the Murray guide to training your baby horse

Writing up all of Murray’s ridiculous behaviors and how they have changed over time yesterday got me thinking about how I’ve worked on his behavior.  Other than Murray I don’t have a ton of experience working with young horses for more than a few weeks at a time.  So Murray has, very much, been the greatest educator in my life.  In many ways, he is typical of a young horse: spooky, unfocused, still learning.  In other ways, he is challenging beyond the standard young horse challenge: he persists in weird behaviors beyond the lessons that young horses typically need, and even in my barn manager’s words he is a horse where you must very carefully approach the behaviors that you can punish and those you must let go – for now.

Change the context
At the height of his tacking-up problems, Murray was most upset by tacking up inside the barn.  So on the worst of days I would simply* take Murray and my tack out to the arena and tack up there.  Whatever it is about being inside the barn, whether it is claustrophobia, a learned negative association, or something else, it sometimes makes Murray more anxious and jumpy than being outside.  So why not just take the advantage and go outside to get what I want?  We could always tackle tacking up inside the barn another day.  This works for us away from home too** – trailer too spooky?  Find somewhere else to tack up.  Water complex inspires too much sass for warming up?  Go to the nearest patch of flat ground.

febdressage07* Ha, I say simply, but usually this was after far too much fighting and coaxing.

** Interestingly, Murray was the most perfectly behaved at dressage camp, a totally different context!


Change the association
After a few months of tacking up Murray it was pretty clear to me that simple repetition was not going to inspire him to stand perfectly still and appreciate the tacking up process.  Thanks to his history Murray had a negative association with tack, and that was the end of it.  So I had to change that association.  You can watch the late Sophia Yin do the same thing with a dog here.  (It’s a really great video, if you’re interested in training at all you should definitely watch.)

The idea is that you dissociate the negative affect from the stimulus by adding something that the trainee finds positive.  In Murray’s case, this could only be food rewards, as petting and verbal praise are not very rewarding to him.  I got a lot of shit for trying to make this work, as it created a lot of negative behaviors at the outset (pawing, mugging for treats while simultaneously dancing away from the girth), but I do think that this, more than anything else, took Murray’s opinion of tacking up from “the worst thing ever” to “better than a sharp stick in the eye”.

ASIAN HORSE MOM 6Least Rewarding Stimulus (LRS)
Lots of riders know a lot about the least rewarding stimulus, though I’m not sure they ever think of it as such.  When you’re riding along trying to do, say, a 20 meter circle, and your horse decides she just absolutely CAN NOT and starts flailing for no reason in the middle and you just keep riding through as if that 20 meter circle is still happening – that’s the LRS.  The LRS usually involves ignoring an action or behavior and behaving as if it never happened, which can take the form of actually ignoring someone or simply continuing on with what you are doing.

One example of using the LRS on Murray was with his behavior of pawing while I was grooming.  Murray used to lift up the foot on the near side of his body during grooming (but also while anticipating his bucket and while eating his bucket), and then paw in the air back and forth.  Not only was this incredibly annoying, I quite literally feared for my kneecap.  The standard responses (smack him or curry on through as if it didn’t happen) didn’t work, so when he would do this I started walking a few steps away and turning away until Murray’s foot returned to the ground.  Very shortly the pawing decreased in frequency drastically.  For whatever reason my attention was desirable enough to get Murray to quite pawing the air, so yay.

Let them eat grass
I know lots of people don’t let their horses graze while tacked up, and I appreciate that for many reasons.  But for a large part of Murray’s life if he didn’t have the distraction of food he would focus on all the other horrors of the world – other horses schooling cross country fences, a dust devil off in the distance, and YE GODS GIGANTIC HUGE CROSS COUNTRY FENCES STATIONED JUST OVER THERE.  Eating grass is really the lesser of two evils.

wp-1449989989647.jpgPut their mind to work
This one is a horse-training basic, but I’m putting it on the list because I truly did not believe that it would work when I was first told to do it, and it did (and I find my own suggestion met with similar incredulity when I suggest it!).  There are times when Murray is too worked up to stand quietly, eat grass, or even stand not so quietly.  In the past he’s turned himself into a sweating mess and started side passing or backing in the direction he perceives as the least offensive – sometimes this is right into parked vehicles (and as funny as it would be to see him sit down on a sedan, I don’t actually want to have to be responsible for that damage).  In these situations I put Murray onto a small figure-8, asking him to dramatically flex his neck to each side through the change of direction.  With this strategy I could slowly get him closer and closer to the start gate or start box, and he hardly even noticed all the other activity because I had him so focused on me*.  I started this, with my trainer’s guidance, at Murray’s first show, and I think that it’s become something of a calming routine, as I need fewer and fewer circles to get him back to me, and I don’t even have to do it at familiar venues these days!

* I wish this would work on him during my regular rides, dammit!

When in doubt, walk it outIMG_20151108_120344~2
Sometimes you just need to go for a walk.  A quiet walk, away from all the other horses and the areas of unpleasantness from earlier.  Change the context, take a deep breath, have a cry if you need to, but after a bit of a walk both I and Murray typically feel better and are ready to re-approach whatever went wrong.

This is the key.  The slow, quiet, unrelenting persistence that doesn’t start fights but always wins them.  (Clipping picture included because there are some times, some times, when you just have to clip through the bullshit and win a fight that you refused to be a part of.)

I think the take-away message from Murray has been to know what he was mentally capable of at any time, and only tackling those pieces of his behavior that I could modify within that framework.  Other horses can have more demanded of them at a younger age than Murray could, but there are plenty of horses out there in the blogosphere and the world at large who need a little bit of careful treatment.

13 thoughts on “the Murray guide to training your baby horse”

  1. Awwwww. I love this post! It’s really important to reflect on all the incremental change and when you get to look back over a long period of time the changes become larger and more apparent. I know it’s especially tough when outsiders (or even people at your barn) don’t subscribe to your way of approaching various behaviors, but you know your horse best:)


  2. I love the approach you take to his training, really analyzing his behaviors and determining the best way to tackle them through proven, consistent methods. After Dino recovered from ulcers he was still girthy because of his negative association with getting girthed up, so I started feeding him treats after each time I tightened it a hole. Worked like a charm, and he’s generally not obnoxious about it!


  3. My old trainer ALWAYS told us to let the nervous babies eat grass. It go their jaw working which calms them apparently. I blindly trusted her even tho I was like ZMOG NO GRASS WHILE TACKED UP . But it worked!

    I loved this post!! You analyzed everything to a T and found what worked for him


    1. I honestly have only seen a few people be militant with baby horses about not eating grass, but sometimes I think even older anxious horses could benefit! I would much rather take some grass stains and a tiny bad habit over a horse who is anxious and can’t be calmed at the in-gate!


  4. I remain impressed with all that you’ve accomplished with Murray. I complain about Nilla a lot, but I think he might be more difficult. Nilla was a huge PITA for tacking up and then I started giving her treats. Which was a tactic I was not a fan of either, but it did work. She’s much better now.


      1. Honestly, the Mustang has been easier than the mule. I hope you didn’t take my comment in a bad way. I wasn’t saying I think Murray is bad. I’m just really impressed with reading everything you’ve done with him.


  5. You are so awesome. You do great with Murray, and thank you for sharing what you do!!
    I’m going to have to look into the associative thing for Berry during tack up. She’s such a grouch, I think sensitive skin.


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