Sunday, May 22, 2011

One step forward, two steps back

When the clinic ended Monday I was all fired up and ready to go (As Wolfie said I was pumped), I had a plan and I was ready to put it into action!

The last time I hopped on Gwen was on May 10, she had into heat the weekend before so I thought she would be out of it and safe to get on. Not so much. She was a bit spooktastic- I sat through three of them before I decided to get off while I could still do it under my own power and give her a few more days to come down from the hormones. When I pulled her out after the clinic it had been a week since I'd gotten on her and I wanted to take her for a little walk to feel her out before I put my bones up on her.

Good thing I did! Just that morning Mark moved his big, white trailer from below the pasture to above the barn. As soon as Gwen saw it she flipped out, pulled the lead rope out of my hand, and bolted down the driveway. When she stopped running she then commenced rearing every time she stepped on the rope.

Well great, all it takes to unglue my mare is introduce a new, inanimate object into her environment. To top it off, she's now rearing in response to pressure. Excellent.

I followed her, caught her, brought her back in view of the Great White Trailer of Death, and asked her to lower her head. She did, but it was like she said, "fine, I put my head down. Now can I get out of here?" I took her farther away from it and asked her to lower her head again. She sort of responded so I called it a day and put her back in the pasture.

Wednesday I tried to do some CAT work with her and the Great White Trailer of Death but she wasn't having it. She knew that the signal was to lower her head but she was having none of it, she kept throwing tantrums. Fortunately these tantrums weren't "hook a sailfish on the open sea" tantrums, they were more "throw your head up and down in anger" tantrums, I guess I should give her a little credit for that. But I ended up feeling incredibly frustrated with her, and she was quite frustrated with me. I left her that day feeling like I didn't want to see her again for at least a week.

As I drove away I asked myself what the heck was wrong with me. I mean, this is Gwen, her default mode is scared, it's not like I should be surprised by this. Why was I so frustrated?

When I thought about it, I realized I wasn't frustrated, I was disappointed. Actually, I was crushed. She'd been doing so well that I'd allow myself to have dreams of riding her out on a trail or even going to a show someday. Her bolting away from that trailer totally killed those dreams. She wasn't just startled by it, she was terrified. I can't take a horse out on the trail like that. Sure, I could get her used to a certain trail and get her reasonably safe to travel on it, but what if a tree falls down between rides? She'd be out of there in a flash.

I needed to reevaluate, I needed to accept her for the horse she is and not the horse I want her to be. I also needed to get our relationship back on track.

On Thursday I walked into the pasture with a bucket load of treats, the bit, and some tools to teach her the color game. I didn't take her out, I didn't even put her halter on - I just focused on having some fun. That was exactly what I needed to do, at the end of the day we were happy spending time together again.

On Friday I dug out a mat (aka a piece of plywood) and set it down under the barn and then placed a line of cones out to the driveway. I asked her to stand on the mat, reinforced her like crazy for it, and then had her step around the first cone and back to the mat. We worked our way down the line of cones coming back to the mat every time to get reinforced. As we worked down the cones, the Great White Trailer of Death came into view, she'd get a glimpse of it and then we'd turn around and walk to the mat. This worked out well, plus it touched an one of my goals for her- standing on the mat (you reinforce the horse like crazy for standing on the mat and eventually the horse will associate the mat with comfort and well-being, something Gwen needs).

Saturday I continued where I left off on Friday, only this time I moved the mat out from under the barn so it was only 10 feet away from viewing the Great White Trailer of Death. She was much better. PHEW! Progress.

It's possible that the more times she works through her fear of something new in her environment she'll stop being so scared of novelty, but I can't bet on that. What I can bet on is that she's going to be who she is, no matter what.


  1. Wow, this was daunting even to read. Accepting them for who they are is hard sometimes, isn't it? But there has be a helpful key in there if we can really do it. I admire your commitment to her.

  2. I wish I could bring counter experience to your statement, but I can't. Everything I've seen, working with horses, is in step with your conclusion. I still hope to see it disproven, though, because I have a similar problem with a horse and I like to believe what I see may be able to be overcome. But you have to wonder, out on the trail, what will happen. It's good that you're taking her where she is.

  3. I admit that this was a tough read for me. I have seen almost from the beginning how much progress you have made with both Coriander and Gwen and I can feel your pain with her reaction to the Great White Trailer of Death. Fear based anxiety is the worst because you never know what might set if off. But, the fact that she put her head down when you asked even though she was freaked out tells me how much she does love and trust you. She knows that you won't give up on her and will keep her safe. When it finally falls into place for her it will be soooo sweet.

  4. Oh - I so relate to this post.

    It's great that you acknowledged feeling disappointed, and figured out how to move on from that negative state. Really great :)

    I get down about not feeling free to head out on the trail with Val yet. My plan of attack is much like yours... break things down into small chunks, praise like crazy, and hopefully improve confidence - his and mine.

    We'll get there one day. Maybe not as soon as we'd like, but we'll get there. And it will be time to break out the bubbly when we do! :)

  5. Love your header of your horses!

    You two have much more accomplishing to do, growing pains.
    The attitude is so admirable. Gwen sounds life she has a good head.

    What's funny is, sometimes what happens at home does not happen else where -as Big. I've had my mare do freak things, near the heard base, then while away, same circumstances..defer to me.

    Keep it up
    Love your work!

  6. You are making a ton of steps in the right direction. What Gwen never got when she was young, since she didn't get handling, was the concept that her human is her safe place. Your clicker training and your other activities with the mat will eventually get her to the place that she realizes that as long as YOU are with her, she can be calm. She sensed your frustration when she spooked at the trailer. Next time, try to go almost into a meditative state of calm - see how your state of mind affects her. You must become her mat. Her touchstone. You are on your way, but just have to monitor your reactions and thoughts since Gwen is so sensitive. Just my opinion, but it comes from reading your blog, and my 25 years experience with all types of horses, including one special one JUST LIKE GWEN. That mare, believe it or not, is the best riding horse now, since she just gives over all thought and trust to her human. But, leave her alone, and she loses her mind. You WILL be successful.

  7. Thank you so much for your support everyone, it means a lot!

    In the meantime, I'm going to work on cultivating that zen-like state, because Racheal- you are dead on about her and what I need to do to help her.