Trouble in Paradise
I have been having some trouble with MerryLegs. It all started when he didn’t want to walk out to the loop. I don’t know what caused him to feel that way, but I couldn’t get him budged without a struggle. That was the beginning. It began to spread. Soon, he didn’t want to walk away from the barn, down the driveway, down the street and eventually, he didn’t want to go out the barn door. At one point, he didn’t want to go in the barn, either. Ellen had him stuck in the barn aisle—he didn’t want to go in his stall. I also had trouble getting him out of his stall. Stall is the word. He stalled out, everywhere. I could get him to walk to the outdoor arena one day, but the next day would be trouble.
This went on for more than a week, and I must confess, the frustration was skyrocketing. I was wondering if I made a big mistake getting MerryLegs. Mrs. Shoes trusted me to train him well, and I was making a big mess out of him. Once I got him into the indoor arena, he was lounging and leading like a champ. I could lead him outside if someone waved their arms behind him with very little effort—for a few steps—sometimes more. If I tapped his rump with the whip or waved the lead rope, he went backwards. Once he stopped, he refused to go forwards. If I stood in front of him at the end of the lead rope, eventually, he would walk right up to me—unless he got too far from the barn. Then, that didn’t work, either. I needed a way to get him to lead without any help from my assistants. I felt rotten.
Once I got him to the trail, he was perfect. He walked beside me down to the river, into the river and back home with ease.
Sometimes, he seemed barn sour. Sometimes he seemed ornery. Sometimes he seemed like he just didn’t care about anything at all. I spent time talking to Kevin and Ellen about it. We kept brainstorming. Finally, something Ellen said made an impression on my mind. She said, “He is acting like he doesn’t want to load a trailer.”
That evening, I just sat and thought about the problem. There was something that stuck in my mind. When I talked to the shipper who received him at his Toronto layover, I asked him what MerryLegs looked like; as I hadn’t seen him, yet. He said he is doing well, and he is a nice-looking horse. He then paused and said, "Striking, actually, I think you will be pleased." Then he added, “in that respect.” Could it have just been a phrase he threw in because he didn’t know MerryLegs, either, or did it mean something. Originally, I took it as the former then, but now I took it as a clue.
What would he know about MerryLegs’ personality—probably nothing except what he learned in the short time it took to lead him from the trailer into the barn. When we did that upon his arrival in Ohio, MerryLegs was afraid to step through the barn door. Actually, that was no surprise to me, since Cole did the same thing when he first arrived. I immediately opened to door as wide as it would go, and MerryLegs stepped in.
What if this happened in Toronto, and they couldn’t do that? What if he refused to step in? Would they have waited until he got a good look inside and relaxed from the long trip—or would they want him to go in promptly. What if they took a whip and tapped him on the rump. He may have stepped backwards because he wasn’t ready to go forward. They may have stopped tapping—do this a few times—and what would a smart horse like MerryLegs figure out? If you go backwards when someone stops tapping a whip, they will stop tapping. (The tapping is a very common way to convince a horse to load a trailer—light, constant tapping—not causing any pain.)
A few days later, when it was time to load him back in the trailer—he may not have wanted to go up that ramp—look what happened the last time. He may have had a repeat lesson in whip tapping—and it may have reinforced that backing could cause it to stop. After all, these are haulers; not trainers. They may not realize how important timing is. Another point—most horses are trained to respond by going forward when tapped with the whip, but what if he didn’t know that was what it meant?
The final conclusion to my theory was that he is not barn sour, per se. He may have stalled out a few times for whatever reasons, and in trying to get him moving, I asked him to go backwards (in his mind) and then kept trying to get him to go forwards—sending him into confusion. The confusion caused him to not want to go outside and encounter it, again. We were in a downward spiral of misbehavior.
What I needed to know to confirm my hypothesis was if this was a new behavior or not—time to send an email to his old owner, Mrs. Shoes. If it was an old behavior, how did Mrs. Shoes solve the problem? If it was a new one, if MerryLegs didn’t know ahead of time what the whip meant, it was likely I was correct.
I sent out an email and started formulating my next plan. Ellen suggested desensitizing him to the whip to improve his relationship with it. That made sense. I’m not the type of trainer that wants my horse to be afraid of a whip. It is merely an extension of my arm. I train a lot with a whip because of that. If he is being fearful of the whip, I needed to fix it.
Next, I remembered the program of groundwork I did with Cole over the winter. Cole and I both had fun with it. This would help improve our communication. I looked it up in the book that I used for Cole, and refreshed my memory.
The first step was to teach him to go forward to a light, constant tapping with a whip on his hock. I forgot that I taught that to Cole, oddly. I use it all the time when he gets stuck in a series of bows, and I want him to step forward. How could I forget it? This can be an alternate cue to teach him.
The second step was teaching him to go forward to a constant rump tap. This is where we were going wrong. He thinks he should go backwards, and I want him to go forwards. Everything that he did right would be reinforced with a click and treat. Once he mastered the new cues, we would go outside and test it in the real world.
I just needed to hear what Mrs. Shoes had to say…
To be continued…