13.11.19: Claiming the Space

Things had been slowly deteriorating and the horses were getting harder and harder to manage. Storm was acting very spooky even just trying to feed, and was sometimes bolting away from me when I was attempting to bring him in to eat. The other horses were no better, though not as bad as he was. I was struggling to understand what had shifted that was causing so much trouble when things had been fine.

It was a great relief when Kirsten finally made it back to Maryland. As it turned out both Kristie and Anne were unable to make it for their lessons, so I took care of things, and that gave Kirsten four hours to work with the horses and get done exactly what needed to be done for each horse.

The first thing she did was claim the space. She recognized that Storm was feeling anxious because he was feeling responsible for everything and felt he had to look after the herd. His anxiety was making me more anxious and so we were in a big downward spiral. Kirsten walked in and took over, and her first target was Storm. We went into the pasture and took a lunge whip to make sure we could defend our space from a distance, and carried his halter. When he didn’t offer to connect with her right away, she drove him away. He went into a tizzy and tried to get the entire herd stirred up with him, running behind each horse that he passed, and trying to drag them into his drama. We kept our focus only on him and ignored the rest of the herd behavior. They quickly realized there was no pressure on them, and we were only after Storm, and began to simply get out of his way rather than run with him. The shift in the herd was noticeable, and it seemed to make him more upset at the onset because they weren't following him, but were beginning to look to us for guidance. He stubbornly stuck it out and so we kept driving him away, pushing him out of the herd and to the edges of the pasture. Finally, after more than 45 minutes of pushing, he turned and made an effort to connect with us. The connection was fleeting, and we had to push some more, but the next shift came faster, until he was willing and interested in being caught. There were lots of licks and chews as a reward for the effort that it took to readjust his thinking to allow us to control the space. I finally haltered him and we began to move around the pasture. Kirsten had me walk anywhere and everywhere. We approached the gate, and when he got nervous, we returned to the middle of the pasture again. We played approach and retreat until things didn't matter anymore. She had me turn him loose again, and then go catch him again. This time the game didn't last long, and he quickly decided it wasn't worth all the effort of moving away, and connected with me and allowed me to halter him.

This time Kirsten had me bring him all the way in to the barn and put him into his stall. Once he was there, I caught each of the other horses and brought them in. Kirsten instructed me to only handle the calmest horse first. If a horse was calm, it didn't matter where that horse stood in the hierarchy, that horse was handled first. Even if it meant walking into the pasture to get the horse standing patiently at the back of the group and bringing them through all the other horses to lead them out first. This was a huge ah-ha for me. Reward the horses for calm behavior and calm behavior will be the result. This has a profound affect on the herd and how they conduct themselves. It becomes the standard that they all remain calm when being handled and moved in and out for various reasons.

After they were all in, we began to put them out again. Calmest horses went first. Joker and Belle were put into the front part of the paddock. Storm went into the pasture by himself so he could relax for a little while without the responsibility of dealing with the rest of the herd. Tali and Sterling were brought into the back of the paddock inside the panels to work. We led them straight through the paddock with Joker and Belle undisturbed. Joker and Belle got to graze together while being close to Tali and Sterling doing the work, so they could observe in a non-threatened way.

We turned Tali and Sterling loose to work at liberty and they began to move out. We worked them together until they could find calm. Tali was being quite feisty and driving Sterling around as we worked, and making him move away from her as well as cutting him off at the turns. They began to finally settle down into a rhythm, and we were able to get some calm walking work done. They both did beautifully putting a lot of effort into finding the walk and working to balance more. The improvement really great.

As they finished up working together, Kirsten suggested that I go turn Belle and Joker out with Storm in the pasture again. I started for Joker, assuming he'd be calmest, but he moved away from me. I didn't have a halter that would fit Belle, so I tossed the rope around her neck at Kirsten's suggestion. If she got upset, I'd have to go get a halter, but until then, I would trust that she would be calm. We headed out of the paddock and into the pasture without incident, and I turned her loose where she calmly ambled away to the hay feeder. I returned to the paddock to find Joker working himself into a tizzy. I simply remained calm and waited for him to calm down. Once he was calmer, I began to approach him, and when he moved away I simply continued to push until he made a change and connected with me. I was rewarded with a lick and chew as I haltered him and we headed to the pasture. I turned him out, and then headed back into the paddock for the others. Nancy was bringing Tali out, and I had to give Sterling a moment to reconnect when he got a bit frantic that Tali was leaving. Once he reconnected with me, he settled and we turned him out into the pasture last.

Kirsten instructed me to go catch Storm again. He made a very halfhearted attempt to move away and then chose to connect without any more trouble. I brought him up to the gate, and then turned him loose again.

Follow up: Its been a few weeks since our whopping lesson, and the effects are pretty profound. I've had no more trouble catching them and bringing them into the barn since then. Tali has given me a little bit of a fit now and then, but nothing compared to the issues that I had. The whole herd is a different herd simply by changing the approach to handling them. I never understood what it took to set up a barn to "run" on a daily basis. Every barn that I've ever been to was already running, so I had no example to follow. The approach has changed how I handle everything, and the horses are responding beautifully. I've very grateful for the opportunity to work with the entire herd as a collective group for such a dedicated amount of time.