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Archive for April, 2010

“That one’s kinda feisty,” the new barn hand called from the next stall over.

He was responding to the expletive I’d just yelped as Sican the Wonder Pony shot into his stall, clipping my toes.

“I prefer to think of him as just very, very aware,” I called back, shaking my head at my stupidity. I’d set us both up for injury because rather than ask said barn hand to back up his truck, which was parked at Sican’s stall door, I decided to lead my horse through the opening that was just wide enough for him to bolt through over my toes.

It’s a recurring lesson for both me and Sican: Take a deep breath, relax and slow down. It takes very little to incite either of us to furious activity, but it takes a clear, conscious effort for us to throttle back.

And until I’d messed us up, we were doing great. We’d just come off a beautiful ride in the back pasture. Snow was melting, magpies were swooping and Sican was walking on a loose rein along the fence line that borders a busy highway. It had been a very therapeutic escape; both of us were battling spring fever that had all but blown the mercury during the previous two days’ snow storm.

I’d even taken extra time post-ride to let Sican munch on some fresh grass outside the arena. I was in no rush to get back to real life. The barn is my alternate universe where I only have to think about having fun and fully revel in the present moment.

But once I made the decision to head home, I was back in “real life” mode where I have three phones, seven email accounts, three instant messaging systems, three blogs, five Facebook pages and four Twitter accounts. Back where I have to watch TV with a book so I have something to do during commercials. Back where I do laundry, empty the dishwasher and change diapers between conference calls, editing, writing and social media updates.

My horse is not feisty. He merely broadcasts the signals I’m sending.

When I get to his stall tomorrow, I’m going to take a deep breath, relax and slow down. We’ll both be better for it.

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April is Autism Awareness Month. On the surface, that doesn’t have much to do with Peruvians or horses in general. But after reading a couple of books by Temple Grandin and watching the HBO movie about her life, I’m convinced otherwise.

Grandin is a world-renowned animal behaviorist. In her books “Animals in Translation” and “Animals Make Us Human,” she goes into vivid detail about how animals see the world. She covers cattle, poultry, dogs, cats, horses and even wild animals. With each species, she explains how her autism enables her to see the world as animals do — visually and with primary emotions of fear and curiosity.

She explains that lighter-boned, hot-blooded horses tend to have stronger fear and curiosity than heavier, calmer horses. She uses Arabs as her example of hot-bloods, but I think everything she describes also fits Peruvians. For hot-bloods, punishment adds to the fear.

Through positive reinforcement and calm, gentle treatment, we keep our horses curious. When they’re curious, they’re learning, communicating and focused on the task at hand; their brio is turned up. When they’re scared, they’re in flight mode. All they can think about is escaping the fear stimulus.

I see this very clearly with Sican the Wonder Pony. As smart and malleable as he is, it doesn’t take much to push the fear button. And I’m sure there are plenty of Peruvian owners out there who’ve rescued their horses from people who just didn’t understand the damage they do through harsh treatment. The rehabilitation of an abused Peruvian is long and painstaking. For some, the trauma does permanent damage.

So it’s up to us to better educate new people about the proper care and handling of our breed, and that means we have to better educate ourselves first. Do yourself and your horse a favor and pick up Grandin’s books.

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I’m not a professional horsewoman. I’m an amateur who works her one horse into a crazy life packed with a full-time job, two young children and a husband who knows his primary competition for my affection is a gelding.

Of course, maybe if John had given birth twice, he’d better understand the draw of a gorgeous, docile gentleman with no aspirations of reproduction. I’ve mentioned more than once that my horse is the only creature who’s primary question to me is “What can I do for you?” rather than “What are you doing for me, and why isn’t it done yet?”

Not that I’m bitter.

But I treasure my horse’s brio above all his other qualities. I grew up with quarter horses, and I’m still a huge fan. But Sican is my third Peruvian, and he’s without question my favorite horse. All because of that giving, focused intelligence that’s the hallmark of our breed.

I appreciate that brio so much that I’m always on the lookout for better ways to communicate with him. For the past four years, I’ve taken lessons from Patti Haddon, a natural horsemanship trainer who worked with Ray Hunt for about 20 years. Patient groundwork when I first got him two years ago was critical to establishing a good bond and improving his confidence.

Before I got Sican, I used clicker training on our border collie. After several classes at my local Petsmart, that dog would pick up her toys, push a shopping cart and play my daughter’s toy piano on cue. She actually beat the store record for most tricks taught to a dog — I think we hit 37.

So I’m a big believer in clickers for dogs. But horses aren’t dogs. So I picked up some books by Alexandra Kurland specific to clicker training equines. About two weeks ago, I started Sican on some basic clicker exercises. He’s taken to it well so far. He’s not playing the piano just yet, but he’s standing better for clippers, touching things with his nose on a verbal command and tolerating ear “torture” better.

It’s a gradual process based on the principle of shaping and positive reinforcement.  Temple Grandin, the renowned autistic animal behaviorist, says the two primary motivators for horses are fear and curiosity. She encourages positive reinforcement — the horse moving toward something he eagerly anticipates — over negative reinforcement — the horse moving away from something he doesn’t like (leg pressure, the bit, etc.).

I see how this all works from the ground, but I’m scratching my head over doing this from the saddle. I’d love some tips on how to develop an overall training program with nothing but positive reinforcement.

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I hesitate to make a weather prediction here. We all know how quickly snow storms zero in on us after we make some seemingly benign remark about the glorious sunshine. And yesterday’s winds were brutal. In fact, they blew me right past the barn where I board my horse all the way up to Castle Rock to my friends’ indoor arena at Meadowbrooks Farms.

We had a good time playing with a couple of his mares and his stallion. But today I’ll brave the winds and assuage my guilt with some quality time with my own cayuse, Sican the Wonder Pony. The aforementioned bad weather has contributed to his mildly tubby state. Now that the days are longer and the weather gods are kinder, we’ll be back in shape in no time.

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