Trust issues for pony with unknown background
I purchased 2 ponies last Fall (September) to save them from a bad fate. They did not come from the same place originally, but I know nothing about their backgrounds and will never be able to find out. The older (3 coming 4) pony has slowly come around with treats, some round penning, etc. I can halter and lead her, and touch her almost all over, although she would still rather I "not" but some of that is pony attitude. She is a treat monger so she will basically tolerate most things for a treat. To add to the fun, she had a surprise foal on March 25. I have imprinted him from birth so the baby is going to be fine and is way ahead of his mom and the other pony! Neither pony is mean (the little mamma pony is grouchy, not mean). They are both capable of being nice ponies for children (in fact my 9 year old neighbor is less intimidating to them and sometimes they are better with her than me!). Neither is mean whatsoever and have done nothing but try to get out of a scary situation when pressured.
The bigger problem is the other filly, who is 2 coming 3. She was either abused or had little to no handling prior to coming here. She came with a halter but has been able to rub it off and I haven't been able to get one back on her. She is very very very skittish. In the beginning I tried round penning her. I am an experienced horesperson although I have not trained a youngster from scratch since before all the "joining up" info came out, i.e. many years ago and never trained a scared and possibly unhandled and/or abused horse that has major trust issues.
I felt that the round penning for her was not working. She got so stressed out that the minute I entered the round pen she was petrified and started charging around the pen, even when I stayed still and turned away from her with unagressive body posture. I know round penning is not about chasing them around but there was no chasing needed for her to continue to freak out and be drenched with sweat and still trying to run. I felt that she might be that one horse that just won't join up that way and have been using other means to get her to join up. After a setback when both ponies got out last winter and had to be lassoed to be caught, she regressed and I could hardly get near her for a month or so and I had to start from scratch. Lassoing was the last resort believe me, after 2 days on the loose we were afraid for their safety and they were completely feeding off each other and wild.
That incident was in February. Since then I have been working with her almost every day, twice a day. My routine is that when I feed her grain (on the fence, they have a run-in and no way to stall, although I am not sure that would be the way to go with her either, feeling forced and trapped), I hang with her and stroke her. She knows she has to "come after me" to get the grain. If she tries to back up I turn away but move the food farther down the fenceline with me and she does join up to come after it. I come into the paddock at least 3-4 times a day and hang and she always comes to me (yes I am always good for carrot slices - whatever it takes I don't think that's bad). I am finally able to pet her neck, shoulders, a little bit of the ears etc. I have laid the halter in her feed tub so she has to stick her nose through it to get the grain. I am so close to being able to toss it over her ears but I know how that would end right now. She lets me pet her while she is taking a bite of grain and then usually takes a step back unless I am not touching her with my hands. I should mention that she will let me touch her with my face all day long, I can kiss her nose and rest my face on her cheek) she is only scared of any action with my hands or of anyone coming at her and putting any pressure on her by looking at her or coming at her, even casually.
I know I am making progress but is there a point where she is getting the upper hand as far as calling the shots? I am afraid to push anything because there is no doubt this is genuine fear. I know there is no timeline on trust issues but is there a time when it's time to go with another plan? I don't want her to be forced into anything, BUT she needs her feet trimmed (not horrible yet but def. getting there) and I want her to get her shots. I could sedate her but again, I want to break through but I am hoping it's not much longer until I can get the halter on her. I feel that until I get that breakthrough I won't be able to make any real progress. I was going to leave a grab strap on her like the baby and then catch her up each day and just slowly work with her. Altogether we are talking about 9 months of working with her (with a couple of major setbacks like the lassoing) already. I am willing to be patient, I just want to make progress but the right way. She exhibits the same skittish behavior with neighbors that stop by and feed and pet her through the fence. I have everyone that will come by playing with her.
Can anyone share their timelines (especially if you had a hard case that did come around :) and/or comments? Sorry this is so long but I thought the full background was warranted here. Thanks for reading this long post.
While I've started a few horses that were extremely wary & much slower to come round than most, as this girl sounds, can't give you a 'timeline', because I've just taken the time it takes. I don't believe pushing or trying to force things is helpful with a fearful horse - that just tends to set you further back IME.
I think working in a smallish(not so small, that they feel trapped, & that size depends on the horse & her 'safety zone') yard can be helpful, but not big on 'round penning' as people tend to do it these days. I think it's too confrontational, at least until the horse has learned to trust you. It sounds definitely the case with this girl.
Sounds like you've been doing ok since the lasso/round penning experiences. I'd be using 'approach & retreat' methods, along with lots of positive reinforcement - that you've already been doing with treats - to VERY gradually push her comfort zones & get her confident with new things. Eg. It's unclear as to whether she's comfortable having you inside the yard when you've been feeding her, but if not, I'd start out standing in the gateway & staying there(not turned away but with relaxed bodylanguage & focus) until she settles. The instant she calms - even if it's only momentary & by degrees the first few times, turn around & leave - negatively reinforcing her behaviour. Next step when she's reliable & comfortable with that could be going in & walking around the yard - not at her, I'd start walking away from her.
Re haltering, I don't know how you'd go about sedation, short of knocking her out with a dart gun, if she's not halter broke at least. As she tolerates your touch, I'd get her better at that first, then do the same with a halter/rope in your hand. I do tend to use a noose rather than halter when I first attach a rope, but you will have to consider whether her trauma of being lassoed will make that too stressful. Either way, I wouldn't attempt to attach anything firmly until she's comfortable with it touching everywhere & draped over her neck & head, swinging it, trailing it, etc.
When first roped, I like to start in a smallish yard(big enough for them to move around/away if they feel the need) & have a long rope attached, so that I don't lose the end, but can apply pressure on it if/when I feel, because the rail will stop them finding the end of it. Again, baby steps & lots of reinforcement with teaching her to first accept & then respond to light pressure.
I suggest you look into 'clicker training', as it sounds like it's your sort of approach anyway & the principles behind it will help you understand how to progress.
Re getting her feet done or other necessary care, at this point, I would consider tranquilising her completely a better option than trying to force her into anything. I wouldn't leave her with a short rope attached to her, as for one, if she's not yet learned to yield to the halter, she's likely just to pull away, reinforce her fear & learn how to escape if you put any pressure on it.
Thanks for the feedback!
Thanks very much for the feedback. She is actually very comfortable with me in the paddock with her. She will definitely approach me looking for a treat etc. and I can always stroke her face. She is just flighty and you are right, I have to be the one to retreat and can never (nor would) come after her. She will come right up behind me and sniff my pockets for treats etc. I was a little concerned because she seems to be calling the shots, i.e. allowing as much contact as she wants and leaving when she wants, but I know you are right, it will just take time. The neighbors are starting to report that they can touch her now when they come to the fence with grass or carrots which is also progress.
I am relieved regarding your position on round penning because my friend is pushing this and wants to work with her but I think it's enough pressure on her having me work with her and gain her trust, without bringing a "stranger" in to start hanging with her in the round pen. The well meaning friend also does not have the time to put into her and would be sporadic in her training. The time I have put into the round pen has taken endless patience to get the smallest reaction to be able to end the session.
I have thought about the clicker training and saved some info on it. I have never tried it but it just might work for her. After I wrote the post yesterday I actually felt more progress with her so I guess I am on the right track. It just seems to be taking forever and each day is much like the last. But I guess if I look at the big picture we are getting there. She is young and I am not in a hurry by any means. I just want to know I am on track to get her through this at some point! Thanks again for the reply. I am new to this site and I think it's wonderful having people share their knowledge!
Check out my reply in the natural horsemanship section on 'join up'.
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