This Week With Indy: Conditioning for Relaxation, Ground Tying & Changing Up Our Routine

With the holiday season quickly approaching this is probably the most inconsistent time of the season for me in terms of how frequently I’ve gotten to work my boy, Mr. Indiana Jones otherwise known by the Jockey Club as “Sure Prize.”

And you know what? It’s all good. Life, holidays, birthday parties… it happens.

Not being a native to the New Jersey area where I live, the holiday season often entails a lot of traveling home to visit family in Northern New York. This inevitably means less time at the farm, less time to train ponies and more time to spend with family. I’ll happily take the trade but by the time I get back the farm after a 7+ hour drive, I’m always a little anxious to squeeze in some work with my horse.

So on Sunday morning after Thanksgiving we’d arrived the night before and Lisa and I made our way outside to get back at it.

Before going upstate I decided to take Indy out, give him a good grooming, and change his blanket. This did not go as easily or as well as I’d assumed.

I made a simple but stupid mistake: I put my schedule, my routine, and my plans first, rather than watching and seeing what was needed.

My calm cool collected OTTB was becoming a full fledged basket case in the wash stall as I tried to put some Equiderma on the rain rot on his head and neck. Flailing his head with his feet moving constantly, I tried as best I could to battle the stupidity, holding my hands up near his head and releasing them down when he’d finally relax. It was a tense but ultimately uneventful situation that left me frustrated and with my confidence shaken. I’d let myself get annoyed by his behavior rather than seeing that my own behavior was what set the entire situation up from the start.

Had I lunged Indy before asking him to stand in the wash stall, chances are I wouldn’t have had nearly as much of a struggle. But rather than taking his hints, moving his feet and otherwise acting like an ass, I struggled on to put my agenda on him and the only result was that I walked away frustrated by my ineffectiveness.

After a little reflection this prompted a few things. The first was that I took a lesson. I needed the help, not because I had no clue what I was doing, but because the devil is in the details. Refinement is always possible no matter how much you know and watching an expert work with your horse is always going to be eye opening if you have a good teacher to learn from. I needed to see the work in action, be reminded that I’m human and he’s still a great horse, and I needed someone else to point out my errors in the process. There’s a reason even professional athletes have coaches!

The second thing this prompted was a change in my routine. Realizing that some structured exercise prior to grooming would be beneficial for his behavior just as much as my own sanity, we’ve adopted a “work first, groom later” approach. I don’t anticipate that this change will be forever but it’s allowing us some time to focus on some other critical skills like ground tying.

During my lesson we focused almost entirely on conditioning for relaxation. Reinforcing what we want from his attitude and posturing – calm, listening, still. When his eyes and ears are looking at you he’s asking “what’s next” and you have three possible answers – stop, release, or continue.

It’s truly a matter of association and beginning my interaction with Indy in the wash stall to be groomed just isn’t a good way of forming a positive association.

Work, moving their feet at something more than a walk, often gives horses a sort of “runner’s high.” So, we’ll use this knowledge to produce those exercise driven endorphins to give them a happy buzz while also magically standing still.

And standing still he was until the gun shots echoed out from the woods. Our neighbor, an ex-cop, was taking target practice.

Indy was on high alert but barely moved. His attention was obviously elsewhere. The solution? Ask him to move again to get his brain focused on the task at hand.

More gun shots.

For the duration of the shots, 5 or 6 them at least while he was moving, Indy had his inner ear turned to me despite his eyes wandering a bit but still remaining rather calm. We go from trot to walk to yielding his hind quarters.

More gun shots.

We’re standing again. Back up, reverse directions. Walking. Sniffing saddle pad out the ground. Looking at me with eyes and ears.

More gun shots.

A little more hesitant this time around. We change directions again.

We start honing in on directing his attention and playing the friendly/touch it game as he’s standing still.  We want him to give us his attention so we can direct it where ever we want it to go, doing so by encouraging him to touch his nose to the saddle pad or whatever the fill in the blank scary object is. This is the beginning of all de-spooking. Conditioning for him to give it his attention not run away from it.

So that’s a bit of where we started and where we’re working towards – calm, steady behavior and narrowing in on the steps that can help us get there.

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