to me! That made teaching much easier. From there we progressed very fast; he was no longer herd bound in any matter when we went missioning away from his buddies, his spook response was to look at what was scary then look to me for direction and tag up (which was always rewarded with a treat and a new objective), he even went for a walk through a puddle (after some serious thought to self preservation, and followed by a loving reward).
When we went back for some liberty work in the round pen, I noticed a change in him. He was still a bit snarky to one side (though that could very well be his weaker side needing some muscle work), but he was finally in tune with me, not finding ways to fight against me or ignore me. We could walk, stop, turn, trot at liberty; he was interested and motivated. Perfection. He stopped leaping up into transitions, stopped snaking his head and getting angry with me, and instead looked at me with perked ears like "ok lady, what's next?" And best of all, he rarely if ever, tried to reach down to eat grass while we were working!
That was the best part, because now I know when I go to saddle him again we'll have a plan and an expectation already set in place. No eating grass during work time, and you'll be rewarded for working. And better yet, this is a relaxed and willing partner! He isn't going to tense up and wait to be punished for eating grass during our lessons because he'll be motivated to work instead. He knows that I give good for good, and wait for good to happen patiently. I won't ever punish him for doing the wrong thing, but instead continue to ask different questions until I get the right thing. And then always reward that decision for the better!
I will update you all next week on how our saddling goes.
PS, this client of mine has the two cutest mini donkeys in the world! We got to play "donkey join up" as we tried to bring them in for deworming. It's so interesting to see their natural instincts at play with response to us, and how bloody smart they are! After some fine tuning to my body language, we got them to relax in a corner and allow us to cuddle and deworm them. So. Cute!
As always, keep on keepin' on!