Friday, October 8, 2010


After owning Boomer for over 2 years, I have really seen his personality develop.  I have a real understanding of his quirks and can compensate and know how to soothe him as needed.  I know what to expect in most situations.  In some ways, this is a good thing.  In other ways, I wonder if it keeps him from 'growing up' by babying him.  Currently, I would say that there are two things about Boomer that I don't like or that I need help with.  First, he pulls back/has a backwards startle response.  He has always pulled back when tied and while this has gotten better over time, the startle response has never been fully erased.  Second, he is extremely sensitive to tightening the girth.  By extreme, I mean that you must be able to fit your entire arm under the girth at first  or he will flip over backwards.  He needs the girth very loose, then to walk around and have it tightened one notch at a time.  If you rush this at any point, he will either buckle at the knees and go down in a panic, or will try to go over backwards.  This coupled with his propensity for pulling back has made for a number of 'exciting' situations in our life together.  

Our new barn has cross ties in the aisle, which are fine for most horses, but for a horse like Boomer, it just gives him an 'open space' to go backwards.  The cross ties are secured with zip ties, but I don't want to get into a situation even with safety precautions in place.  

He and I are both nervous while grooming and tacking up in the cross ties.  After we work, he seems fine and doesn't act nervous.  I'm sure some of the nervous tension comes from me.  But, I know the worst case scenario.  He pulls back, feels restricted, falls down or flips on concrete (potential for injury-high), breaks free, goes running around the property with cross ties flailing (potential for panic AND injury- high), etc.  So, you can see where my nervous tension comes from.  Once I have him tacked up and leave the barn, everything is fine.  He never steps a hoof out of place while I lunge, switch the surcingle for saddle, and ride him.  Back at the barn after we ride, he is fine in the cross ties.  I attribute that to him being tired or more relaxed after we work.  

I have been trying to think of ways to fix the situation or make it easier to cope with.  My first thought was to start having all of my tack and grooming supplies ready and within arms reach before I bring him to the barn.  I can groom and tack him with him untied- just ground tied.  He is usually pretty good about being ground tied, but I wouldn't trust leaving him while i walk off to the tack room.  Then after we work, he can be put in the cross ties like a normal horse.  My goal here is that his experience in the cross ties will only be relaxed and not nervous.  Eventually, he will be relaxed enough to be in the cross ties anytime.  Any thoughts here?  

Any other suggestions?  

I have not ever been a fan of 'trick training' or focusing on groundwork in exclusion to riding.  However, with my pregnancy, I know I will eventually end up 'grounded' and not riding.  So, another thought I have had was doing clicker training.  A few things I would want to work on would be 'head down' and 'stand'.  Does anyone have experience with clicker training?  Could teaching a 'stand' command dampen his flight response in the cross ties or while being tied?  Or does his reactive nature trump any 'tricks' I may teach him?

Any suggestions for books on clicker training or similar training?  Keep in mind, I am not interested in teaching my horse 'dog tricks' like fetch or basketball.  

Thanks in advance, and please pass this question on to anyone you may know who does this kind of training or who may have helpful advice!  The more people I have behind me, the more chance we have for success!


Funder said...

No advice on flipping over, sorry. But clicker training I can talk about! Here's the comprehensive horse clicker site:

Her starter book is worth buying. Be very careful what your first "trick" is - good ones are "touch it" with the nose, head down, and pretty ears. I have noticed that horses revert to that first trick pretty often, so you want something calm and/or innocuous. Dixie's is head down, and she'll often drop her head when she's hungry and wants me to hurry up already. See why you don't want to teach him to paw for his first trick? (yes, I made that mistake once.)

Clicker training is all about timing the click perfectly and breaking big goals into tiny pieces. Like if you want Boomer to NOT lay down while doing up the saddle, you need to teach him to do something else - maybe touch a target with his nose?

ImaBronsonBear said...

Teach him to ground tie so that you CAN walk away.=)

Heather said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I have been thinking about this a ton today. I think that head down and touching a target are good goals for us that could help. I'm sure the book answers this question, but does the target always have to be the same object or do you teach a voice command "touch" and he should be able to apply that to any target I point at?

Bronson- Yes, now THAT would be something I would enjoy working on! I suppose I would just increase both my distance from him AND the time he must be still before I click? Great thing about having concrete floors is that I can hear him when he moves.

This is starting to seem like a cool winter project!

Funder said...

"touch it" generalizes pretty well. Dixie will touch water bottles, buckets, pieces of cardboard, and scary stuff like green wheelie garbage bins. There are way more tricks to helping them learn to generalize and increasing duration than I can type out on my iPhone!

You will become a much better traditional trainer too. You HAVE to get the timing perfect in c-t, and timing is crucial in traditional work too. It's a lot of fun!

Heather said...

Funder- I ordered the step by step guide on Amazon. I think I will get a clicker from PetCo today and just work on 'charging the clicker' and play with targeting until the book comes in. I'm so excited to have a goal with the horse that doesn't have to be riding related!

Funder said...

Cool! I think you'll really enjoy it. Keep us posted on it - I'm happy to help if I can!

Kristen said...

I used clicker training to teach my horses to be still for girth-tightening.

They were average young horses and not as worried about it as your boy is. Our training plan involved a rope that I would drape over a back, reach under, pick up the hanging piece, bring it towards my side and by raising it and/or holding the end draping over my side of the horse, I could tighten it. My "click point" was "still horse" at the tightest point on that rep and then I would move up to the head to feed the treat. I was able to very quickly go to normal-tightness and I increased the speed. It transfered well to the real saddle/girth though I did more of the same training process with that equipment.

Clicker training is definitely valid for things other than tricks, I don't know that I even taught any tricks.

Story said...

I wasn't quite clear but you said he is good switching from surcingle to you mean he isn't so reactive to the girth at this point? Not sure where my line of thinking is going on this but if that's true, that is interesting. I wonder if you could use that to your advantage somehow?

Dee wasn't nearly as cinchy as Boomer seems to be but she responds really well to my voice and so I started talking to her while saddling and praising her when she did well. This combined with keeping everything at a pace she was comfortable with really helped.

Dee is also one who likes to pull back when she gets scared and has unfortunately had that reaction reinfoced by managing to get free several times so I totally understand your fears. Since one of her main panic triggers was the bridle going over her ears, we switched to bridleing and unbrideing in her stall so that we could work on the ear issue without adding the worry of escape and/or injury. I think this is in line with your idea of ground tying for the things that make him nervous. I think this is a good idea. Better to work through his problem in a safe way than to push it and have a wreck. When Dee decides she can handle the bridle over her ears every time, without exception, we will move back into the aisle. I don't think it's avoiding the issue, but rather keeping the experiences positive to reduce everyone's anxiety, and also give yourself something to build on.

Don't know anything about clicker training but it sure sounds interesting. Since it's a positive reinforcement system, I bet it would work great on our "sensitive" types.

Judi said...

I have been using clicker training with my new horse, Cole, and I have found it very useful. When I feel like I have "lost him mentally," I ask him for head down, and his brain comes back to me. Its been helpful for a lot of other things, too, including teaching him to stand in the crossties--though he never had a problem to start--just didn't understand it.

I will never train another horse without the aid of clicker. Works great on dogs and cats, too.

As far as tacking up, can you do it in the stall? We are lazy, and that's what we always do. Plus, if they have a some hay left, they can eat it. It makes a much more relaxing situation, but like I said, we do it because we are lazy. Every one else at our stables use crossties.

Heather said...

Kristen, I like the step by step process you used. My problem isn't so much with him being still, he stands stock still up until the moment he blows up, which both times it has happened were not until after I had tightened up the girth and walked away to change boots. So, I'm not sure yet what my command might be. I like the idea of making him target a 'hold' but I could also see that talking a step forward calmly is just as good. It seems like when I tighten up, his blow up happens either on his own, or with his first step forward or back. So, maybe the goal should be tighten, then step forward calmly without buckling or trying to go down?

Story- YES! I start with the surcingle for a few reasons. First, I can have it looser at first than my girth goes on my saddle. Second, I don't care if he ruins it. Third, I don't want to ride him until he has been lunged since I am only riding at the walk right now. But, you are correct. When I go from surcingle from saddle, he is fine- no matter how I tighten up the girth. So, it is definitely an initial reaction thing. Not sure how to use that information either, but I'm working on it. Let me know if you come up with anything!
As far as what you said about avoidance, I agree. It is sometimes a worry that by avoiding a trigger, I am not solving the problem. However on the flip side, avoiding a wreck seems like a big positive in and of its self.
I'm thinking that my eventual goal with the clicker training will be to have a target on the ground in front of his nose and have him touching it as I tighten the girth. This way he is focused and relaxed the whole time?

Heather said...

Judi- I only pay for pasture board, so I don't have a stall. Though all 6 stalls in the barn are currently stripped to their mats and unused. I may be able to start tacking up in one of them. It might provide a safe environment, but my goal is to eventually be able to tie him or put him in cross ties like a 'normal horse'.

Kristen said...

Regardless of when he is exploding right now... it does show he is uncomfortable with some part of the process and changing his emotions/reinforcement history to the sight and feel of the girth will not hurt and will only help. Once you get him more relaxed wearing/tightening the girth, even when you are standing right there, it will be easier to increase the duration.

There are numerous clicker horse lists that have great archives and you might find some useful pieces there.

Susan said...

Hi. I taught my OTTB some tricks when he was on stall rest and still at the track to help him deal with the depression of his injury. When ended up happening is that we now have used clicker training for all kinds of things. The book, The Click That Teaches by Alexandra Kurland, has some foundation lessons and one is to teach your horse to stand on a mat. That lesson sounds like just the ticket.
Another really great book is Getting To Yes! by Sharon Foley.
As far as not wanting to do a whole lot of ground work? I will promise you that if you spend as much time doing ground work with your horse as you spend in the saddle? EVERYTHING about your relationship will change. I promise. Swear to it.
My sweet TB had a horrible reputation on the track for being flighty and dangerous, etc. etc. When he retired due to a career ending injury we were forced into only doing ground work for 6 months. He transitioned from being a high strung race horse into a horse that I can give pony rides on for my niece and nephew. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot to work on. . . trust me! But those months of ground work and silly tricks as well as some of the other exercises has cemented an already strong relationship as well as making him a fairly solid and predictable horse.
I wish you luck on your journey.
There are two Yahoo groups on clicker training horses but sometimes the people can be a bit like zealots. Although, I'm probably coming across as one so. . . ?
I wish you all the success!

Paint Girl said...

I know the frustrations of a horse pulling back while tied. My Arab does the same thing. Her previous owner tied her to one of those old metal swing sets, she got scared and pulled back and now she immediately reacts to anything by pulling back. I have been so freaked out by it. She has gotten better, but she has gone through phases. At home, I don't usually tie her solid. I just drape her lead over the rail. But if I walk away I will tie a quick release. But I don't leave for very long. I also bring all my stuff out to my "get ready" area so I don't have to walk away from her.
Ground tying is a great idea. I am actually going to train my Mustang filly to ground tie.
We have a few cinchy horses at work. I just cinch them up really slow. None of them react as badly as Boomer though. I sure hope you can resolve what is going on. I am sure with a lot of patience, training and consistency, you will get it done!
Thank you for visiting my blog! And you are so sweet for offering to bring me snacks at Nationals! If you so happen to be watching the warm ups, look out for me, you probably won't miss me, I am so darn skinny! I will send you an email later!

Heather said...

Kristen- That makes sense. I need to work on his comfort level about the whole scene. I can see him start to tense as soon as I lift the pad up to his back. Once we get the clicker introduced, maybe I can just teach him games involving the pad, saddle and girth- both on the ground, in my arms and even on his back. Perhaps that will help him see the saddle as positive and rewarding.

Susan- It isn't so much that I don't want to do ground work. Its just that I feel that ground work is a means to an end, and the end goal is riding. I have only worked on ground work as an aside, I suppose. I can see where spending more time gaining his trust and being 'friends' could help his overall temperament and relaxation. I look forward to seeing how he grows during the next year or so!

Paint Girl- SInce I posted this, you are the third arab owner who has come forward about their horse pulling back. I have always wondered if there was a correlation between Boomer's halter training and his pulling back. Does your mare have a background in halter training? It seems like a halter horses reaction to the lead shank is to rock back or set back. Boomer hasn't been this bad about girthing up for ever, just recently. I started borrowing a saddle that had billets with holes further up and I had to tighten it more at first to get my girth to fit. After he laid down two different times, I switched to a longer girth and he hasn't done it sense. But both of us are still nervous about saddling up. We plan on being at Nationals The final Friday and Saturday. We will have Charley the Boxer with us, so wave if you see the worlds cutest dog!

Heather said...

Oh, I ordered The Click that Teaches: A Step By Step Guide.

Paint Girl said...

Heather, my Arab does not have a background in halter training. I just think that incident with the swing set with the previous owner traumatized her enough to where she reacts to pulling back. She is very insecure and gets very anxious, although that has gotten much better since she was given to me 6 yrs ago.
I do notice the halter horses at work react much quicker to the lead then non halter horses. I hate to say it, but I can always tell when one of the horses is in halter training.

Sally said...

Heather, I think the pulling back is truly a "halter horse" issue. Chester was never trained for Arabian halter and has never offered to pull back, but Rascal was and she is constantly pulling back-she's never flipped over, but a friends "halter horse" would flip over every time she felt pressure. Something to think about maybe.

Heather said...

I am starting to really see a pattern. I think the reactive arab factor plays a part and the halter training plays a part as well. So, how do we handle this as owners? make excuses and 'avoid' wrecks? Or train train train the behavior out? Is is possible to train out instinct? Is avoiding a wreck really avoiding the issue? Avoiding a wreck is never a bad choice, but to what extent do you baby your horse? Do I just need to accept that I have a horse that can't be tied and find ways to compensate? What happens in situations where I CAN'T compensate? Does this avoidance make me limited in the scope of how and what I can use my horse? Is that letting my horse control me?

~ C said...

The other thing no one mentioned, that I'd very seriously consider from what Boomer's symptoms are, is that he's having a pain reaction to the saddle. Have you had him checked by a chiropractor? Especially since you posted about 1) having your saddles not fit well, and 2) borrowing a saddle and having to over-tighten the girth. These to me are classic signs that he may be out of alignment and/or is experiencing/has experienced some definite pain issues. It's not fair to teach him to be still and tolerate it if he's truly not comfortable due to pain.

Sally said...

Heather: I completely started Rascal over. My theory is that if she learned it, she can un-learn it and do things the right way. I may be wrong, but she will stand tied now (we've made it to an hour) and she makes progress everyday. That said, my friends horse just has to be "worked" around. Any pressure felt while tied produces a violent flip-over, so she ground-ties for grooming/saddling and leaves her untied in the trailer. When on trail rides she spends the down time in the trailer. I don't think it's babying the horse, just working with what no one has been able to work out.