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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Farley and the Pigs

I've learned several things this week.

Whip on my super-special-once-in-a-while-Starbucks-drink doubles the calories of the beverage.

It takes a year to put the pieces of your life back together after a major life transition.

Farley is seriously freaked out by pigs.

I've already set up the scenerio, so if you haven't read my previous post, please go back and review. 

I believe that I was mounted, the pigs were lurching towards me in an ungainly way (have you ever seen a market hog gallop?) and Farley was looking like the cover of a Black Stallion novel. 

An important thing to realize as I go through this scenario is I have a 13 year old been there, done that horse.  She's not a green horse.  How does this affect the situation?  She's not a spooker or a looker.  Where with a green horse, depending on the personality and where we were in the training I might encourage some curiosity, or insist that the horse ignore the distraction.  At 13 and many many miles under her belt (girth), I give Farley some "rein" and some trust.  Meaning that if she insists something is worth looking at, I will let her contemplate it before asking her to move on.  It's never a good idea to totally put your wellbeing in the hooves of a flight animal, BUT she has saved my skin more than once, has shown good judgement and has earned the right to check out a situation if she wants, and it is safe.  If something weird happened and I fell off or had to let go of her, we were in an extremely safe environment. 

The second thing to keep in mind is that she is an ENDURANCE horse.  She has a job.  Her job is not to explore new things and play games.  I don't want to create a situation where My horse sees something novel and insists on going through the charade of "I'm scared" because it gets a predictable response: ie, work stopping, a game that comes with treats.  Again, this isn't a green horse that needs to learn that the world is safe and I'm the leader.  There are many circumstances on the endurance trail that the horse will encounter something unexpected and scary and MUST ignore it and carry on with the minimum of fuss and time. 

Based on my goals for an endurance horse (ignore distractions, but not experience internal stress for doing so, and think past obstacles with a minimum of direction from me) I handle situations like the pigs that will increase the likelihood of getting the end behavior at rides --> which means that we practice how we play. 

Why would I pounce on the opportunity to play with pigs, something that I had an inkling would provoke the biggest fear response in Farley that I've seen in 5 years?  Because she's an endurance horse.  Just like my comment months ago about the importance of being able to go home at speed because if you can't canter to the barn at HOME in control, how are you going to control your horse at the start of the ride, if you can't deal with a novel, scary situation at home, how are you going to deal with it on the endurance trail?  And you will have to.  I've seen and done the weirdest things at endurance ride, including cantering next to railroad tracks in the desert and having to pass a freight train yard with locomotives blowing and moving and we even raced a train at one point.  Farley had never seen a train before.  

The first question was:  Stay mounted or dismount?

Normally the answer is stay mounted.  Know thy horse.  Farley is a spooker in place, not a bolter.  HOWEVER, she was seriously freaked AND it had been awhile since I had ridden her, AND these pigs were very used to horses and were likely to run up to her and go under her belly or sniff noses.  Getting off was a perfect opportunity to.......Review whether I still had Respect on the Ground.

Horses that invade my personal space piss me off.  I can confidently say that any of the horses I have owned would willingly jump on a cliff if there was a cougar chasing them, than invade my personal bubble.  Invading my space results in an IMMEDIATE, rememberable reprimand that makes clear in no uncertain terms that it is NOT OK to come into my space uninvited.  I tend to not touch my horses reassuringly when I'm on the ground and they are spooky because I don't want them to recognize being close physically to me as an appropriate response if they are scared.  I use my voice when necessary, and I do use a firm hand on the neck or shoulder of the horse to use as a buffer that can help push me out of the way if they unthinkable happens and they do try to go over the top of me.  I was trail riding with my aunt early in Farley's career and she wasn't very thrilled to go over a creek.  I got off and asked her to cross.  My aunt said in amazement that Farley actually seemed to change direction in mid-air to avoid interfering in my space. 

Dismounting during the pig situation was the perfect situation to review whether Farley had forgotten the lessons of "thy shall not squish Melinda, no matter what's chasing you". 

Now what? 

Like one of my readers commented in the previous post, I tend to talk to the object instead of the horse.  Again, I want to reward the horse for switching over to a calm thinking, working brain and tend to completely ignore the horse when it's snorty and doing an arab impression.  Horses that lower their heads, start chewing, or start paying attention to me and sighing get attention.  Horses that are behaving like idiots do not.  Especially if they are seasoned 13 year olds. 

I like following scary objects.  It's how we started working calves in that reining clinic I went to and I tried doing the same thing to pigs.  Except the pigs kept running up to us to say hello.  LOL.  We walked in circles and long lines away from and towards the pigs.  Mostly ignoring them, but I just "happened" to make sure that they were a central feature in our "random" figures.

I was feeling quite proud of myself.  Farley started looking relaxed and I was about to hop back on and then......the pigs got out of the gate. 


I'm not a pig person.  To say the least.  During showmanship round robins I always gritted my teeth during the pig portion, picked the small brown breed and prodded it around the arena in front of the judge hoping hoping hoping my pig didn't get in a fight and needed to have the stewards rush over with the plastic boards to break it up. 

"Here piggy piggy piggy.   Here piggy piggy piggy."

It didn't work. 

I walked Farley out of the arena and attempted to herd pigs.

Which is a lot like herding cats.

I yelled and shouted and flapped my arms and ran at the pigs, Farley trailing behind me.  When the pigs looked at me with their squinty eyes and decided to herd me instead, Farley and I retreated to the safety of the drive way and studied the oinking ham and bacon and legs and got the girl whom they belonged too. She picked up a a crop that was next to the arena and expertly directed them back into the arena (a technique I was able to copy when the piggies attempted the same great escape when I exited the arena after my session). 

It was nice that the pigs naturally provided me an opportunity to do something that I consider important after the neutral interactions where all parties involved are calm.  Now, I act like a maniac, not acting calm at all and usually whatever critter is in front me, whether cow, calf, sheep, or pig is bouncing and dashing around --> all while IGNORING Farley completely.  Farley knows that if not given instructions, than no matter what I'm doing, even if it looks completely insane than she is to do.....nothing.  Thus, if my back is too her and I'm choosing to chase scary things and yell like a banshee with aggressive body language but I'm ignoring her....she is not to react.  Again, this is behavior that is built over years and many different situations.  And I use all sorts of novel situations to present themselves to reinforce it. 

I tend to use NATURAL situations that present themselves, rather than artificially set up situations.  If the pigs hadn't gotten out, would I have run around yelling and darting around in the tight space they had gotten into with Farley trailing?  Probably not.  Would I have let the pigs out on purpose to play with them?  Probably not.....but would have made a point to ride past the pen.  On the other hand, I try not to overface my horse with a situation that I know they don't have a foundation to be successful in.  Thus, if a huge, rumbling, piece of farm equipment pulling a rattlely, tipsy, swaying trailer is coming down the road and I know that we've just worked through "normal vehicle" issues, than I might chose to turn off the road and make a non-issue of it by taking a grazing break or choosing an alternative route where my horse doesn't have to deal with a situation she's unready for.  Is that horse ready for an endurance ride?  Perhaps not.  I like to see my horses handle novel, strange situations with a minimum of fuss 80% of the time before taking them to a competition.  Does it mean that my horse never has a melt down?  Of course not.  But what it means is that TYPICALLY my horse reacts in a way to novel situations that does not put me, her, or the riders around us in danger. 

I mounted back up.

It was time to go back to work.  My goal before mounting was 20-25 minutes of walk trot dressage.  Now, considering the time spent on the pigs, and the fact that I feel like horses go through self control fatigue, just like humans and dogs (see Tess's blog a few months back for more discussion on that topic), my goal was a few laps of good, relaxed walking on the bit. 

There was of course was one more big spook, as the pigs moved around and I gently insisted that we focus on working. 

Everyone handles difficult situations a little different, depending on what they do with their horse, their comfort as a rider, and the individual horse.  There is certainly more than one "right" way to handle this situation.  Would my approach work with every horse?  Probably not.  I tend to chose confident horses that aren't drama queens, even if they are spooky.  Even Minx, who spooked, spun, bolted, and dumped me all the freakin' time was basically a confident horse that was just reactive --> I just never could get my neurons to fire as fast as hers.  If I had to reassure an unconfident horse through every little thing on the trail I would probably give up endurance and decide to do 100 miles on foot instead :).  So, this approach seems to work well with the horses I get along with, which is probably a certain personality in the first place!  However, I hope there might be a tidbit in here that helps you work through a situation, even if how you apply it is different. 

Does anyone have different thoughts?  Do you disagree on any of the points above or have an alternative to one of my decisions that has worked well for you?  What sort of weird situations have you gleefully put your endurance horse through because you knew it would come in handy some day?


  1. Ozzy is not easily spooked, but one time we rode to a barn with pigs and they were screaming and squealing and he made it very clear that he wanted to GO. HOME. NOW.

  2. Sounds like you did right by Farley, especially not sticking to your original workout plan, but recognizing the mental fatique that comes from stress, and just doing a little bit to reinforce what you'd originally wanted.

    I "torture" my horse quite often with chasing bikes, turkeys, putting weird stuff next to him, making weird noises, and just making him deal with it. If he is truly scared (and not just being a brat) we'll take it slow, do it in increments, dismount, whatever it takes, because I want and need him to trust me when I say it's OK.

  3. My pony's still mostly in the 'needs more curiousity' stage - 16 year old Haffie, starting our second summer of trail riding (for both of us), with a history of bolting occasionally. It's reassuring to read that we seem to be on the right path! We're currently in the 'screeching halt to think about scary objects', which frankly is progress over 'see scary object, panic and spook sideways [and/or try to run away]. If she's tense enough I seem to be losing her mentally, I'll get off; otherwise, I stay on.

    Bobcats, deer, bikes, hikers, dogs, cars - all on the 'pony will be okay with these or else' list. Inner tubes and other large beach-items are allowed to be looked at and curiousity is encouraged/demanded. Actually, anything she halts and pricks ears at is something I'll ask her to walk up to and sniff.

    Major road construction, complete with large hole in the road and in-use machinery immediately next to our usual road crossing? I got off, and I'd do it again. If it's making me nervous, then chances are good I can't project confidence to her.


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