Monday, July 16, 2012

pony chess

Merlin and I are going through a phase, and it is akin to a spoiled toddler getting everything he wants and just hearing the word "No." The first ride with Merlin was paradise, but ever since that incident with the bear (or whatever spooked him) he learned that balking and putting up a fight means getting his way. We have been playing pony chess ever since. He tries one move, then I try another. I call it "pony chess" because I remember reading about what Jon Katz called "border collie chess" with his dogs, who constantly test and outsmart him in a game of wits. Here's the horse version.

Example 1:
Yesterday he wouldn't go up a road because it involved a hill he didn't feel like going up. He stopped, that was his move.

My move: I turned him around the way he wanted to go (towards home, easy to do) and then backed his big rump up that hill! It took us 15 minutes with breaks and such, but I didn't give up.

Example 2:
He didn't even want to go down the road yesterday. Didn't even want to leave my driveway. That was his stupid move.

My move: I lunged him, walked him down the road, mounted him and rode him back home (which he wanted to do) but then stopped and got him to turn around and start walking away from home. That was a victory of patience, and I should have stopped there and called the day a small success. But I started feeling cocky and decided to ask him to go back off the main paved road to our usual dirt road trail.

Last Example:
His move: He would not go up that road.

My move: Ask with more force, use crop.

His move: Bucking and Kicking, No MEANS NO!

My last move: I stopped him hissy fit. Made him stand. Dismounted, and called Dave and Milt, local horse trainers, to come show me how to show him who's boss, safely.

So we will get through it. I'm not giving up, not stopping work with him, and I am not scared of that blowhard. I just need to be patient and learn how to make my point without causing his hissy fits. And maybe what he needs is a trainer to ride out those fits and STILL get what he wants. Merlin is testing me, probably for a mixture of reasons. But I did not get this horse to look out. We will ride again as a team soon, it'll just take some hard work, stubbornness, and magic and I got plenty of all three.

P.S. That image from yesterday was taken by Raven, a friend who is visiting the farm now. I do not have folks who document the blog for me, like someone asked, but I do hand friends cameras when they arrive! Raven will be posting a guest post later. She's known me ten years, pre and post farmer, and thought you guys would like some back story.

46 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is normal with ponies. When he balks or misbehaves, make him work harder than what it was you originally asked him to do. Lunging is good. He will soon learn that his hissy fits mean more work. Ponies are lazy, but very smart creatures. Having someone else ride out his fit doesn't always work. He knows who is on his back. :0)
Heather in PA

July 16, 2012 at 9:07 AM  
Anonymous janet gordon said...

I'm glad you are addressing his issues immediately. I don't really have a lot to add, except that determination and very strong aids - calves, heels and bum will work in time. He will need to work a lot harder and longer than he is now in order to eradicate the balkiness and 'smartness' he is showing now
going out several times a day may work for you and him. Later in life when my daughter was doing riding lessons I often rode school horses there that had gone a bit sour and/or neede rte-schooling. Amazing what a stronger rider can make a horse do, but you need to be on Merlin yourself in order to re-school him so that he will listento you.
Keep at it! You'll wear him down!

July 16, 2012 at 9:20 AM  
Blogger Margie said...

Reading your book. Got our library to buy a copy of it. Love your stories about the cabin in Vermont.
Would like to go back and read some of your early blogs. Are those still available?
Since my son lived in Knoxville for several years and I love that area, would like to read your blogs about that period.
What have you planted in your garden and how's it looking?

July 16, 2012 at 9:21 AM  
Blogger Ann On and On... said...

It will all work out...patience being the most important aspect of the situation.

July 16, 2012 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Good for you for not letting him get the upper hand! I agree with the others. I grew up with horses, but in no way feel qualified to be a trainer. I do know, however, that YOU are going to have to show him who's boss. Having someone else ride out his tantrums will only reinforce that he can get away with it with you. I once had a horse who was amazing that way. For me, he was western pleasure, for my daddy, he was a cutting horse, for my two year old cousin, you could tie his reins around his neck and he'd stroll around, for my uncle, he was a bucking bronc! It was sooo cool! He was a special horse, indeed. I wish you all the best in your Merlin endeavors.

July 16, 2012 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Jenetta said...

Horses also have really good memories and it could be that he associates that road with the bear now. You may want to give him a break from riding down that road and go somewhere else for a little while, then slowly ease him back into that area. I had the same problem with one of my horses only instead of a bear it was a harmless deer that startled her. It took her months to be ok with riding past that spot without shaking and snorting.

July 16, 2012 at 9:51 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I agree that I am the one who needs to show Merlin who is boss, but the trainer is coming to show me how to do that, safely. I didn't feel safe when he was bucking and kicking a few feet in the air in response to the crop. A trainer will ride him, evaluate him, and then watch me ride and show me what to do when the shit hits the fan. Right now I am not comfortable with his tantrums and want guidance in fixing them.

i appreciate your advice and agree I need to be the one in charge, but I need help getting there.

July 16, 2012 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

Well, he's a pony. Ponies are notoriously stubborn by nature. Some can even be mean. You'll be able to improve some of his behavior by being stubborn yourself and not letting him have his way, but some character tendencies are just breed specific and you will have to deal with them for as long as you have him, unfortunately. Good luck!

July 16, 2012 at 10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenna this is typical behavior. They are stubborn and someone he can sense your hesitation and fear. I personally think the trainer is a great idea. It is going to give you more confidence and that will translate to Merline and he will finally get the message that while he is loved and cherished, he can't be the boss. Hang in there girl. You are on the right path.

July 16, 2012 at 10:30 AM  
Anonymous cowgirl said...

I've blasted them in the gut with my boot and that gets their attention RIGHT NOW. It doesn't hurt them, it's not a slap to the head (which is awful and makes them head-shy), but it has to be done when you are holding the reins and on the ground. And done fast so they don't see it coming...and as hard as you can.

Farriers do this with misbehaving animals; they don't want to get hurt and they want to nip that behavior in the bud.

Lunging and being too patient doesn't always work.

This is kind of like having a very hot potatoe on a short stick in your back pocket when you go to mount and your steed turns around to nip or bite you...he is surprised and find that biting a hot potatoe is not nice.

July 16, 2012 at 10:56 AM  
OpenID domesteading said...

You're doing it right. I agree with the comments that sending a message that bad behavior = more work is the best tool you've got, so lunging him in response to balking is good. You might also try lunging him for a while before you even get on him. It seems like that would make a lazy pony less inclined to then happily head out on the trail, but getting them to work right away makes them focus on the task at hand, and starts the session off on the right foot. Your tales remind me so much of my pony! Now I have this amazingly perfect horse, and I won't deny that it can be a little boring sometimes.

July 16, 2012 at 11:20 AM  
Blogger Rosie said...

Keep watching the DVDs. Direct and drive, DISENGAGE the hind end. It means control to him. Then keep his feet moving. Take control.

You don't need a ring or pen. You can put a halter under his bridle and do it even saddled.
You can do it. This will make it easier in the future.

July 16, 2012 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger ladyfarrier said...

Most genuine horsepeople--the ones with a lifetime of successfully dealing with horses--will tell you that nothing good will come from "showing a horse you're the boss".

You're outweighed, you're outsmarted (because he has a lifetime of "horse skills" and you have very very little), and trust me, he can "out-stubborn" you.

Most conscientious riding instructors suggest their pupils take a year of instruction--on a trained school horse--before deciding to purchase their own horse. There's a reason for this--it takes time to acquire the knowledge and skills you need to successfully, and safely, ride a horse. Throw in keeping them at home (more unstructured than a boarding stable), and you double the "issues" likely to arise.

You've bitten off a huge chunk, Jenna. Horses are not like most livestock. Be careful.

July 16, 2012 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Tiffrz-N-Kidz said...

You may not want to post this for general consumption, but it sounds like he needs a 'crack in the arse' as my Irish trainer used to call it. It's just what it sounds like - one WHACK of the crop on the arse, whip turned up, with all your strength. As hard as you would swing an axe to chop a tree. Just one. Maybe two if he's being particularly thick. After that it's just abuse. Do it once the right way and you should not have to do it again ever, you just always carry the whip as a reminder. And always wear your spurs.

"Never go into battle unarmed." - Jack LeGoff

It sounds terrible, but horses are large and thick skinned. Think about the force they use on each other in the pasture to express displeasure with each other. There's usually a welt left behind before the one horse understands that the other is unhappy. You are not strong enough to leave much of a welt with a riding crop but it will take all your force to make your point. It's a calculated thing this crack in the arse. You make your point and move on. Do not hit him in anger or you will take many steps backwards.

The reasoning behind this it that it's really irritating to them when we tap and tap and tap and hit and hit and hit and kick and kick and kick. "Love taps" the trainer called them. It tends to escalate the problem whereas a swift hard crack in the arse gets their attention and when followed by a firm "WALK ON" usually shakes them out of their disobedience.

Remember to follow through with lots and lots of praise when he does what you want. High pitched GOOD BOY GOOD BOY!!! Skritches on his whithers.

Then talk to him. Sing to him. Tell him in words what you are expecting him to do and you may find he understands. "Get your bloody rump up that road ya great oaf." or "You are going up that hill and then over to the road. Get a move on buster we don't have all day."

The talking will keep you breathing. Horses are prey animals and they stop breathing as the fight or flight instinct works through the herd when there's danger. When you hold your breath it scares him and kicks in his 'flight or fight' response and it sounds like Merlin's is set to 'fight'.

That's why your trainer constantly reminds you to breathe! Breathe through the disobediences and I promise they won't escalate as badly. Good luck to you!

July 16, 2012 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Brenda London said...

good session and you ended it well. I sing to my horses, more than once they have heard The Rodeo Song dedicated to each and every one, especially the reprise, "Piss me off, F#@!in jerk, get on my nerves"!! Stressful here today, got a sick horse, waiting for Granville vet to show up, probably Sara. No extra $ but that's the way we all work our farms I guess, rob Peter to pay Paul. Somehow it always works out. Need some healing thoughts for my mare. Brenda

July 16, 2012 at 12:29 PM  
Blogger Mary Schroeder said...

The trainer won't hurt - but like a lot of people have said - you need to learn how to figure it out yourself also.

Backing him up the hill was a fantastic idea.

He is becoming barn sour - basically not wanting to leave the comfort and laziness of standing in pasture. A lot of horses try this with newer riders. The remedy I always used was just make them do it. Sometimes it was as simple as threatening with twirling rein tips (ride western - so no need for crop) - sometimes it was a fight out the whole trail with rearing and backing into bushes etc.

Merlin is testing you - just like you think - never give in. He wants to balk at going out - either push him beyond where he stops or start working him right were he is - trot figure eights and start floating those figure eights down the road away from the house.

I understand that may not be the best idea on a busy rode but you get the idea and you can modify to make it safe for you.

Best of luck

July 16, 2012 at 1:18 PM  
Blogger Krista said...

keep up the good work jenna. i remember when i rode by myself there was always a test of wills. it didn't matter which horse or pony. mine always seemed to be more skittish or timid or scared when it was just us 2. when another horse and rider were along things usually went very well.

July 16, 2012 at 1:38 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Well now, you just know he'll be totally placid and biddable when the trainer's there to watch. :) I could see myself in your shoes. I get so much into my brain when launched on my own that I forget to just listen to what my body already knows. I'd be one to totally screw Merlin up on my own. Glad you have the confidence (and help) to get back on the right track.

July 16, 2012 at 2:41 PM  
Blogger ladyfarrier said...

"Farriers do this (boot in the gut) with misbehaving animals; they don't want to get hurt and they want to nip that behavior in the bud. "

I beg your pardon, but no.....they (I) don't. I've never understood the logic of kicking, or hitting a horse (or any animal) in order to make it relax or stand quietly.

Whack on a thousand pound animal and then crawl underneath it to work with sharp tools?....I don't think so.

We're supposed to be SMARTER than these creatures....the only way to effectively and safely deal with them is to use your intellect in *training* them, not "showing them who's boss", etc. Training involves knowing how to deal with their brain to get the desired response, or eliminate the undesired one. Not a lot of learning takes place when you throw in pain and punishment.

All of this hot potatoes, boots in the gut, tiring them out, spurs on an an unskilled rider and leaving whip welts is focusing on the symptom, not the problem nor it's solution.

And if you're going to use one of the above methods, you'd better KNOW in advance how the horse is going to react, and HOW to instantly respond to save your bacon when it does. This is usually beyond most novices.

JMHO, of course

Jan in Illinois, 30 years as a professional farrier who learned early that force doesn't get the job done.

July 16, 2012 at 3:48 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth from the Berkshires said...

I don't know anything about horses, but I'd like to meet the animal that can out-stubborn you. :)

July 16, 2012 at 3:56 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

No need for anyone to be negative or upset. Merlin and I will sort it out. For some people, tough love has worked wonders. For others, they wouldn't slap a fly. Merlin and I will figure out what works for us with the guidance of trainers and friends.

July 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, a couple of comments are upsetting. "Kick them in the gut?" Yikes. I think Ladyfarrier has made some valid points and with 30 years under her belt, there's sound integrity in her advice. To me, the constant theme "showing him who's the boss" is a little disturbing. All things good in due time. Developing a relationship with such a wise animal takes time, patience, tolerance and compromise. Merlin has been through alot of changes in the past year, with barely any exhale time. Just my opinion, but I think he needs a little slack and time to adjust, not a lesson in "who's the boss."

July 16, 2012 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger Mary Schroeder said...

By now you probably no the difference between him being nervous about something (the "bear" incident) and just being stubborn/lazy. The difference in those two actions dictates how you react. Spooked = slowly working with him to get over the fear and not doing anything to make him more anxious. Stubborn = the "sugar" method = whether that be the boot or crack to the butt or more work where he has refused to move.

You know what works best for you and your horse.

July 16, 2012 at 4:52 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

Krista brought up a great point. As a herd animal, horses are sometimes difficult to take out of pasture (away from other horses) and trail ride with just you and them. I've had the same experience as her...a horse who routinely does stupid/stubborn things while on a solo trail ride will be an absolute delight when riding with friends, in a group. They just feel better when there are other horses with them. Chalk it up to thousands of years of instinct. They like the feel of the herd around them. Occasionally you find a horse who is very comfortable riding solo with just their rider for company, and you'll find a high price tag attached to them because it's not a common thing. Ask any cowboy, lol.

July 16, 2012 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger goatgirl said...

Oh he's such a pony...

When we got a large pony years ago my husband got on her to go for a ride. He hadn't ridden much before. They headed off down the road and I went into the house. It took them a long time to come back so I went down the road looking for them. At every driveway there was a dug up spot in the gravel where Fancy turned around and tried to go back and my husband made her turn around keep going. I had to admire his persistence. He made her do the whole thing and I'd like to say we never had a problem after that but she was a pony so we did.
Have fun. It's summer. The perfect time to work on this.

July 16, 2012 at 5:07 PM  
Blogger J.D. said...

When you back his arse up into a tree, he'll pay attention. It sounds a tad cruel, but it will reinforce the fact that he needs you.

July 16, 2012 at 5:56 PM  
Blogger Rich With Life said...

My girl is a bucker... There is no reason for it other than that she gets lazy and when she doesn't want to do anything other than walk home and I want her to do something else, she bucks, kicks, etc. I ride her
Western and English and after 6 years of having her (She was 2.5, I was 14) I have finally, finally figured out how to work with her on this... Each horse is different, and different things work. I do what one of the other posters said... I give her something else to think about... She wants to have a fit, I tell her I want her to have her fit over there... oh wait over there, at a trot, backwards or doing figure eights. Eventually with all the distracting I am doing, she forgets that she was having a fit and will calmly do whatever it is I wanted her to do first! Backing him up the hill was a great idea- I have used that one many times! Sounds like you too are certainly figuring each other out- just remember your patience, and that you are not "boss" necessarily- you are partners with that gorgeous boy, and like every partnership there are gives and takes. That's my two bits!

July 16, 2012 at 7:05 PM  
Blogger HawaiiWahine said...

Jenna- was he willing to go anywhere other than the direction in which he saw the bear? If so, then it may be that he is really scared of the bear. I'm curious as to what the trainers will say in order to habituate a horse to something you cannot set them up to see again (unless you are going to trap a bear and keep him by the side of the road for training, LOL!); I can sure understand if Merlin is afraid of being attacked by a large ursine. If he is ridden with a group of calm, confident horses who have no idea a bear was ever there, wonder if he would relax and go up the road with them, figuring that " well, if they think it's OK, then it must be!" He may be generalizing that anywhere off the property is not safe from a large hairy beast with big teeth that wants a pony for lunch (Merlin's possible interpretation). Do post what the trainers have to say and what works. Pulling for you both from Hawaii!

July 16, 2012 at 7:10 PM  
Anonymous Raining Iguanas said...

Maybe someone should let him know who he's fooling with, he might listen more carefully. $$$ on the one with the keyboard.

July 16, 2012 at 8:02 PM  
Blogger katiegirl said...

Even if a horse is 1000 lbs, you can still do damage and hurt him/her by kicking him/her in the gut with a boot on. Sorry cowgirl, but that is just plain wrong. I've NEVER seen anyone kick a horse in the gut, in all my years of working with horses. There's a lot of tender stuff in a horse's gut, and a kick as hard as you can with a boot is bound to hurt something.

Jenna, I'm pretty sure you would never do a thing like that anyways.

July 16, 2012 at 8:16 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I think some people are being a bit dramatic here. Merlin isn't just balking at the traihead. He doesn't want to leave the driveway, and not because he is scared, but because he doesn't want to work. We saw this with the trailer. We saw this when we started trail riding. His instructors at Riding Right experienced this. Lisa, his owner I bought him from, told me he would pull this. He is a pony and he has my number. It is my job to regain herd leader status to him and Jasper and a trainer will help me do that.

July 16, 2012 at 8:17 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Right now a crop on the bum causes him to kick staight back so a kick in the gut would have me in the air about ten feet.

He needs patient, consistent, work on the ground and in the saddle.

July 16, 2012 at 8:19 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

and cowgirl, your thoughts are welcome here. People have the right to disagree with you or me, but at the end of the day we all do what we feel is best.

July 16, 2012 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger deodar said...

I'm with Rich with Life, keep his feet moving, in a circle or figure 8 or whatever. With my mare if it's something kind of strenuous and really boring (little circles) she finally realizes it's no fun and goes where I want and we're now to the point that if I simply start her in a little circle she gives in. It seems once they realize you're serious about doing what you want they accept the fact that you're the one in charge. I've found it helps to take some time every day and just watch a horse, get to know its reactions and likes and dislikes. You can learn a lot about them that way. Don't give up, once he cedes the power to you and recognizes that you are the leader you'll have some wonderful times with him.

July 16, 2012 at 8:40 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Perhaps you are now finding out why he was for sale. I'm not saying he can't be schooled out of his vices but the previous owners may not have wanted to take the time to overcome his quirks.

July 16, 2012 at 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Sara Hartman said...

There's no doubt that you and Merlin will work out your relationship so you both enjoy a nice ride again. You have excellent resources in colleagues and in your own understanding and a great pony who is very smart. With some additional work and assistance from your trainers, you'll both be fine. As with the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race. There's no rush to do it all in one day. Best wishes!

July 16, 2012 at 8:58 PM  
OpenID mountainchicken said...

My only advice is to avoid dismounting if at all possible. Horses tend to learn realllllly quickly that bad behavior = break from being ridden. If they think they can get out of work by intimidating you with their antics, they will. Of course, if staying mounted is dangerous then by all means, dismount.

Other training platitudes:

Ask, suggest, then demand.

Make the right choice easy and the wrong choice difficult.

July 16, 2012 at 9:05 PM  
Anonymous cow girl said...

I figured I would ruffle many feathers, but I stand by what I said. I did not say "beat the horse" nor did I say "cause welts" nor did I say "show him who is boss". I have smacked probably two horses on the side (gut, whatever) with my boot on in 40+ years of horses. I only had to do it once to each of these boys. I am not fond of laying on the crop while in the saddle; only bucking results and I don't like hitting the ground much.

This said, I won't tolerate poor manners in horses or people! 8-) The former gets you hurt or worse, and the latter is just bad form.

And being rather thick-skinned, I'm not offended, just experienced. And I thank you Jenna for allowing a bit of discussion and dissent.

July 16, 2012 at 9:38 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Jenna.
My first horse was WAAAY barn sour. If you think that is what is going on with Merlin, what I read when I was dealing with it was to make coming home less than appealing, if you will. Say for example, one were to come home and immediately take off the tack and put the horse out to pasture. Try instead leaving the horse tacked up and tie them to a tree for awhile. Another thing to try is back the horse the last part of the journey home. Instead of home representing the end of the working session, make it just the beginning and only ride for a short time with the groundwork at home being being the majority of your working time together. When you do leave the property to ride, when you come back, don't stop at your house-keep going. Every "hissy fit" to get back onto the property = a longer ride away from home. If one were to come home and feed one's horse right away, one could try waiting to feed. If one were in the habit of coming home and putting the horse in the pasture, one could try putting the horse in the stall for a chunk of time or in a dry lot or sacrifice area.

That's all I can think of at this time of night!
Lisa in Maine

July 16, 2012 at 9:38 PM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Good for you Jenna! The backing up the hill was genius.

July 16, 2012 at 10:37 PM  
Blogger J.D. said...

I understand now. He's cow kickingnwhen he feels the crop? Some horses do that because they don't want to pay attention.

Great to get the trainer involved. Perhaps he needs more training structure.

July 16, 2012 at 11:11 PM  
Blogger redbird said...

I’m with cow girl :-) and Rich With Life too. I’ll leave it at that when it comes to “recommendations”.

Know you’ll get the kinks worked out. You have a good crew helping in the background and in a little while this won’t even be on the radar when you think of Merlin’s story with you. You're just acquiring skills to throw in that horse tool box to pull out later on down the road with some other horse at CAF or for a friend and knowledge that will make you a better rider in the long run.

July 17, 2012 at 11:32 AM  
OpenID peihome said...

Gosh, that brings back memories... lol, I was 14 with no clue and a very high-drama first horse that my sister picked out for me. I swear that's when I started getting my first gray hairs!
Her issue was the same, but with various methods (NOT to be outlined here!), I did show her who was boss.
But after several years of her constant shenanigans I overcame my attachment to her and bought a lovely bomb-proof Q-horse. What a novelty, a horse that didn't spook at its own shadow!

July 17, 2012 at 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Leigh said...

Maybe Merlin knows something about the road that you don't. He may be using his animal sixth sense and has a specific reason for not wanting to be on it? Just a thought.

July 18, 2012 at 3:59 AM  
Blogger Holly said...

When he is being a douche, make what he wants to do be as physically uncomfortable for him, that when he finally does what you want him to do, it will be a reward for him. You are the boss Jenna. He may be top male, but you are the matrian mare, she trumps the stallion. How's that for pony chess Merlin?

July 18, 2012 at 10:48 PM  
Blogger Holly said...

When he is being a douche, make what he wants to do be as physically uncomfortable for him, that when he finally does what you want him to do, it will be a reward for him. You are the boss Jenna. He may be top male, but you are the matrian mare, she trumps the stallion. How's that for pony chess Merlin?

July 18, 2012 at 10:49 PM  

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