Wednesday, March 22, 2017

3/18/2017: Desensitization and Obstacle Clinic

(warning, this is a long post!! much longer than I originally thought, but there's so much good stuff!)

A local trainer (we'll call her LM) had an obstacle desensitization clinic last Saturday. There were 7 45 min private lesson slots, then free obstacle practice after everyone had their private session.

LM used to compete actively in dressage and got her Bronze and Silver Medals, and did the whole dressage working student thing, but eventually started working for a local natural horsemanship trainer when she realized that most dressage horses don't leave the ring and they suffer mentally for it. She is filling a niche in the area of "cowboy meets dressage", much like the natural horsemanship trainer she worked for does, and doesn't actively compete in dressage anymore. I didn't realize until later that I had met her before when she came out to work with a blind hose at our barn who developed a behavioral problem last winter.

I am super slacking on my videos and pictures here because 1) I didn't think to take pics or video myself because I was too busy paying attention, and 2) I didn't want to ask a stranger to video for me (because that never works out for the video!).

I had a 4am wake up again as the clinic barn was about an hour and a half from home barn and she requested we be there before the first lesson started so we could watch and get a feel of what was expected... I am tired of waking up at 4am and then driving the trailer around. Another boarder went with me to the clinic, so at least I didn't haul alone! (she couldn't video or take pics for me because our lessons were back to back and she needed to get her own horse ready).

The horse participants:

  • A green broke Percheron/paint 4 year old mare
  • A rocky mountain trail gelding
  • A h/j OTTB mare
  • Penn (dressage)
  • Beau (basic dressage/trail riding/obstacle trail, from home barn)
  • There were two no shows- the weather Friday night was shitful and Saturday was in the 40's but rainy and had a chill that froze you to the bone.

Our private sessions were all in hand work- the riding portion was during the open ring time after everyone's private session.

The green broke mare did quite well in their private session- their in hand work focused on being able to move the shoulders, then she tackled most of the other obstacles in the ring with classic baby horse curiosity. The trail horse had the same "move the shoulders" work, but was not as confident in himself as the mare was and got through fewer of the obstacles. The OTTB again needed the same "move your shoulders" ground work, and lacked the self confidence and so got through a similar number of obstacles as the trail horse. Where any of them lacked the confidence to get through an obstacle, the obstacle was broken down into smaller and smaller pieces to give the horse confidence. There were excellent lessons in patience, when to push, and when to give the horse a chance to think and walk away.

Penn's 45-min Session:

I got a rope halter for the occasion (as we were instructed to bring one if we had it), and it arrived the day before the clinic, so I didn't have a change to use it or even try it on Penn before lesson time. I borrowed a long lead rope that usually goes with it (I didn't listen to Amazon's "other people who bought this also bought..." suggestion), and did some basic warm up lunging. Penn stayed out a lot better than I thought he would, but he was a horse on a mission- so forward and quick. We were to warm up over trot poles, a tarp, and canter poles on large carpets (like 12' by 12' squares). Penn barely reacted to the tarp and carpet- he just showed off a big bouncy reaching trot, then tried to buck and play when I asked him to canter.

This is where LM took him from me to work in hand- she said Penn has plenty of forward and moves the shoulder well (this is where the other horses got stuck), but he's quick and unyielding in the poll and jaw.

Here's what she worked on (that I wish I had thought to video because I could have used some original dialogue to fall back on when I practiced the next day on my own):

  • Do more close up work in hand to slow him down and make him focus and think. The other horses need to work on their self confidence and yielding the shoulders, and so need to spend time as far away from their human as possible, working on shifting the shoulders in changing directions etc. Penn has confidence and has legs that move faster than his brain. SLOW HIM DOWN! (gee, I've only heard this from EVERY trainer we've ever worked with, lol!)
  • Wiggle the chin knot on the halter right and left and release as soon as he lowers head (Penn caught on to that almost immediately and soon he was putting his head on the ground for her), and then he was licking and chewing too.
  • Where most of the horses in the clinic held their stiffness in front of the whither, Penn holds his at the poll and jaw (yupp knew that), and is reluctant to step under himself. He needs to do a ton of walking turn on the forehand where he yields at the poll and jaw while crossing the front legs (and hind, but he's good at that). He wants to speed through it and "roll" his hooves as he takes sloppy steps. Example: Stand on the left side, gently bend his head around using the same knot, and push his shoulders and ask him to cross his front legs as he steps to the right. He wants to lean on the left shoulder and step by putting the left side of the hoof down first and rolling the right side to the ground. Instead, slow him down with a half halt from the knot and shift him onto his right shoulder and make him step flat with the hoof instead of rolling it. This will also encourage him to step under himself. He should do several steps before stopping and getting a pat, and if he's licking and chewing he can have a short rest before continuing. No lick and chew, no "rest" (the idea being he's not completely focusing on the task or relaxing into it). Do a lot of "changing directions" to work each side evenly.
  • Penn does not read subtle body language cues, only large obvious cues (could this be why he absolutely sucks at horsey communications and gets his ass handed to him when he's with intolerant horses?!). He's developed enough forward that we can safely back him up in hand (I told her of his rearing issue when we got him and how we just recently started touching rein back under saddle because of it). She said to do a rein back and then move forward and back again to work on subtle body language and to make him focus and pay attention. I need to walk like he's going to get out of my way. If he doesn't, shake the line at him. If he still doesn't, take the dressage whip in my hand and tap him on the chest. If he still doesn't, make each motion bigger until I get a big response, then immediately make smaller more subtle cues.

Some other tips she gave out:

  • Your toes point at the part of the horse you want to move.
  • Use the lead line as an extension of your leading arm to "point" the horse in the direction you want him to go while you stay near the shoulder and use the whip as an extension of your trailing arm to encourage the forward.
  • Praise often. Do not say "no" when the horse does something wrong as horses are not dogs and do not understand no. Use your body language to correct them.
  • Only do something 3 times before you change it- after 3 times doing something the same, the horse learns that is correct and any more repetitions don't seem to have as great a value.
  • For as much correction as you give, you have to release an equal amount.

The second point was so hard for me to do- I've always worked with the heart girth line where standing in front of it will push the horse away from you or stop them, and being behind it pushes them forward. It was a bit counter-intuitive for me at first.

I should have asked to go over the in hand walking turn on the forehand myself before we moved on to the obstacles. I tried to practice it myself the next day and I think I had a lot more neck flexion than she did and not as much licking and chewing (but I was busy watching his foot placement as she worked him so maybe she flexed him just as much, who knows). I know I can always take a quick video at home and message it to her though.

Ok, I'm going to do some serious gloating about Penn. He did every obstacle in the arena, and did it with more self confidence than I knew he had. He was a bit "up" when he came in (I think traveling for the 3rd weekend in a row was wearing on him), but he met every obstacle with boundless interest and curiosity. He gave everything a try, and was successful at everything!

Pole trap
Don't worry, the pipe crushes when you step on it.
We started with the pole trap because he needs to learn what to do with his feet. He happily walked in, thought "this is too much stuff", and stepped out over the hay bales (that whole shoulders and heart girth thing I mentioned earlier? I had trouble keeping him in the chute). No big deal, he came back around and went through the whole thing with a little pointing direction and a tiny amount of whip flicking. He tripped through it a bunch of times and proceeded to pound the pipe into a flat tape. We worked it from both directions until he would walk through it with minimal tripping (he tried jumping groups of poles and cantering through too).

We walked through the double car wash on our way from the pole trap to the bridge. NBD here, Penn just had to figure out he could use his face to create a hole for his body.
The bridge was NBD either, but LM ended up bringing over her "cheat" tents to help me keep him on the bridge as he circled around me. Otherwise, he'd step on and step back off before the end!

Onto the water!
This was one obstacle that I identified in my pre-clinic questionnaire as something he needs to work on- he's a bit sketchy about water and I want to be able to take him swimming in GP Trainer's pond (that has a nice easy beach in), without falling off trying to get him in the pond.

She brought the "cheat" tents back over to give the water "wings" to help Penn learn that the only way out is over it. The first thing he did? Attempt to "drain" the water by drinking for about a minute straight, lol! Every time I'd push him to go forward up to it or over it, he'd drop his head and drink.

It didn't take much- just being mindful of his shoulders (don't be afraid to make myself big and scary by shaking the lead rope and putting my hands up so he doesn't bring his shoulder into me and run me over), and a bit of whip behind and soon he was trotting through it (stepping in it) like a pro. We changed directions a lot at this obstacle and continued until he could walk through it, NBD.

Noodle chute
The noodle chute was tough for the other 3 horses that had already had their private sessions. It had to be slightly demolished for each horse before they'd even come up to it. Penn went right up to it, but I had to walk the fine line of: correcting his shoulders for coming in, not punishing him for sniffing the noodles, encouraging forward, and getting him back in the chute. I ended up having to reset him and then he marched through like a pro, so she added more noodles back in (so it looked similar to the above picture) and we went the other way. He jumped the whole thing instead, haha. Maybe he could be a jumping horse? I brought him back around and he soon made quick work of realizing he could push the noodles out of his way and was walking through like a pro.

Windmill Alley. The biggest issue with this one? Not hooking my lead rope on the windmills while keeping up with Penn (he opted to jump out with his new found jumping skills when I was slow to keep up.)
One of the "cheat" tents hanging out.
For this one, you were supposed to stand in the tire and send the horse around in a circle over the poles. Penn did this easily, but hit every single pole every single time. LM said he should probably do cavaletti work and I said I already do that... and this much hitting is an improvement, lol. Once I worked out what to do with my hands (long rope and whip), I was able to make him change directions easily with my "arm extensions".
Tarp, pool, balloon wall.
We moved on to the kiddie pool (which was not on the tarp anymore, nor did it have the big balls in it, just empty plastic bottles). This is the obstacle that gave Penn the most trouble. It's circular, so he could avoid it buy doing his walking turn on the fore around it. He played with the bottles, but did NOT want to step in it. He pawed it and it made loud noises and eventually hooked a foot on it and "freaked out" by stepping on it and dragging it with him as he went backwards. We spent a lot of time correcting his shoulders, pointing the lead rope extension out in front of him, and encouraging with the whip. LM brought our "cheat" tents over to give him wings and then he finally went through it. This is where she really encouraged me to take my time in my changes of direction- make him do the change slower. If he gets riled up over the change, stop him, rein back, come forward, go in the new direction.

The balloon pop was NBD for Penn. He sniffed the balloons and thought their popping sound was neat.

We stood him on the blue tarp and LM picked up one side of it and waved it towards him (like we used to do with the big fabric parachutes in elementary school). He didn't even blink so I picked up the other side and did the same while she waved her side. Basically zero reaction from him.

The beach in an indoor?
I let him sniff the umbrellas and she opened and closed one on each side of him. He was only disturbed by it opening on his right side and wanted to move away, so she had it "follow" him until he stopped.

On our way to the last obstacle we walked under some pieces of fabric that were kind of like pavilion covers. He didn't even notice them.

The last obstacle was a fan with streamers attached to it that blew straight up into a cloth that would wave. She said horses either don't care, or want no parts of it and nothing you do will make them stay. Penn thought the cloth was super neat and tried to mouth it.

We finished out 45 minute private session by revisiting the pole trap, and Penn did much better walking through it.

Open Arena Riding:

I wish I had video of us working and riding! Ugh! Penn was so good, haha.

Everyone except the green broke mare came back for the riding portion of the clinic, and LM divided her attention among us as we conquered obstacles under saddle on our own.

I started our riding session with the trot poles and carpet and tarp, then made my way over to the pole trap. LM had me give him the rein to buckle and stay out of the way. And sit up. Because you know, I gave away my reins and went in the fetal position since I expected Penn to biff it pretty hard... and fetal position is sooooo helpful. Penn worked it out eventually, but he started jumping and leaping through it. LM had me keep a hold of the reins, but give a ton, but then stop him immediately after he leaped out of the pole trap, immediately turn around and go back through and stopping immediately upon exit again. No hurrying!

I went on to the double car wash and got to laugh at the face Penn makes as he shoves his head through the dangling stuff- he pokes his nose straight out, closes his eyes, pins his ears, and shoves his head through.

We rode over the bridge a bunch of times, over the other tarp, and through the noodle chute.

Then the liverpool with water was up. I rode him up to it with a purpose, let him sniff it, and then encouraged him over. He jumped neatly over it and I gave him lots of praise and brought him back around to walk over again. I did that a bunch of times: he wanted to jump it every time, but he wasn't over jumping it and half the time he was stepping in before jumping out.

LM wanted me to try and get him to stop with one foot in the water. So I did the wrong thing and I slowed him down right at the base, freaked him out so he then wanted to back up, and then he'd leap over it since I corrected so much. She had me keep his feet moving by making him step big and slow left and then big and slow right and the left and then right with super opening rein each way and letting him move forward inches each time we step right or left. The idea is he never gets planted to jump over it, or planted to back up and run away, and eventually he'll step a foot into the water. I got it to work kind of, but I would hold at the very last moment when he'd go to put that first foot in the water causing him to step in and then scramble out (and not halting in it like LM wanted, oops. We need practice!).

I did not attempt the kiddie pool and bottles under saddle- I thought I would freak out a bit and hold him when I needed to let him go. No worries, we'll get there eventually. I can't expect him to keep his cool if I'm afraid and anticipating his reaction.

I rode through the poles on the tire, but I asked him to really sit and collect and turn from my outside rein and leg between poles. Don't you know it? He stopped hitting the poles and sat and started taking very purposeful steps between and over the poles!

The 2' diameter balls were free in the ring, so I made him kick them around. He didn't really understand he could push them around and kept trying to go around.

I went back to the pole trap, and LM had me start to ask him for collection and sit through it and release (release is just as big as the amount of collection I asked for), and do it multiple times through the pole trap so he becomes more responsible for his own feet in collection. He became very purposeful with where he put his feet and stopped tripping over things.

I changed up the exercise into track left, collect and release in the pole trap, sit and left lead canter, canter the rest of the 20m circle, walk, collect/release through the pole trap, repeat. I worked that on my own for a few laps before LM came over to watch and give feedback. She had me leg yield him off his inside shoulder onto his outside shoulder in every transition, and move my inside hand forward about 4 inches in the canter because it looked like I was doing too much and he was heavy on that hand. It was super neat, I could ask for more sit in the canter and he would give it easily, hold it easily, and I felt I could have asked for canter/walk at any time and it would have been prompt and correct. The canter had a nice rhythm, but was still slow, big, and purposeful. We did that a bunch of times before she told me to stop there as he had done some very excellent work.

Overall, I'm really happy with our trip to visit LM and participate in the clinic. I wish I could do her next one on April 8th, but Penn and I are going to a show on 4/2, then back to GP Trainer 4/6-7. I cannot justify stuffing him back into the trailer the next day, not when LM will have more clinics and my BO is interested in having her out to see us. I don't think either of us will appreciate spending 4/7 days in a single week in the truck and trailer!


  1. That sounds SO fun, and I love how the clinician's dressage background allowed her to really help you guys in a dressage-specific way!

    1. It's really neat to work something different with someone who understands where my base is coming from.

  2. How fun! I really want to go to one of these types of clinics sometime.

  3. My biggest regret is never doing something like this with Isabel - I think she would have loved it! Sounds like Penn did a great job!

    1. Take Charlie to one!!! Penn did an awesome job :)