Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cookie Learns to Have a Conversation

Cookie Learns to Have a Conversation
By Lindsey Forkun, www.LFEquestrian.com

Cookie is a lovely Thoroughbred mare that recently retired from racing. She is learning to become a safe and relaxed trail and pleasure horse for her new owner. This horse has a lot of potential - is kind, willing, and has a good mind so her new owner bought her to give her a second career as a relaxing pleasure horse.

Horse racing is extremely different from pleasure riding. The horses at the race track pick up some benefits - like being used to crowds, handled a lot, and usually they end up well accustomed to the farrier and vet. Race horses also pick up other behaviours and learn things that aren't very helpful when you want a pleasure horse - but horses can be retrained.

On day one with Cookie, the goal was to get Cookie to learn that partnership with humans isn't just about whoa and go, but instead that there is a whole language to figure out with humans through body language. Teaching horses how we can use body language (very similarly to how horses use body language) starts on the ground.

We are safest when we teach horses new things on the ground. Horses are prey animals and don’t like being trapped. When we ride, the horse can have more anxiety because they are trapped with us on top of them. The horse is more relaxed when we are on the ground, which makes the ground a safer place to be.

One of the first things I taught Cookie was all of the basic cues with me on the ground. She learnt back up, go forward, sideways, move just your bum (forehand turn), and move just your shoulders (haunch turn). After she learnt these basic cues, I could start doing patterns and games with her. This teaches Cookie that we can communicate with each through body language and understand each other.

Cookie has learned how to do figure 8 patterns around barrels, backwards weaving, sideways at the trot, and more all with me on the ground. This has helped to teach Cookie that I want to have a conversation with her not - not just make her go. She has learned to relax, try new things, and to become a willing partner that follows my lead.

Some ideas of what you can do after your horse knows the basic cues:
- Learn a figure 8 around barrels
- Get your horse to weave a set of pylons or barrels going both forwards and backwards
- Learn to trot sideways
- Go from one end of the ring to the other, without going forward, and without taking more than 10 steps of a time in one movement (for example you can do sideways, back up, and a series of forehand and haunch turns to move yourself to the other end of the ring)
- Back up over poles
- Sideways over a pole
- Go in between poles

The idea is to keep the horse out of a routine and in a conversation – you want the horse to be paying attention to you, curious of what you will ask for next. Being able to do a lot of a different things on the ground will show the horse that you are a knowledgeable and capable partner, that you can understand each other, and that you can be trusted.

As I play with Cookie on the ground, I build her confidence and she learns to relax. Cookie is learning to have a conversation with me – and we having fun doing it!

Take home message for this week: Make sure your horse understands the basic cues, and once your horse understands them, start having a conversation! Challenge your skills to try new things and new patterns. Take it slow, and keep it positive.

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