Finally got to spend some decent time with Xena last night. I think for the very first time since I played with her in California, I actually feel like did something SUCCESSFUL!
So after that whole incident the other day with taking her outside of her comfort zone, experiencing sudden onset of opposition reflex, and realizing she has nooo language with people... I decided on using last night to teach her how to lead properly. I remembered figuring that out exactly in CA, but problem was last time I only got half way through how to fix it. I was working on the opposition reflex, but not the following part. Also, it would always come back when she went out of her comfort zone and until that last play session we just had, I had no idea why. I am so glad that my savvy has improved SO much since then, that I actually feel I can handle it.
So last night I go in to her pen. Once I get her haltered, I spend some time on her favorite scratchy spots. Then I try to see just how little she knows of the halter. She doesn't really respond (at least not well) to pressure anywhere on it. Can't turn her, can't flex her, can't put her head down. Hmmm...... how interesting!!! What about porcupining backwards? If I use the stick, she walks forward in to it, but if I use my hand she will back up. Okay well at least I have some sort of reverse button. Then I start playing hide your hiney, and backing off when I get two eyes. When she's walking correctly without me touching the halter, I start using a bit of the rope, with hands that close slowly and open quickly. She fought it for a while, and would not look at me if there was rope contact. With enough retreat and proper timing of release, she would follow me around her pen, sharp turns and all, on a loose rope, and when I did use it she actually followed the feel!
Then I open the gate to start the hike over the puddles and through the snow to the indoor arena we go. This is where things started going badly last time, so I just made sure not to let her lead out and lose confidence, but give her a JOB the whole time. Follow. It was surely a difficult concept for her since she'd really only ever been dragged around by the snap. Plus, when people hold the snap on those traditional halters, the horse only has her inside eye on the person. So getting her to think "Boy, I gotta keep watching that nut, she's all over place!" was exactly what she needed. But it took a while, and I'm sure our tracks through the snow would look something of a first grader's scribbles. Eventually we made it to the arena. We play the game a little longer, and then I let her loose to run and play.
After about 3 laps of galloping around the arena, she came to me! Hmmm... looks like I made the catching game an automatic response. Yay Im not completely on the wrong track! After a bit more catching game, she was following me at liberty. You know what, tonight I'm focusing on leading properly... let's play stick to me at liberty! And we did! AND it worked!!! All I had to do was look at her hindquarters ever so slightly and she would remember her job was to keep her head up next to me. We did this from both sides (she has had little to nothing done on her right side, so I was quite impressed with that). I could switch directions easily too. And if she didn't stop right when I stopped, I could touch her chest and she would back up. By the end of it, she actually let me back her off with the carrot stick.
I put her halter back on to slowly start making our way back to the barn. She leads just like she's supposed to. And any time we stop, she puts her nose on something! I think I've made that a default behavior too! AWESOME! So we play with that for a little while. We are walking along the wall to turn the lights out, and I think "She wants to play this, so at that next wood pole I'll have her touch that." and right where she was she stopped and touched the wall there!! Mental connection?
Since she is obviously learning best in patterns - typical RBI - I know that once we create a language then we'll start the Parelli patterns asap, before she creates negative ones. Or continues the negative ones she already uses. So until then, since I'm getting some response from the halter, I decide our next little pattern will be come to me and put your head down. We work on the for a few minutes. I turn half the lights out, she's a bit right brain, but I continue with put your head down and relax. She actually picks that up incredibly fast, and every few steps out of the barn I have her stop and stand with her head down for 7 seconds.
Of course on the way back to our barn she starts to get snorty and prancy, I continue with staying ahead of her, battling opposition reflex, and playing stick to me until she remembers her job. Follow. She then very calmly lets me lead her back in to her pen. I actually send her in since I knew it was a safe place, and I let her follow the feel of the rope around the gate.
I feel like I just accomplished something amazing. I never had any idea how something so simple as leading could cause so many problems when taught wrong. Its like the number 1 thing every horse needs to know to exist in humansville is also the most neglected thing out there. I now see when one thing early on goes wrong, but people keep moving anyway, it snowballs until you get a complete training mess like Xena.
Anyway, it was an inspiring play session and now I feel there is hope. I just might get on her one day. At this rate, I just might live through it too! ;)