Mrs. Shoes replied to my email. As I expected, MerryLegs was never a barn sour horse at his Canadian home. She described how she gentled him by touching him all over with the whip and the rope. This was excellent news. Since I planned to do it, too, it would just be a review of something he already knew. Evidently, everything I was experiencing was a new behavior, my theory was probably correct—and the good news—it isn’t very ingrained in his head. Hopefully, it will not be that hard to change.
It was full steam ahead with my plan.
After doing some lounging in the indoor arena, I asked MerryLegs to stand. No problem, there. Next step—reviewing whip touches to prove to him that I had no plan of hurting or scaring him. That went very smoothly. He never flinched.
I then wanted to teach him to go forward to a hock tap. I remembered that it took a long time for Cole to figure it out at first, so I was prepared. I tapped and tapped and tapped and tapped. It was getting really boring. He finally took a step. Click/treat/ repeat. It took forever each time I tried. I started to cheat, even though I knew it was wrong. I gently pulled the lead rope and caused him to take a step. It worked. It started to do it that way. I would tap, and when that didn’t work, I would pull the rope. He didn’t seem to get the hock part at all, but he was getting the lead rope, and that was a good thing.
By now, I was totally bored, and he probably was, too. I went on to the next step, even though I didn’t really have the first step. I tapped his rump. To my pleasure, he didn’t step backwards but forwards. I had just read an article about clicker training that explained that when you ask a new thing with a different cue, a horse will often experiment with something similar to what he was just doing—most likely figuring it was working before, why not try it? Since that is what I wanted, anyway, I was thrilled. We practiced that a lot, of course. Since it was working, neither one of us were bored.
I then headed outside. He wasn’t too bad going out the arena door, but he did stall out. I used my new technique, and it worked! He wasn’t going backwards. I headed for the loop in the back of the property. We did have some issues a few times where the old behavior returned, but when he was backing, I kept tapping. When he went forwards, I stopped. I think he was experimenting to see what would work. I thought we would get to the loop, but he saw a pair of deer in that direction, and that totally put him off. I wasn’t prepared for a fight—I never am. I turned back to the barn, passed it up—and he marched right past and down the driveway—the place where I struggled so much the day before. Wow! I gave him a handful of treats at the street and brought him home.
The next day, I did the same. This time, Ellen was with me. The only time I had a really big problem where he protested about going forward was where the neighbor took down part of her fence to repair it; exposing some delicious-looking grass. He said he wanted to explore the grass. (Ellen said Ranger wanted to do exactly the same thing.) The rest of the time, when he stopped on his own, he readily went forward with a whip tap. We walked multiple trips on the loop and down the driveway to the street.
The following day, I had very few problems, whatsoever. This time, we only did one lap on the loop and then headed down the driveway to the trail and headed down the hill. The problems were minimal and he was simply perfect on the trail.
I think my theory was correct, and when I took the time to show him what I wanted, I was able to communicate with him rather than confuse him. Once I took the confusion out of the way, he didn’t mind going outside. Even if he stalled out, I was able to start him back up, but he was stalling out less and less.
This was a very important lesson for me, and I think it will help me through all of his training. Apparently, when MerryLegs is confused, he shuts down. If I find him shutting down, it is a sign that he doesn’t understand. Cole is so different. If I confuse him, he starts guessing—usually ending up going sideways in various versions of sidepassing. He makes it very obvious. If I ask him for one thing and end up with a sidepass, it is evident he doesn’t understand. MerryLegs isn’t a guesser—he is like a little child who just wants to take his toys and go home. I need to keep him from getting to that point, but if he does end up there, I need to bring him back by explaining clearer.