I went up to the barn yesterday, bundled up in all of my winter gear and excited to work with Rocky and Ella. When I got up there, Ella's owner had her out already and was just about done messing around with her. We chatted for a bit, and as I was talking I gestured upwards with one of my hands. I noticed Ella shy away a little, eyeing me suspiciously. I continued the movement over and over. My arm swished past my body, making more noise than usual due to the fabric of my jacket.
Ella edged away, her ears back and nose in the air. I followed her, keeping roughly the same distance as the one that had startled her. When she stopped trying to sidle away and seemed to relax a little, I stopped waving my arm and rubbed her neck. She blew out softly, already seeming to understand that a neck caress is soothing and means that she has done the right thing. She flinched a little when I repeated the exercise, but didn't try to move away again. Her owner, Bryan, remarked that he had never thought of desensitizing a horse with something as simple as an arm movement.
We talked about it for a few minutes, and I encouraged him to foster her natural curiosity about things that he knows won't hurt her. If she is spooks at something, let her walk up and smell it. She'll learn to investigate things rather than run away from them.
I asked if he minded me working with her in the round pen, and if he wanted to watch. He was happy to hear this, and led her through the barn. She snorted and went sideways a little when exiting the other end of the barn. Bryan was going to keep leading her to the round pen, until I stopped him and had him let Ella smell the potted plant that had made her shy. Within seconds she was trying to eat the brown, brittle plant stems. I reiterated that every spook is an opportunity for learning, and the more she is shown that the horse-eating-thing she spooked at will not hurt her, the calmer of a horse she will be.
We let her go in the round pen to buck and trot around for a few minutes. I also wanted to see what the footing was like without putting pressure on her to follow my directions.
Half the round pen was icy, but the other half seemed okay. The last time I had her in the round pen, she had cut across the pen, skipping the now icy half completely. I decided to give it a go, and stop if the footing became too much of a problem.
She remembered some of the lesson from four days previous! I had to walk up to her to encourage her to move out the first time, but after that all it took was a snap on the ground with the whip in the center of the round pen to send her off when she was getting sticky. Once she purposefully walked in the correct direction off just my point, most times it took pointing and clicking to achieve it.
Ella was doing pretty well going right, so I decided to work on sending her to the left. Unfortunately, she became braver about the other half of the round pen when traveling to the left. I had to back off completely when she went over there, as the ground was smooth ice with a dusting of snow. Several times her feet slid around. I finally decided that I needed to stop the lesson. I wasn't able to cue her properly and she was putting herself in danger on the ice.
I moved on to desensitizing her to the lunge whip. She was fine with it rubbing down her neck and sides, but was flinchy when it touched her butt. When I rubbed down her left hind leg, she kicked out when it touched just above her hock. I kept rubbing when she kicked, so she tried to move away from it while seriously considering kicking again. After a few seconds, she stopped her movement and stood still for me for a good 10 seconds. I took the whip off her leg and praised her. I put it back, and she huffed out a breath, then relaxed. She didn't try to kick out the rest of the session.
It's moments like that when I know I'm doing the right thing here, teaching her not to kick and how to relax. Bryan had said he picked her feet without a problem before I got there, but I worry that he trusts Ella a bit too much. He also doesn't know how to desensitize a horse properly, and would have removed the pressure when she struck out rather than keeping it on, effectively teaching her that if she strikes with her feet, scary things go away.
Ella also tried to push into me when she got uncomfortable with what I was doing. I curbed this by keeping my hand at her eye level. Every time she attempted to push into me, I tapped her face with my hand. Ella would throw her head back in alarm, but back off. After a few times of running into my hand, she figured out that she needed to keep a respectful distance.
By the end of our desensitization, she was standing quietly while I flipped the string of the lunge whip over her back and butt, then dragged it back to my side. I let the string flip around the far side of her from me, curl under her belly, and then I would drag it back across to me.
Overall, I'd say we ended on a successful note with her desensitization. I had her stand tied for a bit, and she pawed a little at first but then stopped. I was able to release her after only 10 minutes or so, when she stood quietly with one hind leg cocked in relaxation. Smart filly.