Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ridin' the Trail

Today, Sierra, Sara, my son, and I went for another trail ride/walk at our local rec area. Sierra rode her 4 year old Haflinger gelding, Gandalf, Sara rode Gandalf's mom, Persimmon, I brought Guinness, and my son walked his dog, Zippy.

The morning started with my usual routine:
  1. Hook up the trailer and open the horse window & back doors
  2. Put hay and Guinness' breakfast into the manger of the trailer
  3. Beckon Guinness, halter him, bring him out of the paddock
  4. Allow him to graze while I put his shipping boots on
  5. Walk over to the trailer, walk on and invite him to walk on
  6. He loads right up and discovers his breakfast
  7. Tie him using a Blocker tie ring and his lead rope
  8. He stands there and eats while I load up stuff and feed the other guys
  9. When we are ready to roll, I shut the doors and the window and we slowly drive off

Guinness was eager to load onto the trailer, however he is still having the issue of jumping up with both back legs. Once he got on and grabbed a bite, I backed him off and asked him to come back on, which he did much more gracefully. Next time, I think that I'll try putting a ground pole behind the trailer to remind him that he can move each hind foot individually..

When we arrive at the park, we have another routine:
  1. Park (sometimes a challenge)
  2. Open his window
  3. Stand around and talk with friends while G. hangs out the window
  4. Open the doors, putter around some more
  5. Unload and tie him to the trailer
  6. Leisurely grooming
  7. Tack up
  8. Lead him out of the parking area and down the trail
  9. (for more advanced horses, I mount whenever they are mentally ready)

I think that these routines are really important and set the tone for our adventures together. I try to make things as pleasant and consistent as I can for the horse, and try to minimize my own stress level (which also helps to calm the horse).

I'm very conscious that how I handle Guinness' initial experiences will strongly affect what he will come to expect, and how he will react to future events. I don't want him to anticipate that trips will be stressful and that we are going to tack up and go gaiting through the parking lot in a rush to hit the trail. I've ridden (and ridden with) too many horses high on adrenaline from the moment that they get on the trailer until the moment that they arrive back home. This is completely unsafe and unnecessary.

There are some other little routines that we play with while we are on the trail (mostly with me unmounted). Some of them are:

- I whistle the theme from The Andy Griffith Show whenever Guinness looks like he needs to pee! Supposedly, endurance riders do this to teach their horses to pee on command, so we are trying it. ;-)

- I whistle a single time to call him back to me. I do this mostly when driving him ahead of me on the 22' line. He reacts by turning, pricking his ears, and cantering to me! Of course, he earns a treat for this. I figure that it is very much like an "emergency recall" that you'd teach a dog. This behavior is so critical that I treat (well) every time to build in a sure response. Sometime I may really need this on the trail.

- If he wanders off the trail and gets tangled around a tree, I don't immediately rescue him. I try to allow him to figure it out, and if he needs help, I give him hand or rope signals. This seems to be teaching him the responsibility of "following the trail" since he really hates getting hung up on the trees.

- When a jogger or biker approaches, I send him off of the trail and ask him to turn and face whatever is passing by. Once they pass, we often jog after them a little ways in order to build his confidence. (At this point, I usually need to encourage him to *stop* following them!)

- A new idea from today is: backing up into creeks. We've played the games of backing through gates (vs. walking forward through gates) and backing off the trailer (vs. walking forward off of the trailer). Both games encourage to stop and ask me what I want him to do. This works for crossing water as well. I'm really trying to get him to mosey through all water crossings, mud, and for that matter, all obstacles rather than rushing. It is difficult to rush backward through a creek. He did great!! (He will also back over logs.)

Here is a little video of him practicing. Somehow, I managed to turn the camera sideways as I took this. Don't know what I was thinking..

- Sierra suggested an idea that she uses with Gandalf. She has taught him the word "easy" to mean go slow and pay attention (without pulling on his head). We deliberately went out of our way to tackle tricky obstacles on the trail in this manner.

- Also, we've been practicing the words "whoa" and "gait-up." I'll say "gait-up" and run forward a bit, then I'll say "whoa" and then stop suddenly (and maybe back up). When G. does a good job with this, he gets a treat. It gets him really paying attention and very cheerful!

Anyway, we had another great excursion. I mostly led or sent Guinness ahead of me on the trail, until we reached the road at the top of a mountain ridge. We rested for a little while, then I asked him to let me mount up.

First, I tied the 22' rope mecate-style. We were using a bareback pad, so I got him positioned next to a dirt embankment (a first). I not-so-gracefully lurched onto his back and positioned myself. He looked a little miffed at first, but I clicked him as I did it so he stood still. I treated him as he recovered his composure.

I looked over at the ponies and lifted my energy and he moved off in their direction and then passed them to start walking along the gravel road. He seemed really happy and relaxed. It was wonderful! We only went to the top of a nearby hill, and then we all turned around to head back to the trail head. As we walked down the hill, he wanted to walk in the ditch rather than on the gravel, and he started to feel a little unstable, so I dismounted and resumed walking. It was great. We've had our first "trail ride"!

When we got home, Guinness was sticky and smelly, so I gave him a quick bath. Fortunately, it was at least 70 degrees (weird for November). He played in the water and then I scraped him off. Cody came over at Liberty to join us, while Smokey watched from a distance. Then I took G. to the rolling spot and as he laid down, I clicked and treated him, since I eventually want him to lay down on cue. As he was rolling, Smokey came over and rolled too.

When I left the field, Guinness looked like a mud pie and was prancing around full of himself.

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