Overcoming confidence and noise issues
A blog by Walt Bernard, Dorena OR
This blog or log of horse activities on our farm was created out a need to gain and share advice and information from Doug Hammill about horse behavior issues on our farm, while at the same time sharing his advice with others. Over the years that I have known and observed Doug in seminars, workshops, and general conversation about the equine mind, I have been impressed with his training and problem solving abilities of the working horse. His non-judgmental and non confrontational approach puts both horses and humans at ease and the best learning comes in times of low stress for the animal and human involved.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had a situation where “it seemed like a good idea at the time” or “how could I do this better.” I have been working horses now for 12 years and only am now seeing the beginnings of what is possible, as you will see from this blog. Hopefully, we can all learn and help each other thru our real life experiences as posted here. And by the way, my wife and I are always available for visits or calls about horses.
We have 5 draft horses: Nugget, a 7 yr old Belgian/Percheron cross; Ray, an 11 yr old Belgian; Tom, a 4 yr old Belgian; Jerry a 3 yr old Belgian; and Ruby, a 19 Belgian/Percheron cross. We use these horses on our farm of 70 acres, comprised of 7 acres of market garden, hay and grain ground, woodlot and pasture. The initial entries here are from memory and may not be perfectly accurate but once you begin to see dates things are true to chronological order. For an entry about a particular horse, I enter their name, as each horse has different individual needs.
The horse I have been working with most is Nugget. He has confidence issues and issues with noise behind him. He was trained on the farm, and has been on disc, harrow, mower, and manure spreader. He will work single or as a team, and I have worked him a fair amount three abreast.
I had a run with him in the fall on a work sled pulling single. He had been on the sled before but it had been about a year. I had hitched him and we drove out and he jogged along at a human fast walk pace. We were headed towards the barn when the sled hit some rocks and the metal runner on rock noise set him to a run. At that point, I should have said whoa, but if I remember correctly, I just turned him into the field away from the barn and used line pressure release to get him down to a walk.
We stood for a bit and I talked to him, then set out at a walk away from the barn, but when we came around and headed for home, the same thing happened. I turned him from the barn but wound up having to take him between a greenhouse and a fence that gradually narrowed to a 3 ft opening. He slowed down to a slow trot, I talked to him and when he came to the opening, he hesitated, and then went thru the opening. The sled stuck and I said whoa. Then I let him stand for about 5 minutes and unhitched him. I ground drove him back to the hitch rail, got an evener and immediately hitched him to a tire and pulled that around for about ½ hr. He was calm and walked the whole time. I should mention that I was never panicked myself during his run.
I hitched Nugget to the sled both single and with a team mate several times over the next two weeks both in a field and arena, and although he didn’t try to run on me he was definitely up on the bit, jogging along, would not stand well or try avoid being hitched to the sled, and would startle at noises while pulling but not standing. As I think back and compare him to other horses, he has always been nervous about noises and I think this experience put him over the edge. It’s interesting; a disc blade hitting some rocks doesn’t bother him but other sounds do, like the ring roller. Also, I think noises combined with vibration thru the tongue of a forecart may also contribute.
Anyway, I had decided that I was going to have to go back to the basics and beginnings of training to help this horse improve. It was coming on winter here anyway, so there was really no fieldwork to be done. About that time Doug Hammill paid a visit to our farm. When he worked with Nugget it was clear he needed additional groundwork. Doug demonstrated how controlling the horse’s movement is the foundation for an excellent and willing working horse. He gave me some very valuable tips on controlling the horses feet and movement using a lead rope. I began using these techniques with excellent results over the winter.
Per Doug’s suggestions I would halter Nugget and spend 15-60 minutes working on standing and space issues. You have the horse stand and control his foot movement with the lead rope. Initially, Nugget would take steps and try to move. I would keep him standing still, then go to a different place and repeat. Then I would drop the lead and walk around the horse, doing different things like picking up feet, and crawling underneath him. He got to where he would stand pretty well with this. I would take him to different areas of the farm to repeat the lesson, to expose him to different sounds, buildings, and equipment as a part of the lesson. I did this exercise 3-7 days a week all winter long as a single lesson, if I only had a few minutes, or as part of some driving work in a longer session. For example, a standard lesion starts with the lead rope work on standing, then I harness and repeat the lesion w/o bridle, then bridle and repeat lesion with lines and driving. Then I go on to whatever I will be doing, either fieldwork or lessons on things that are noisy.
At the end of the work I would repeat the standing in reverse order, i.e. with lines and ground driving, then lead rope, then without bridle, and always quit on a good note. The horse did generally well and eventually would do these ground exercises without a lead rope, as long as there was nothing to eat nearby!
From this base I began training to noisy things in my arena. I have used a large tire, a metal garbage can, and a variety if metal items. First I introduce the item to the horse, and lead him along while the item bounces around him. On occasion, I lead him while someone else drags the item behind him. With the garbage can, which makes a lot of noise, I then ground drove the horse while pulling the can myself. I then hooked a truck tire (about 100 lbs) with a single tree and drove him just with that. Then I added towing the garbage can myself, then actually tied the can to the tire and worked nugget that way. I should add that I used the tire to provide drag so as to prevent a lightweight thing like a garbage can from fouling the traces against his legs and causing too many sensations at once. He has adapted to this well.
Additionally, all winter I have been ground driving him single and as a team with Ray and on the forecart, to build confidence and introduce him to all kinds of stimuli. I spent a lot of time teaching them to stand, especially in front of the forecart, often for hours. After they stand in front of the forecart, repeatedly hitch and unhitch them without driving anywhere, to reinforce the concept that we don’t just drive off after the last trace is hooked. He has definitely improved in his standing patience, but will still take that testing step, especially when hitching for the first time that day At the end of work or lessons, I drive the horses to an area in front of my barn and have them stand awhile. Then we go to the rail to unharness.
Bits. I broke Nugget with an egg butt snaffle, and was working him in a leverage bit for the past few years. I had put him back in the snaffle during the summer for no specific reason I can remember. I had the run on the sled with him in the snaffle, so I went back to a leverage bit. I vary the lines from zero to maximum leverage depending on the horse.
3/27/08 I worked with Nugget today. Harnessed him in the arena. I did the usual standing exercises with a lead rope, then without. I could walk several feet from him and he would stand just fine. Then I bridled him and did the same thing. (total 20 min). Then hooked a single tree with grab hook and drove him about at a walk and stand exercise. (10 min). Then I hitched him to the sled and had him stand. He was definitely taking that testing step, but after a few minutes he would stand OK. I drove him a few feet and stopped, till he stood OK, and banged a rock around on the sled as described before. Then I drove him a few feet and just before stopping banged the rock on the sled and the horse stopped on his own!
I then had the horse stand for about 30 minutes. He would still “test” to see if he was on the bit, but when is was clear he was standing well, I did the reverse sequence of the opening of the lesson. After I unbridled him (not tied), I just clicked and he followed me to the gate. He stood while I opened the gate, followed me thru, stood while I closed it and followed me to a second gate and stood the same again. Then we went to the hitch rail, with out a lead rope.
3/29/08 Nugget I had him in the arena on the sled for two hrs or so. Started with standing exercises then drive and stand with a single tree, then on to the sled. He would stand well with and without the single tree, (not under load, but just the noise of the single tree). So I went on to the sled. Hitched to the sled, he wanted to trot, and jog along, but this settles down until the metal runners happen to hit a rock. This scares him and he picks up the tempo every time it happens to a degree. I try to go easy on the lines and then gradually use pressure release to work him back down to a slower pace and then whoa him. So at this point I have two issues. 1. He doesn’t want to stand—he tests the lines and hitch over and over to see if he can go. 2. The noise issue, which contributes to #1.
I let him stand as long as he will. If he steps out I kiss him up and we move out. Eventually, I get him worked down enough that he just stands for 15-30 minutes, even though he still was nervous about the noise from the sled runners, and I unhitch and go back to standing exercises. Then I took him back to the hitch rail for a few minutes. He thinks he is going to quit, but his demeanor is calm. I put the lines/bridle back on and ground drove him around the gravel drive in front of my barn. Then I drug the metal garbage can behind me (nothing hitched to the horse) He was jiggy initially but calmed down quickly and I called it good for the day.
3/29/08 Nugget. Had just a small bit of time today so I spent 30 minutes re-teaching nugget how to unload from my horse trailer. I don’t trailer much. He loads easily. In fact, this horse will follow me almost anywhere. For example, I once asked him to get up on my flat bed trailer. By golly, he put his front foot up and raised his front half up on there before I backed him off. Any way, he is too big to easily turn around in the trailer so he has to back out. I taught him to do this using a halter and two lead ropes. First, I just led him to the trailer and had him put his front feet in, then stood for a bit, then gave him the cue to back out. I did this a few times, and then he got all the way in. I backed him a few feet in the trailer while standing by his shoulder. Then I took two lead ropes and used them like driving lines to his halter, and gave him the back command. A little bit at a time he worked his way back, then forward, then finally went for it and got out. I did this a few times then quit. I thought it was interesting that he would not back all the way out with me at his shoulder, but would do it when I was behind him.
4/2/08 Nugget. I took Nugget and did the usual standing and ground driving today followed by an hour of heavy pulling. I have a loader tire that weighs approx 6-700 lbs. I built a seat in it and hitch to it with a grab hook. It’s a good pull for him. The objective was two fold: to get him to a good stand, and to get a good pulling walk instead of a jog/trot.
This was the first time I hitched him single to it, and it makes a funny and different “noise”. First I hitched him and had him stand, then I did the 1, 3, 5 step start I read about in the SFJ; i.e. I had him pull 1 step, then 3 steps etc. He was nervous initially, but responded to pressure release, (and the weight). I let him go a few yards and had him stand. He likes to jog and my ultimate goal is a nice pulling walk, but I settled for the slow jog initially. We went 20-50 yards and stopped and stood. He did well on the standing and after a while was pulling at a good pace. I drove him back to the barn, had him stand for a while, then unhitched and stood some more. Then ground drove him around to paddock back to the tire and made him stand there. I then hung up the lines, unbridled him standing untied, kissed him up and walked to the hitch rail with the horse following.
4/10/08 Nugget. Just ground drove him in straight bar bit all around the property and near our new sow. He stood well. Then pulled a metal garbage can around for a while and he walked well. Unbridled him kissed him up and he followed me to the hitching rail.
4/12/08 Nugget and Ray. I took them out on the road in the forecart for about 2 hrs. When I was hitching Ray stood very well, but Nugget was taking that testing step he does. He didn’t walk off however, and once hitched both horses stood well. I drove them for about 1.5 hr stopping intermittently and both stood well (85 degrees and humid, I might add). When I got home I had them stand and re-hitched them to the cart several times before quitting. Both horses stood well.
4/14/08 after a few minutes of basic groundwork, I drove Nugget out to where we have a new sow. He’s never seen a pig so he was really checking it out. I approached until the sow had his attention the stood for a while. Before he wanted to move out, I kissed him up and drove him away from the pig several yards and had him stand. Then I repeated this several times, each time going closer to the sow. After I was within about 20 ft, I was satisfied and went on to do other training lessons.
4/15/08 Finally, the ground was just dry enough to do a bit of fieldwork. After a few minutes of groundwork, I did about two hours of spring tooth work in our annual crop area. He worked, stood, and walked well. Kris hitched Ray single to a forecart and rolled the harrowed areas afterwards. I led Nugget behind, beside, and in front of the roller to desensitize him to it.
4/16/08 Nugget. Ground drove in stormy weather.
4/17/08 Nugget. Ground drive tire, garbage can etc.
4/20/08 Nugget. Kris and I cultivated several 150x20ft plastic covered hoop houses with a single row cultivator, using Nugget. I did an initial short groundwork session and then we hitched him and went to work. It was a day of fast changing weather, with sudden 20 mph wind, sun, and then and hail/heavy rain. The horse tolerated the noise and plastic blowing about fairly well. I did half the work with a twisted wire snaffle and half the work with his usual leverage bit. In comparing the two, I used fairly light pressure release with both bits. Both Kris and I thought that the horse was quieter with the bar leverage bit. He tossed his head more with the twisted wire bit and was less responsive to turn or whoa cues. I wonder if Doug would care to comment on this.
4/23/08 Nugget. Basic groundwork
4/24/08 Doug Hammill visits. We had a great opportunity to have Doug visit our farm and give us help with our horses. We spent the morning working with nugget then Nugget and Ray. Carrie Jones was here as well. I showed Doug what I had been working on with Nugget then we went on to challenge him with new stimuli and challenges, including pulling the ring roller and lime spreader behind the forecart. Here is a summary of the things I took away from the day.
Having an experienced teamster such as Doug look over what you are doing is extremely educational and beneficial.
- Doug confirmed that some of the techniques I had been doing were correct and working. This is a huge boost in my confidence, especially since I often train alone or with Kris. There is no comparison to an on site real time consult.
- I learned some finer techniques in handling the lines. For example, I had been using pressure release equally firmly with each line. Doug taught me to use the direct line with longer strokes compared to the crosscheck line when ‘checking’ the faster jiggy horse back. I had also not generally been using as much pressure release stroke length as Doug suggested. We also used early indicators that we were going to stop, by pumping the lines together a few times before giving the whoa. Using this technique, when I could remember to, had the horses about stopped when I gave the command. On starting horses, Doug suggested I gain more bit contact than I was using; Doug demonstrated by gathering in equal tension about to the amount that the horses would be thinking about backing then give the command to go. After a few times the horses had the association and were ready to start together.
- We exposed Nugget to new sounds in a novel way that had not occurred to me but after doing, it makes perfect sense. Doug suggested we associate a new sound or noise with one the horse is accustomed to. So, first we pulled the garbage can behind the forecart, and then we hitched the ring roller to the forecart and tied the garbage can behind the roller. In my mind, the change in his response was remarkable. The last time Nugget and Ray were on the ring roller, he never stopped jigging. This time both horses walked out as if it were nothing! The next step was to just pull the roller without the garbage can and they did well except for some barn-sour behavior.
- I think the biggest behavior problem in Nugget that day would actually be that he was ‘barn sour.’ He was more likely to bunch up in the rear and jig when we were headed towards the barn. (In retrospect, when I had the run last fall, he only ran towards the barn). With Doug, we used line pressure release to work him down to a walk, then immediately stop them and let them stand until they showed signs of a relaxed composure, such as dropping their heads, less fidgeting around, taking deep breaths, relaxed muscle tone, etc. Then we would drive them further along. If they exhibited barn sour behavior, Doug suggested some other options to deal with the problem including turning away from the barn, backing up, creating work for the horses back at the barn, and encouraging ‘standing sites’ away from the barn where the horses are used to standing for long periods of time. A hitch rail near equipment shed would be a good example of this.
Thanks for a great day Doug!