Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Safety first

Reading everyone's blog entries about riding has me feeling both jealous and guilty. Jealous because I can't wait for spring, guilty because I know even then I probably won't be riding as much as I should. Count me in on the whole "Shut up and ride" movement! (I really need that mug-lol)

But I'm consoling myself with the fact that even in the winter there's plenty to address on the learning and safe behavior front.

Mrs. Mom just posted on why
proper hoof-handling is critical
and how she prefers it to be taught,
- definitely worth reading.

I've been thinking about what and how I do things for a while now, and it seems to me that feeding time is another opportunity for reinforcing groundwork on plenty of levels.

Case in point: we move hay to the horses every day. They're loose. There are eight of them, and sometimes we feed in the dark with head lamps. Eight horses, darkness, slippery snow and a pitchfork could be very nasty very quickly.

Just as a basic rule,
horses need to respect people-space
even in the presence
of something desirable
like hay or (even more yummy) grain.

And for the most part the herd was pretty good about respecting us already. The real kicker - sometimes literally - was horse on horse action, not so much horse on human action. The first winter we fed daily (in previous years they had a round bale feeder, 24/7 access to hay and they did their own sorting out of who ate where) it took a number of days to reinforce the "thou shalt nots" of feeding time.

These are the rules:
  • You will not run me (or anyone else) over when I'm moving hay.
  • You will not run someone else over me when I'm moving hay.
  • You will shift over if I need you to, even if there are four of you in my way.
  • You all look horse-shaped in the dark, therefore you can all stand still while I use your shoulder, neck, butt as a prop to climb in and out of the feeder, (whether or not I'm balancing a pitchfork and wearing a headlamp) regardless of whether you've ever been ridden. In return I will try not to poke you with the pitchfork or shine the light in your eyes or fall down underneath you (but I can't promise anything).
How did we manage? Well, first of all, these particular eight horses are all relatively mature, have an established pecking order, and as I already said, on the whole they're pretty respectful of human space. All of those are important points, and if any of them weren't the case I 'd probably do things a bit differently at least to start with.

Some rules came with time - the headlamps, for example, we didn't end up introducing until the feeding routine was already well-established. The days simply got shorter and carrying a flashlight wasn't really workable. Had we shown up the first night in the dark and started roaming around with headlamps - even bearing food, they probably would have freaked. As it was, one night the feeders just showed up with lights on their heads. And it was no big deal.

The thou-shalt-not run over me or run anyone else over me rules took longer, and they still need reinforcing on occasion. I reinforce the same way I established them: when somebody forgets and needs a reminder that nastiness with people underfoot is not tolerated (usually Sunny or one of the middle mares), the reminder consists of me moving them.

I'm not loud, dramatic, angry-sounding or violent about it. I just emphasize what they elected to forget - that I, as the human, get to determine what space they get to occupy.

Here's how.

I stop what I'm doing, single that horse - let's call him Sunny - out and make him move for a minute or so. I don't run. I stay on the inside of the loose "circle" the herd forms around the feeders and insist Sunny stay outside it. He doesn't get to stop and eat, he doesn't get to hide among the other horses. He gets to travel, generally at a trot, but a good brisk walk is acceptable. I don't run or yell, I don't try to direct where he goes, I just keep him from stopping.

What are the rest of the horses doing?
Usually, ignoring the byplay completely.

After a minute or two depending - if he still has his ears cocked back and a snarky expression (that would mainly be Star) he gets to keep going - when he pauses and faces me, I'll stop too. If he stands, I'll walk up to his shoulder. If he moves off again as I walk up or makes nasty faces (Star), I go right back to keeping him moving. If he stands, I'll rub his withers and then walk away to whatever I was doing before. Initially it might take a couple of times a night, sometimes with the same horse, sometimes with several of them. As time went on I needed to remind them less and less and I was also using less pressure to send them off.

Now that the behavior pattern for feeding time is set, if they're all really antsy I can assume one of two things: either the weather is changing (easy enough to determine), or that I need to feed a bit heavier because they're hungrier than I'd like them to be.

It isn't a hard and fast cure-all: they still have preferred eating arrangements, favorite spots, and lunch buddies. Ears still get laid back and the occasional foot gets cocked when someone lower on the pecking order sticks their nose in where it's not welcome. And Sunny still migrates from feeder to feeder to see which one is best situated, out of the wind, or tastiest on any given day, moving the other horses as he does it because he is the "boss"(iest) horse.

But he (mostly) doesn't do it when I'm nearby.

As an overall strategy initially, the move-their-feet worked best with the horses that had some experience either on a longe line or in a round pen - they already knew how to move away from pressure. Those horses moved off more easily and faced up more readily. But regardless of past experience, they all learned. And I think if/when we get the others started with formal groundwork it will help us out there, too.

I don't presume to be a trainer or an expert horse-anything - this is simply what works for me with these eight horses. Reading Mrs. Mom's post I found plenty of food for thought, and not just on hoof handling. I'd love to hear other strategies for feeding groups - do you tie? Separate to feed? What's worked for you (or not) and why?


Kate said...

I'm pretty careful out and among loose horses. My rules are simple - no horse on horse aggression when I'm in the vicinity - what you do on your own time is your own business but make sure there's no action involving me. This applies whether I have a horse on the lead or all horses are loose.

Mrs Mom said...

Great post SunnySD! (Hey what is it with those Sonny/ Sunny horses now and again? LOL)

When I've fed in a herd in the past, my methods were very much like yours. Except I do use my voice a bit more aggressively now and again. I've also tended to carry a rope with me, to move horses if need be by tossing the rope at them. Or making noise with it. (I start small, and grow bigger.) Over time, it gets to all we need to do is point a finger at a hip or shoulder, and PoOF- away they go! ;)

Stay warm up there!!

Mama H said...

This was a great post! Really, thanks for sharing this. Moving and and out of a herd, especially when food is involved, can get really tricky. We board are horses out on pasture, and some of their pasture-mates have no concept of respect-of-humna-space. Just catching our horses can be hairy. I usually use my halter or lead to move the pushy ones out of the way, but have to stay light on my toes cause some of them will turn to kick!

TCavanaugh said...

I hear you about the whole "not getting enough time to ride" thing. I appreciate your post and plan to use it to teach my daughter to gain some respect when feeding. Thank you as I didn't think to teach her these stratagies. Usually the horses respect my space when I am with them, but tend to forget my daughter is human.

TCavanaugh said...

I hear you about the whole "not getting enough time to ride" thing. I appreciate your post and plan to use it to teach my daughter to gain some respect when feeding. Thank you as I didn't think to teach her these stratagies. Usually the horses respect my space when I am with them, but tend to forget my daughter is human.

SunnySD said...

Good tips! I've been known to use a halter and lead to extend my arm, as well. Haven't done so in a while because all the "kids" are grown up and not as rambunctious as they used to be, but when they were younger and rowdier a rope bounced off their butts came in very handy for reinforcing my space. Their legs stretch a lot longer than my arm, and a kick fired off from high spirits does just as much damage as one aimed with evil intent.

I will also warn verbally, although it's probably more tone of voice they learn to respect than the actual words used, don't you think? Here's a thought - next time I'm thinking "whoa" I might try "cheese" instead in the same tone and see if it works... Or maybe not. At least not with a two-legged audience - lol!

Tammy said...

Good post! I love the headlamps. Wear them when camping with the horses, but never thought about out in the barn. We have lights but I'm not always able to get to the switch.

Ours respect our space pretty well. The only thing I watch for is if the belgian tries to run the low horse away. The low horse panics and doesn't always look before she flees. I got a nice hoof on my foot last summer when I wasn't paying close enough attention to their proximity to each other. I guess I should be glad it wasn't the belgian on my foot!

We hit 37 degrees today. But where is all this snow going to go? How long will it take to melt? Drifts are now glaciers. Horses enjoy playing king on the mtn.

Yep, time to ride!