Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Horse Training: What Your Horse's Rear End Can Tell You about His Head

A while back I wrote a blog post about how your horse's tail can tell tales. In short, the flexibility of your horse's tail tells you something about the flexibility of his personality ... or of his ability to transition easily from one activity or career to another.

Now I have a follow up chapter to that story. As I mentioned in that previous post, Walker's tail was unbending, and he very much disliked me "playing" with it. It's now a few months later, life has changed for Walker, he has a new career ... and his tail reflects a fundamental change in his personality.

What's Been Happening with Walker?
Since my first post about the tails a few months ago, Walker has continued to grow and learn in his new career as a roping horse. You might recall that when we first started in roping training, Walker was terrified of the lariat because he had been roped as a 3-year-old, much to his terror.

Several horse training sessions with very slow rope work, along with very regular doses of the herbal supplement Eleviv, have changed Walker. I would give Walker 2 capsules of Eleviv daily, and then 2-4 capsules of Eleviv before we went for roping practice. It worked wonders. He went from bolting at top speed to get away from the rope to simply accepting the rope.

He has also become a thinking horse. Being a heeling horse, it's important for Walker to stop in his tracks the moment he sees me throw my rope. Otherwise, the chances of him getting a front leg caught in the loop are high. Earlier in his roping training, we had not been as careful about stopping as soon as I threw the rope. Sure enough, I caught his front foot with my loop.

What was really cool is that instead of bolting, Walker just stopped. He froze, and waited for Dusty, our instructor, to release him from the loop. That's the reaction of a thinking horse who is operating from his healthy parasympathetic nervous system, not the reactive bolt of a horse coming from his "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system. I was impressed. What was even cooler was that thereafter, Walker always stopped when he saw the lariat leave my hand. He "learned" rather than "reacted."

What's Up with Walker's Tail
A few days ago, I took Walker to another roping clinic. This was the first time we worked outdoors. We worked on standing quietly in the boxes while watching the chute open and close. The chute is pneumatic so it makes a hissing sound every time it opens or closes. It also clangs like a son of a gun! A lot of horses at the clinic hated the thing on sight!

Since this scenario contained a ton of new horse training elements (including steers at the far end of the arena), I wondered how Walker would be. I tried to give him his Eleviv before we left, but he refused to take it. When I finally forced it into his mouth, he spit and spit and spit. I trust his instincts so I simply loaded him into the trailer and away we went.

I was concerned that with so many new elements in the outdoor arena and no Eleviv, Walker would be a basket case. He wasn't. In fact, it was just the opposite. He was the star of the clinic. He was one of only two horses who would stand quietly and correctly in the box, then move quietly out of the box to chase the Robosteer, and get into position for me to toss the rope. This was the case even when the wind started kicking at gale force winds.

I was amazed ... practically agog with surprise. I had to find out what was going on.

As soon as I had him unloaded at home, I tied him to the trailer and messed with his tail. To my surprise, his previously inflexible "stiff as a board tail" was now soft and flexible. He didn't mind me bending it, swiveling it, or gently twisting it.

I thought maybe it was a fluke so I tried it again the next day. Same deal. Soft tail. So now, I'm beginning to think that with the help of our "going slow is faster" horse training methods, along with the months of Eleviv, Walker has fundamentally changed in character. No longer is he a reactive and fearful horse. He is now a thinking, accepting, and trusting horse.

He was able to accept all the elements of the outdoor arena with ease and grace, and he NEVER lost his cool. How cool is that?

So now I believe that I can "read" more about what's going in my horse's brain by "feeling" the flexibility of his tail. His tail does tell me tales! I love it. Now, of course, I have to go play with all the horses in the pasture to see if this is true, but I am like a bloodhound who is onto a scent ... I won't let go of this topic until I verify my hypothesis.

What about y'all? Have you played with this? Tried it? Gotten any results other than a pile of poop at your feet?

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  1. Way to go Walker!!! I'm proud of you. GOOD BOY!!

    (Of course, Way to go Stephanie!)

  2. It's been said that all roads in life lead to the same end.

    If a person had no experience with horse's you might say this was a tall tale, or is there no end to this tail, or can I just tail along for a while, or maybe I'm coming up short on the tail end, or this is a whale of a tail. Are trails may be different but we'll all arrive at the tail end sooner or later.

    Well it just so happens that the tail of a horse has always been integral to the well being of my trail rides, how so you ask, well the area that I ride in is steep alpine country so a croupier is a must for all horse's including the pack horse unless you have britchen. I suppose I've been lucky or maybe it's the personality of the horse's I buy I'm not sure but now that I think of it I always check the tail to see how the horse responds to handling.

    All my saddle's have D rings behind the cantel so the croupier snaps on quick with four fingers of slack on the level ground, the tail is checked every time with a watchful eye for abrasions that might cause the horse any discomfort. Especially a new croupier.

    A horse's tail is incredibly strong and holds the saddle back on the steepest grades with easy, theirs nothing worst than feeling yourself slipping forward on your horse as he tries to negotiate a steep incline.

    So this brings me back to the blog, my horse's never take issue with the handling of their tails so I guess their good to go do what ever. I guess I've been checking out the tail for flexibility and didn't even know it. Now I now another reason to check out the tail.

    Thanks Stephanie

  3. I have sure found this to be the case with my mare, Cerise. When her tail is tight she is not in a receptive, learning mode.

  4. This was very interesting....I have always found this too!!
    New horses that come to me that are edgy types more tense than usual will ALL have this same complaint - a stiff, jamming, sensitive to be touched tail and plenty that aren't apparently edgy but still need to bond/trust. I can assess the level of resistance, fear or training I am to expect from such a horse by this (amongst other signs). As you say...once they relax, trust and think without being reactionary you are on the road to a good partnership.
    When on board a horse, given the right circumstances and done carefully, I gently test sliding my hand back behind the saddle, down the croup IF PERMITTED and then to the tail butt...a horse that is comfortable with this is also in a good place. If the horse was comfortable on the ground with his tail being handled but not when the rider is aboard then you know it is not happy about something at the ridden level, or perhaps there's a saddle fit issue, back pain, or poorly balanced rider etc and the horse is tensing in expectation of something it is not comfortable about.
    I've used this little test when inspecting a horse for somebody wanting to buy it for their beginner child to ride. A supposedly 'bombproof' horse was checking out ok, rode it a little..ok, then tested hand behind saddle and couldn't even proceed any further than a small amount of pressure over the loins without a reaction...humping up and threatened to buck. I wont recommend any horse to a beginner child that isn't comfortable with this! You know what kids are like bumping their leg over behind the saddle as they mount or playing with friends wanting to double can see where this would go can't you ;)
    Thanks Stephanie, this is useful food for thought for folks less acquainted with these observations :)))