Saturday Afternoon With Grace

Grace has spent the week hanging over the fence watching me work clients’ horses.  “Am I next?” she seemed to ask continuously.  Despite the bitter chill, Mark and I brought her out today for some quality family time.

While I was getting organized, Grace went over to check out the mounting block.  She put her hoof on top. *Click!* Treat!  Operant conditioning at it’s finest! Operant conditioning is when you build on a behavior that is freely offered.

“I may end up regretting that one day,” I joked to Mark, but I was already thinking about the bridge, or Pirate’s plank as we call it,  he’d built recently for a training obstacle.  This was going to shortcut the process.  Clunk went the hoof on the block.  Click.  Treat.  Clunk.  Click.  Treat.

I got my gear in order and put the surcingle on Grace for the first time.   She moved on and felt the band around her belly, much tighter than her blanket.  She tossed her head and bucked once in protest, but responded to my request for more impulsion and soon forgot the annoying squeeze.

As she moved around the ring she swerved over to the mounting block.  Clunk went the foot.  “Now’s not the time Grace, move on!”  As important as developing her curiosity and initiative is teaching her context: how to figure out when things are appropriate.  Sometimes the block is a pedestal for her to stand on, sometimes a step for the rider to mount from, right now just ring clutter to be ignored.

Grace quickly made up for lost time. In short order she was ground driving for the first time, catching on quickly to voice commands and directional changes.  We swapped back to a single longe and headed out of the roundpen to explore the challenge course in our open riding field.

Remember the hoof on the mounting block?  Grace was initially intimidated by the Pirate’s plank sitting in the middle of the field. She sniffed -click! She touched it with her hoof-click! The lightbulb came on.  She remembered this game!  Before long she was walking that plank like an old salt-YARRR!

On the way back to the barn Grace learned to navigate raised cavaletti (no, you don’t step on it like the plank!) and jump a little crossrail.  Nothing was ever an issue.  Our attitude was let’s take a stroll… and oops! how did that get in the way?! Let’s figure it out!

Grace is fascinating to work with.  She is so CEREBRAL.  She needs to be continually questioned, challenged, engaged–and supported in those rare moments when she gets confused or scared.  Clicker training adds motivation to her innate laziness, as well as shapes her natural curiosity.

Mark snapped some pictures with his cell phone before we wrapped up for the day.

Walking the Plank:

Friesian on a bridge

on the plank

pirate plank sign

Gracie, modeling her new halter from the Expo!

Friesian Head


Polishing the Ring…A walk with Grace

I have to say sometimes I wish I had an extra 6 hours in the day to write down all the things that transpire in the course of a day. The story would be pretty immaculate.

Take this story for example. It was a wonderful, sunny, brilliant afternoon two weeks ago, and Kirsten was off teaching up in Smithsburg. Grace was quite obviously Jealous (with a capital J!) that I’d pulled Dolly out the pasture the previous day, and I promised her… she’d be next. As Kirsten drove off I told her I’d maybe “Polish the Ring”.

With a border in the round pen, I put a halter on Grace and brought her up to the barn for some much deserved attention and a good brushing of her mane. We spent a good 30 minute in the stall working out the burrs she managed to find from the remotest parts of the pasture, and cleaned her up all nice and pretty for when Mommy came home.

On the way back out to the pasture, I thought to myself… it may be fun if she got a little familiarity with the medieval games we all know she’s going to be a part of.. so off we went into the arena with her on lead.

Grace exhibited no fear. None at all. She walked right down between the two rows of reeds without hesitation, and came to a perfect halt behind me when I stopped. We went around the circle and came back through the “heads” row, weaving in and out of the uprights without missing a beat. We walked over the cavaletti up at the top of the field, and then we trotted in hand back down adjacent to the original reeds. We messed around for a couple more minutes and even had a couple beats of canter running in hand before I felt guilty for Kirsten not being around to play too.

So as I recounted the story to Kirsten later that night, she came up with a Xenophon quote appropriate for the moment “when a horse is shy of any object and refuses to approach it, you must teach him that there is nothing to be alarmed at… failing that, touch the formidable object yourself, and then gently lead the horse up to it.”

Grace was never afraid, but leadership by example is a principle both horses and humans can agree upon.

Engaged with Grace

It was a dark and stormy night when the love of my life made two dreams come true…. Mark proposed with Gracie the Friesian as the engagement ring.

Gracie the Friesian Horse, our engagement ring