Sunday, December 20, 2009

Failure to Communicate

Sunday December 20 2009

Nothing like a healthy dose of failure to 1) spur you on to greater determination or 2) just make you give up. I don't know yet which I will choose.

You know right away if something ISN'T working with a horse, but you just don't know if something IS going to work with a mental case until it works. And how much work have you undone by doing the wrong thing?

After saying Kazam's training was progressing so well - he's Insecure going out by himself - he's made a definite reversal to the Dark Side. And I just don't know what to do for him.

We'd been going along so well by ourselves. He was finally going out fairly willingly; he progressed through his rides calmly, (on the best days, walked, trotted, cantered on a loose rein); he saw antelope and deer and dogs and didn't panic; he no longer jigged home but had a nice strong calm energetic walk or trot.

Then, I thought as a reward, I'd take him out with Carol and Suz. If you recall, these were the two that dumped us when I broke my rib.

So what happens on this day? Out on the northwest bluffs we see horses. Oh boy! Not cows, not antelope, not deer, but horses - WILD HORSES! (They were ranch horses turned out for the winter.) They were the next bluff over, and they started to move, then run, out of sight down a wash.

That did it. Both horses got wound up and a bit frantic, and it took us some work to get their minds back. We worked them up and down washes and hills, and finally we got some sense of halfway decent behavior back.

After that - it was back to going out alone on Kazam. But he's never recovered mentally.

His anxiety symptoms returned: reluctant to go out, jumpy, insecure, not relaxed, wanting to jig on the way home. Didn't matter if it was a short ride or long ride, it was the same.

Today I almost thought he'd gotten over the hump again. He went out willingly, was relaxed - so relaxed we walked, trotted, cantered, worked on transitions. At times he was moving off my legs and weight alone, no reins.

And then just before we turned for home: cows. Normally he isn't worried by cows, but these were... COWS. ON THE WAY HOME. He became a blubbering ball of nerves. Anxious, overwrought, jigging, bouncing, chomping on the bit. He still listened, but he was frazzled. If I let him trot, he'd listen less and he want to take off.

Now jigging isn't always bad - like happy jigging; sometimes it's just annoying - like mad jigging. (Zayante, Jackie Bumgardner's endurance horse, could stay mad and jig for 45 miles, when he thought he was going too slow). There's a big difference between happy and mad jigging - where the horse still uses his brain, and anxious jigging - where the horse's brain has left the building.

So I did what I often do in that situation, which always works - I turned off the path for home (I can't always do this, but I was lucky here) and worked his fat butt up a steep sandy wash, and up a steeper hill. This time it didn't really help. Now he was out of breath and anxious, always wanting to turn sharply back towards home.

So I took him further out. Down into another wash, and back up a steep hill. It helped a little bit, but he kept wanting to beeline it towards home. I could have kept turning him away, and going further and further out... but eventually I still have to turn towards home. I wasn't dressed to ride to Arizona today. And at some point of anxiety, you're not going to get a horse over it.

I tried working him around the sagebrush in patterns, getting him to watch his feet and think, and while he did listen, and do what I asked, he was constantly fretting about it. And at some point you realize that what you are doing is not working, and you are not helping the horse.

So we just stopped. He was able to stand there - anxiously, but he stood. We stood a while. We stood long enough for me to think about about just giving up - unsaddling him and turning him loose there. See ya Kazam! Well, not that, but, what was best for him at this point? Getting off and leading him home? No. Taking him further out? No. Working him to get his attention more here? No. It was time to stop for the day.

I headed him back home yet a different way. We had to work hard on not jigging, and he TRIED not to - but it was difficult. But if you fight them too much over it, you're doing worse than if you let them jig/run home. Sometimes you walk a fine line.

Instead of letting him go straight home, I turned him in at the neighbors, and left him tied up there. I thought I'd leave him there a while. Like maybe till next April. You think Carol and Rick would notice an extra fat orange handsome horse eating their hay?

That did no good. He was just as anxious; spent half an hour whinnying and pawing and pacing around while tied up. (This summer we tried putting Kazam with Finneas and Dudley on the upper 200, and Kazam ran and ran and ran and ran the fence, until he finally jumped it. Twice. So he could have kept this up for weeks.)

One trainer I know says, "If something's not working, try something else."

What I'm doing is not working. The problem is trying to figure out what WILL work. Every horse is different. I've ridden many green horses and I've worked with a lot of mental cases. Obviously I have not worked with enough of them! Every horse is different. The same solution that worked on one horse may not work with the next one.

So, think Merri. What does Kazam need?

These are his good points. He's good, attentive and smart with groundwork. When he's calm and listening under saddle, he's very light. He's not really spooky, and when he does encounter something questionable out on the trail, (like a horse-eating cow pie) he might side step it but he doesn't freak out. He's stopped bolting - now if something scares him from behind, he just scoots a step or two then stops himself.

What is his main problem? Getting anxious and losing his brain. When does the problem start? It starts when he's at a certain point on the way home. It's a different spot each time (we always vary our trails) and different distance from home, and it doesn't seem to matter if I've done a long ride or a short ride; it's always somewhere on the way home. He has to get home.

Should I just give up and just start riding him in company? (Would that even help him relax? Or will it make him bad all over again about going out alone? I don't want to have to start that over again. And what good is a horse that is going to panic with you if he suddenly realizes he is by himself?)

Clinton Anderson says, "Make the wrong thing hard, and the right thing easy."

What's the wrong thing Kazam is doing? He's wanting to get home too fast, getting anxious, losing his brain. What's the right thing Kazam should do? Walk or trot back home calmly, the same speed he went out unless I ask him to change it, and keep a hold of his brain.

What might make him not want to get home too fast? Making home not so attractive. So, what if I make home a place where he isn't so anxious to get back to?

What if I work his butt hard as soon as he gets home, make him do work he'd rather not do, so that he might not want to rush home, and he might think being out on the trail is rather much nicer? Work him in the round pen (really, it's hard to tire an Arabian, but you can at least make them get some more exercise, work on communication) till he really doesn't want to do that anymore. Then tie him up to the hitching rail and leave him for an hour. That doesn't sound like fun to me.

That's what I did today after I brought him back home from the neighbor's house. I took him straight to the round pen and worked him a half hour, then left him tied up to the hitching rail another half hour.

I sat here pounding out my frustration on the computer as I watched him outside the window, standing tied to the rail. He stood there, looking around for me, looking at the herd he'd rather be out eating with, but he was quiet.

Should I just give up?

I don't know the right answer.

But I won't quit just yet. Tomorrow I'm taking him out on a little loop. When we get back to the house, I'm going to work him hard - in the round pen, along fences, moving his front end, back end, whatever I can think of. Not long, but hard. No rest, no fun here at home. Then I'm getting right back on him and taking him out on another little loop. Get back and put him right back to serious work. Maybe I'll take him back out again and work him again when he gets back. Then I'll tie him up for an hour.

I don't know if that will help, or if it will make things worse.

Nothing like ending the day feeling like a failure.


  1. Sounds like a very tough day. Whew! Sometimes horses know just what to do to chalenge us. I guess this is what everyone means when they say a 'horses teaches us'. We are the ones learning, aren't we? When you've got a smart stubborn one, you've got to up your game a little. bah!

    My mare was very barn sour.....I'm sure she is again now that I've been out of the saddle for a year, but what worked the best is what you are planning to do.

    She'd pull the drunken sailor routine (weaving into the direction of the barn) and I'd have to push her back onto the road or trail. She'd crowhop a few times to let me know how bdaly she wanted to go home and to see if that scared me enough to take her back. And after I'd ridden her for a while, on the way home she'd jig and rush.

    So, I'd take her back, and work her in the round pen. I'd ride her up to the barn and then all around the paddocks and pastures. When she walked me up to the barn and stood still for me dismount, I'd move her back out and we'd head back out again.

    Sometimes I'd do this several times......home, back out, come home, back out. But back home didn't mean she got rid of me and got to rest and eat.
    It was working, at least until my fall anyway. bah.

    And I hope this works for you, too. You're not a failure. You student is just challenging you, and I bet you're up for the challenge, too.
    Hang in there.

    By the way, I just love all your horse photos on the side-bar. You captured some very special ones to be sure! Some make me laugh while others are just so expressive and stunning.
    Nice job.

    Happy Holidays!

  2. Oh man, I sure can feel you on this one! My guy was really bad about not wanting to leave home or sometimes he would leave, but then would suddenly decide he was done and would backing up and spinning, not listening to me at all. He was belligerent and scary. I tried the whole 'working hard at home' thing. Sometimes it worked. I would ride him out for a short while, then bring him back and canter him in the round pen until he was dripping. All this succeeded in doing after a few weeks was make him aware of what was coming and he began jigging and humping his back for the whole ride. Then I started avoiding the places that made him worse.

    My solution worked. I sent him to a trainer for 6 weeks. It wasn't a hugs and kisses natural horsemanship camp. It was Juvie. She rode him hard and didn't take his sh*t for one minute. When he spooked, she made him go up and look at or touch the scary object. When he didn't want to get his feet wet she made him stand in the creek for a (long) while. When he didn't want to step in mud, she made him hop back and forth across it until he got tired. Honestly, I don't know what all happened when he was with the trainer. But he came back changed. He was no longer a nervous wreck on the trail. He was a good broke horse who would calmly lead colts. He knew the right answers and knew HOW to behave correctly.

    I know none of this really helps, but just know that we have all been there. I hope you can find the help you need. I'm glad I did.

  3. Wow, you have my horse. Dixie is fantastic sometimes - more and more often, honestly - but sometimes she just checks out mentally. I've gotten her to where she'll still (belatedly) respond to my cues, but I can just tell she's not at all listening to me. It's scary for me, and I don't dwell on it, and I probably don't write about it as much as I should. It's really cool that you took the time to write this out! Hopefully it's helpful for you and you'll get some good ideas.

    I think you're on the right track with making home less desirable, and I might try that too with Dixie. The alternative, I suppose, is to make not-home also desirable. Could you drop some really tasty hay or beet pulp somewhere away from home, then ride him out to it and let him get a big food reward for being all alone out there? That's something I've been considering, but it's strategically hard.

    Keep us updated - we might learn something too!

    word verification: brammen, Kazaam's nemesis. ;)

  4. I also had the idea of making 'away from home' a reward. That plan backfired for me. I got out a ways from home and got off, loosened the cinch, and let him graze. The new 'yummy spot' now became the object of his balking. He started balking and spinning and didn't want to go back to the barn.

    That might work for some horses, and if Kazam is being barn sour and not just a general idiot, that might help. However, general idiots, especially smart ones, will really take advantage of ANY reward.

  5. Merri,
    What you did with Kazam sounds a whole lot like what Paddi was doing for a month with Diva, an 8 yr old mare here with high anxiety. I think you might be on the right track. Patience, grasshopper.

  6. Merri
    I had a horse who did the same thing-I did all the above things and nothing worked. So I started trailering him out-never had a problem after getting him away from the house. I would drive 5 miles up the road and ride :) If you run out of options try this.

  7. First of all Merri you are NOT a failure. The fact that you have a reaction at all tells us that you are doing something right. What you have here is a highly intelligent horse who thinks for himself. Once you accept the fact that he is in control you will no longer be doing an uphill battle of wills.

    Relax, start over, and give with a little more heart and a little less my way or the highway - so to speak. Remember these guys are like two year old children. In Kazam's case, a two year old autistic child in a tantrum phase.

    Some horses bond quickly with their rider. They trust sooner than others. Small spurts of training coupled with a lot of hands on attention. Grooming, cleaning, visiting, and lots of carrots before, during, and after each task. Rewards work great with horses like this. I cut up a dozen carrots into bite size pieces. Put in a plastic bag in my jacket pocket. When they have done something - anything - they get a piece. And on it goes.

    It seems to relax them. Lessens their anxiety. It's behavior modification at it's finest. Learned that from Joanne Reed training show dogs. Instead of withholding you just give them the treat and start over.

    Best wishes. I am at the end of my very long day. I hope I haven't rambled like an idiot and made some sense. If not please let me know. LOL!

  8. Merri, It sounds like one of the Arab days we have on occasion...I think you are on the right track with making where he wants to be less pleasant to go to--sometimes when we're on that unending jig on the way home, I will stop, make him side pass or turn on his forehand, all sorts of work all at once, and then try to start walking again. If he walks, then great, and if not we go back to work. Just little exercises that occupy his mind off of jigging and back on me...sometimes I will do that on the endurance rides before we start (and when we are wildly wanting to shoot down the trail!). Good luck! Your patience and hard work will pay off!

  9. Merri - hang in there! I think some TTEAM might help.....there are some things you can teach him on the ground and then under saddle which have made huge differences with horses I have ridden that are like him. Maybe I could come over for a day and work with you and him if you're interested....... Have a great holiday -- and email me!

  10. It sounds like he just needs a job. Preferably one that is 5 days a week and includes overtime! lol....really girlfriend, get that boy to some rides and show him some real work! Tigger will still try to run away with Dave on training rides as soon as they are turned towards "home"....he does great on 100's tho (lol)....some horses need to "get out more"!

  11. You are awesome. I would of given up long ago. There are so many good horses out there that are so easy...but I don't have the skills or the patience to deal with his mind. Just be careful!!

  12. Hey Merri, I think we've all been in your boat. I am a bit with Sally on this one...too many good ones out there to risk being hurt by one of the others. I had one that I put many many many miles on before I decided that I was never going to be comfortable on him. He was only happy with very strict routine, something endurance riders cannot always reproduce. Best of luck to you though, whatever you decide!

  13. Agnes is never much fun on familiar trails. She'll pull more crap with me on our training hill than a place we have never been. So I'm always thinking of finding new places to take her. She knows she has to depend in me to get her silly butt home so she's pretty good in new places. Another thing I do if she acts up on the way back to the ... See Moretrailer is just turn her around and back her up or just make her stand there. Tight circles work good too. I've had Agnes for nine years now and she's still a pain but she's tough and she loves her job so I put up with it. Another thing you might do is just keep on going once you get back home with him. If he throws a fit get off and lead him away from home and then make him WALK back once he calms down. I think I spent more time walking Agnes the first year than I did riding her. But we got where I WANTED to go at my pace.

  14. trust me.. i feel your pain, literally and figuratively... but the greatest of all victories is to be victorious over yourself... SISU (Danish for never give up!)

    cid and gazi

  15. Merri,
    You are definitely not a failure and I have learned a lot just reading your story. I have similar problems with my gelding that just appeared and now seem impossible to overcome. I haven't tried everything you mentioned, but will give some a try. He is into spinning and bolting these days, leaving me in the dirt on occasion. I hope when you figure Kazam out that you post how you did it! Good luck!!....Diane

  16. The first thing I'd try is supplementing his diet with magnesium. His blood levels may show normal, but some horses need higher than normal to not lose it like e does. He sounds like the classic case of needs LOTS more magnesium.

  17. merri,
    Reading all your posts inspires me with your resolve. My horse, yes, the lovely cantering Arab Appy "Lippy", would rather be home. We go through the same issues, and on a windy, cold day, there is high probability of spook, spin, bolt, etc. The one thing I've tried that seems to help, is the following. The first sign of tension (usually a slightly quicker intake of breath), before any chomping, head slinging, short stepping, I smoothly ask him to step in a circle. I try to do this in the most sympathetic way, if I can without taking all the slack out of the rein, and politely ask him to step under his belly with the hind leg in the turn. I take, and let out, a deep breath while we do this. This seems to have the effect of HIM taking and letting out a deep breath, too. Don't worry! Don't feel like a failure! You're my hero!

  18. I wonder if Kazam's general anxiety is difficult for him to contain when he's getting tired. Seems as though he'd started relaxing, then had a big set-back when he and his previous bad-news-buddy had another adrenalin-filled experience. With the anxiety back in full-force, he may be losing a grip on himself toward the end of a ride because he's too tired mentally to hold it together. If so, you might try the seemingly illogical course of going out on a few very short rides. Let him come back home still fresh and happy, jigging or not. Turn him out to play. Let him like riding -- disassociate it with getting anxious then being worked hard for being anxious (i.e. punished for feeling upset). Decide that jigging is irrelevant except as a sign that it might be time to quit for the day (of course you'll want to ask him to do something simple and achievable right there at the end so he doesn't associate jigging with quitting--try a few leg yields?). I know an excellent child psychiatrist, an older man with the wisdom of experience, whose mantra was "ignore what you can, punish what you must." His point wasn't that you stop training or expecting good behavior, but that you don't get stuck worrying about something that isn't essential. Oftentimes the undesirable behaviors extinguish themselves over time with zero interference.

    My gut senses that your being upset by his being upset can't lead to a calmer scenario. I'm learning to monitor my own frustration because it seems to me we're mirrors for our horse's feelings (and visa versa). If I'm frustrated, my horse is probably just as frustrated. (Lots of experience with this scenario!) Counterintuitive often behavior breaks the logjam, so: if he seems overly anxious and wired: assume he's exhausted (at least mentally), and give him a break.

    If he gets calm on shorter rides, try going on a short ride with his bad-buddy. Hopefully you can sneak in a few calm outings, but, if something like a herd of wild elephants upsets things, act as though the ensuing jigging is no big deal. In fact, expect it and leave it alone. Don't punish him with work--just let him get home without your emotions roiling so he has a reasonably good experience.

    Caveat: I'm only suggesting the alternative to the "make a bad thing difficult" approach in this case because I don't think he sounds willful. He sounds nervous or at least truly keyed up. I wouldn't underestimate how much it freaks out a horse to have had his rider have a bad fall. A sensitive horse can be unnerved by that for a long time.

    Not sure if any of this makes sense in writing. Bottom line, I think I would try out relieving his anxiety when it's becoming overwhelming rather than trying to push him through it. Never saw an Arab who could be pushed into calming down. If he's anxious, quit. Get him home. Pet him. Give him a carrot. Let him go. Build up his abilities again. As John Lyons points out, after a horse who's been great becomes really upset and unable to handle himself again, really turns back into a pain-in-the neck, he'll morph into his best self ever. It's almost like, "whew, you can stay calm and handle me even when I'm a wreck. I guess things aren't so bad."

    Good luck. Guess I'd better get out there tomorrow with my own basket case and practice what I preach. Kinda inspired myself actually :-)))

  19. I think Mary K has the right idea. Keep things positive. I have forgotten about that aspect of training and have been doing the same "make things difficult" thing also. Going back to what he can do well will build confidence and I am going to try doing that myself. Back to little steps for awhile.

  20. Two steps forward, one step back. Sounds like you've made a ton of progress already. Whatever you decide to do, it's something different, and that just may work!

  21. Just found this blog - great to see all the photos of horses being horses. Keep mine outdoors all the time in a herd and they have the most amazing play sessions and social structure - beats soap operas!

    Anyhow, thought I might comment on this post as my big boy Jake is also particularly anxious when he sees other horses while out. Apart from all the great training ideas you are trying and have been suggested, what works wonders for my boy is a magnesium and vitamin B supplement. Just makes him calmer so he can think a little more. They aren't expensive (well, not here in Australia) and you can use brewers yeast for the vitamin B if you want a really cheap good option. On the supplement my horse sees other horses, pauses mentally, realises they are just horses and then resumes paying attention. Without it he can be good or he can become a blithering idiot and ignore all attempts at training. Good luck!

  22. great comments and suggestions from all of you. I'll do another post on this one of these days, updating you on my progress (?).

    I almost gave up... thinking maybe it's just ME (I am NOT a trainer, after all), but i haven't given up yet...
    - The Equestrian Vagabond