Firstly... some hipstergram photos... (and a disclaimer that I'm SO
sorry about the novel.. I'm just too excited about my first steps into working with horses :) )
I just started leasing my first horse, Steppe, the "fleabitten gray" Arabian. Steppe is a perfect horse for me, just starting out with horses - I've mentioned in a couple other posts that I FEEL confident around horses, and I generally pick up on behaviors pretty well, but I have close to zero formal training. Steppe is in his 20s, though exact age is unknown as his previous owner surrendered him in a moment of lucidity (dementia). He still has quite a bit of get up and go, and it seems like the only thing age has done for him, is taken out some of the stereotype arab-craziness. He's patient and forgiving, and lets me know I'm doing something wrong in acceptable ways (and generally not his fault, but a response to my lack of clarity when communicating with him). I've not been given permission to ride him alone just yet, as the trainer working with me at the start of the lease wants to be certain I have more control over what I'm asking of the horse, and develop stronger habits. I'm more than happy to practice groundwork on my own, and feel it's important to build a strong foundation.
Steppe's pasture-buddy is Zarah, an appy-percheron cross, that was rescued from the kill pen by the farm I'm leasing from. She was originally used for Premarin studies, and came to them pregnant. Her daughter also lives on the farm and is a gorgeous giant black mare with wonderful manners. Zarah on the other hand is kind of a butthead, and she absolutely is a horse that likes to test boundaries and get up close. She loves attention, but hasn't had much work regarding manners. She does not show obvious signs of aggression, but is most definitely rude.
She is also quite buddy-sour. Because of this, the trainer has asked that when I am out to the farm to work with Steppe, if there is somebody there at the farm with me, to ask if they can assist me in getting Zarah on her lead, bring her and Steppe down to the barn where a couple other horses are generally in paddocks to keep her company, then bring steppe back up to the round pen to work with. If nobody is there to help me, I was informed I should just move him to the other side of the fence from her in the other pasture, so she can see he hasn't gone anywhere, and work with him in the field.
I assumed that this meant I'd be able to easily put a halter on him, lead him from the gate, and just work with him. I did bring both his and her halters/lead ropes in case I ran into somebody working out on the farm and could get them to help me without walking all the way back to the barn. Of course I couldn't find the owner to the car parked back at the barn. The problem came when I actually entered their pasture, and she decided to get up in my space, just as I remembered I also had a couple treats in my pocket I intended to use with Steppe. I had the carrot stick with me, and mimicked how I'd seen others use it on their horses, without touching her, and she only turned her head, but still refused to lift a foot to move. Every time she'd go to take a step forward (with the gate behind me, closed in), I'd hold up a hand/palm out and sort of "pump" at the air in ways I'd seen work with the other horses on the property. It would keep her from stepping closer to me (as lightly tapping her nose would keep her from sniffing my treat pocket), but she still wouldn't back up. This is a farm that focuses quiet heavily on natural horsemanship, but by no means is a goody butterflies and rainbows type. They focus on minimal contact with the most powerful affect, and escalate only when necessary.
I decided to ignore her and get a halter on Steppe, but the second I thought about leading him out, she started controlling him, and stepping between the two of us, refusing to let him by. His behavior tipped me off a bit more to her mental state, and knowing that what I was doing wasn't going to help, I went through the gate alone with hopes to distract her and maybe get him through (without
me getting squished in the process).
When this proved to be creating more of a problem I walked back into the pasture after taking off Steppe's halter/rope from over the fence, tossed Zarah's halter/rope on her, and took off at a brisk walk through the field. I remembered reading about somebody on the forum here, who said they would randomly flail their arms around, teaching their horse to keep a safe distance, or risk getting smacked on accident. I flailed my arms, I zig-zagged, I slowed to a crawl, or would stop abruptly and start walking quickly backwards. It didn't take her long to realize she needed to keep her distance and pay attention (Steppe, the whole time, was walking along with us being a good boy, of course).
Once she started paying attention to me a bit better, I decided to offer a treat or pet only when she did a REALLY good job (stopping instantly when I stopped, or staying put when I didn't ask her to come toward me). Treats were not earned for half-assed meanderings forward after I'd stopped, or following me the second I moved when I asked her to stay put. A soft tap on the nose or a request to back up was earned for any attempt at getting to the treats without being offered. It took her just a few minutes to understand what was going on, and to become very responsive. Once she seemed a little less high strung, I decided to practice my newly learned lunging skills with her, to gain a little more respect, and to try working through a couple things I've been stuck up on with Steppe. She happily went into a walk and trot for me in both directions.
I finished and brought her back about 40 feet from the gate, then removed her halter/rope. She wanted to follow me, but every time she'd take a step, I'd correct with a voice command and my hand in the air (I tried to give her rubs occasionally too so hands weren't the 'scary thing'). Once I got to the gate, she started walking quickly up to me, so I swung the lead rope around making a whirring sound to keep her away. She reacted to this 10X better than she had the carrot stick... She stopped instantly, and I took a step toward her, and she took a step back. We went back and forth 2-3 more times, until she decided to leave me alone. From that point forward, she let me do anything I wanted with Steppe, including bring him on the other side of the gate/other pasture. She was still concerned, but not obnoxious about it.
Afterwards, they both got a good rub down to look shiny and new, and she very much enjoyed me getting some of her stuck dirt/sweat from her face and belly. I held onto he rope just in case, but found when things were winding down I didn't really need it!
SOO.. If you've survived this gigantic post, kudos to you, and thank you for your patience! :) It doesn't have much point, other than my need to get all of my excitement out. I do however, in the interest of my own personal safety, and the well being of the horses, want to know what you 'pros' have to say. Should I have done something differently? I understand I'm very much new to this, but in the moment, what I didn't want to happen, was for me to 'give up' and walk away, only to teach her it was OK to act that way with me, and end up with a more difficult situation the next time I came to collect him. I know this will be a regular occurrence, as these two are always in the same field together, and I don't exactly feel like paying for a lease that entails watching two horses in a field, as much as I like them. Should I continue working with her this way, if I have my trainer's approval? Are there other activities I could try with her that would strengthen her trust and respect for me as a leader?