Turning Rainy Days into Training Opportunities!

It’s been a week of rain, rain and more rain here in Hawaii. We’ve managed to sneak out between the showers to enjoy a few rides down the road to at least get out, but mostly it’s been a week in creative horse training.  

During one such break in the weather I looked out at our flooded round pen and sighed…. It’s going to be a while before that is usable.  I looked at Athena who was looking curiously at me. It was if she was asking, “Ok Mom, I’m ready for today’s adventure….what are we going to do today?”. 

The ground was really too wet to safely ride; the trails were saturated and the arena was being used by lessons. Hmmmm, what was I going to do today? As I stood there gazing out across the farm and in particular the flooded round pen,  an idea sparked.  I had never taken Athena through water and therefore I had no idea how she would react. Will she have fun in it? Will she avoid it? Will she be afraid of it? I had an Arab growing up who was petrified of the water. Not a great combo when hacking out.  

 I could feel my excitement brewing. We had a plan for our session today!  I quickly finished grooming Athena and put my rubber muck boots on. Excitedly and carefully we made our way down to the round pen to play in the puddle. 

As it turns out, Athena loves the water. I kept her on the lead line at first… you know, just in case.  She was curious at first, giving it a good long sniff to make sure it was safe. With a few encouraging words from me, she took one step and then two, three and four and before long she was splashing through the water with ease. I thought she might roll, but nope… or at least not this go around! Thank goodness! 

She seemed generally at ease in the water. In fact she wanted to drink it. Nothing like fresh mineral rain water I suppose. I wasn’t thrilled about that and we ended up playing a game of yo-yo  as I tried to keep her engaged in our activity together and Athena trying to drink the muddy water as she plodded along. Yuck! 

I eventually took her off the lead line and let her explore on her own and about 45minutes later we wrapped up. It had been a very productive session. Athena enjoyed her time out and about, working with me,  trying something new and expanding her confidence and trust in me.

So often as riders we get focused on just riding. We forget that there is so much more to training and creating a well balanced horse than what goes on in the saddle. We expect our horses to behave in the exact moment we need them to, whether it is at a horse show or just during a lesson or even for a free ride. But, have we put in the time to expose our horses to all the different elements in our human world?  You can’t predict or control the weather and one day you may have to ride a Dressage test in the rain. Have you ever worked in the rain before? Or on a trail ride, you just might encounter a puddle. Are you and your horse prepared?  

It’s important to always be safe and some days are just too rainy or snowy or whatever to safely do anything. Be cautious and always safe first! But, some days just aren’t good for riding, but there may be another activity you can do with your horse. Look for the rainbow amongst the clouds and be creative in your training. Remember, the things you often find normal and routine could be different, exciting or even scary for your horse and therefore a perfect training opportunity! 

Teaching your horse manners at feeding time

I am a firm believer in teaching horses ground manners and especially around feeding for ease of feeding and safety.  

Horses in a herd establish a hierarchy and pecking order for who gets to eat and when. Just watch a herd sometime. If the lead mare comes into the group, the other horses will give way to the lead mare. If a lower ranking member doesn’t immediately back away the lead mare or higher horse will pin ears, etc. to reinforce.

When you are with your horse, your horse should look to you as the leader. If you have a horse who pins their ears, kicks out at you or exhibits aggressive or pushy behavior they are telling you that you are below them in the hierarchy of the herd. This is a potentially dangerous situation, especially around feeding.

To begin training ground manners around feeding bring a whip with you to help establish your personal bubble of space. When you step into the stall, pasture or paddock and your horse approaches you with ears pinned you can swing the wip left and right in front of her legs. If your horse stops great, if he/she proceeds forward change the direction of your whip to up and down in front of his/her face to get his/her attention. Please note, the idea isn’t to make contact with your horse, just to establish your space and presence. Although your horse may walk into the whip… but they will likely only do that once.

Once your horse stops a safe distance in front of you, wait. Your horse will eventually lower his/her head and lick and chew, which is a sign of acceptance. WAIT for this shift in attitude and behavior before you place the food on the ground or in the feeder and turn to walk away, letting your horse move forward to eat.

Patients is really important when establishing new boundaries. Give them time to process and hold your ground. In the beginning, your horse may stop and look at you but not lower his/her head or lick and chew. He/she may even pace back and forth or toss his/her head in frustration and they will probably also try to just go around you to get to the feed bucket. Just be patient and persistent. These are learning moments. Your horse is trying to figure out what the right answer is. The lick and chew is acceptance of you as the leader so be patient and wait for it… it will come. When I first started working on this with my mare the first session took like 30 min and a big tantrum before she finally settled and accepted that she had to be calm and patient before she was allowed to get to her food.  But it doe get better with each session. Now, my mare calmly waits for me to put her food into her bucket and for me to back away. Every now and then she needs a reminder… But it’s so nice to not be feeding with her head in the bucket before I’ve finished. Good Luck!