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.

Murray passed the PPE!!

We passed the pre-purchase.  With honors, if I do say so myself.

Nothing showed up on hoof testers, flexions, or on the lunge on soft or hard ground (uhh duh).  Despite his krazy foot, his radiographs were perfect.  Probably the only thing we didn’t get an A+ on was having his heart listened to, which he objected to greatly until barn manager reminded him that he must behave away from home as well as at home (I was already incapable of behaving rationally at that point).  So we’ll work out the papers next week and then he’s mine!

So I made this video to bask in happiness a little bit.  It pretty much perfectly describes Murray’s and my relationship.  Later this week we will return to our regularly-scheduled blabbing.

TOABH: Idiosyncrasies

What personality quirks does your pony have?  What makes him or her special?

This question was MADE for me and Murray.  Seriously.  He has been describe as “the quirkiest horse I’ve ever met” by more than one person in the horse industry — so it’s not just me!  He is extremely “special” and that is not generally a compliment.


Let’s start at the beginning, with the idiosyncrasy that marks him and all of his siblings by the same sire: the extreme, extreme girthiness.  On the track he went over more than once when they were trying to do up his girth, and even when he’s not ulcery he is super sensitive and I have to take girthing up extremely slowly.  I always start on the absolute loosest setting I can get away with, and bribe Murray to let me add another hole by distracting him with carrots.  It’s a whole song and dance, trust me.

His next biggest idiosyncrasy would have to be his extreme loquaciousness.  He’s not vocal in the way normal horses are vocal — oh no — he doesn’t call for his friends or whinny with glee at feeding time.  I’ve gotten a nicker or two out of him when I haven’t seen him for a while or if he’s been off grain for a few days for whatever reason, but for the most part he doesn’t tell you about how happy he is.  No, what Murray is vocal about is anything he is remotely displeased with.  When he starts to give his back and really has to try during dressage, he grunts and groans with the effort.  If I have to kick for a lead change, he might just let out a primordial scream as he kicks it through.  If I have the audacity to do more than tap him with the whip, I get a “HRRRRRRRR” in return (and probably a buck).  Murray is nothing if not happy to let you know his opinions.

If you turn the sound up real loud, you can hear him scream after Alana tells me to kick kick for the change.

Probably the funniest of Murray’s quirks is his go-to protest move: just lie down.  This has happened more than once to me, and several times before I started riding Murray.  Off the top of my head, here’s a few of the non-sleeping-appropriate places he’s lay down:
– under the stairs after flipping out of the cross ties
– in the barn aisle while being disciplined
– in the arena as soon as a working student mounted
– on cross country and in a pasture with me on him
– after hitting the end of the lead while tied when being tacked up
– while sedated during his dental with his head still in the speculum
This kid knows where his safe place is, and it’s in the fetal position on the ground.  Usually after he lies down it takes a couple of kicks to the stomach minute to get him back up, and then he shakes it off and shockingly recovers really well.  If only he wouldn’t lose so much hair in the process.

xtiesI have no idea why this image has such a weird border.

Murray is also simultaneously really, really smart and really, really stupid.  The kid will learn a jump course in one go through, but can’t figure out that clippers aren’t going to eat him.  He learned to target on my frisbee in two minutes, but flinched for three straight months as I would take his blanket off and put it on.  He knows piles of voice commands, but still flinches when our feeder rolls anything down the barn aisle — even food.  He’ll let you pull his mane with no protest, but jumped out the back of his box stall once when he got new shavings.  I can put a scarf over his ears and pin a horse shaming sign on him, and yet for months baling twine made him run to the other side of his stall. He’s a strange little dumdum.

Oh and finally he always — always — eats his bucket while lifting his right foot up in the air and pawing at the air.

For fun, and because I’ve been thinking of this for a while, here’s a list of all his silly little quirks — I struck them out if he’s managed to get over it.

Needed to be haltered and taken out of his stall to have his blanket put on (now he can do it over his head halterless like a Big Boy)
– Can’t get on the trailer without a stud chain and lunge whip
– Can’t jump fences with my trainer standing close to them
(anyone else is fine, Alana = no)
– Can’t do shoulder stretches without falling down
– Spooks at cell phone music
– Must be tied with a blocker ring/pull back tie
– Panics when shavings are put in his stall
– Deeply fears baling twine
– Racist
Spooks at flashlight beams
Won’t step on “weird” ground (he will jump it now!)
– Hates beer
– Can’t be clipped without drugs
– Always runs away at shows (and 50% of the time tries to kill our assistant trainer)