The next weekend, after looking at and subsequently buying Bella, I drove down to have our first session working together. My boyfriend and dog came along with me, and when we were within an hour away, I couldn't stop thinking about what steps I wanted to take with her to build the groundwork of our relationship. I haven't worked with one of my own, personal project horses in over four years, since coming to college. This past summer I had the opportunity to begin training for the public in my college town (check out "The Trials and Tribulations of Training as a College Student" journal!), and did get to work with a lot of unbroke horses, but it never really felt quite the same as working with my own. My main plan with Bella for this first day of working together was to focus on catching her by utilizing her curiosity, begin teaching her some very basic groundwork skills, and of course work on leading. Bella coming to check out my phone, trying to take pictures of her.
Upon arrival to the rescue, I was immediately taken aback, as Bella walked directly to the fence to greet us...or so I thought. Instead, I realized that she is incredibly interested in dogs, and instead of greeting the humans that had carrots, she followed my dog running up and down the fence line. This ended up coming in handy later in the day! Once I entered her pasture, I honestly expected her to walk away from me, based off of her reaction to a new person the first time I met her. Instead, she was more than content to be around me, as long as my fascinating dog stayed close enough for her to watch and smell. Bella has a problem with shooting backwards or moving out of your reach when you try to grab her halter, and the first time I reached to clip my lead on, she did just that. Instead of continuing to try, whenever she would move out of my reach, I would immediately turn around and walk a few steps away. My main goal by doing this was to have her question why I just stopped trying to catch her, become curious as to what I was doing instead, and re-approach me. This method worked, and after a few repetitions of trying to grab her halter, her moving away, and then me moving away, I was able to have her stand calmly while I held onto her halter. Bella allowing me to hold her halter, while petting her neck.
Once I put my halter and lead rope on her, we began doing lots of easy work. Leading was one of my main priorities with this first visit, as she hasn't been out of her current pasture in over a year. Unlike the first time I met her, I was able to lead her relatively easily, with the help of my dog. I would begin walking ahead of Bella, my dog would follow, and as I had hoped, Bella did too. After a while of using my dog to help us get going forward, I had my boyfriend take her to my car and I began to work with Bella just one on one with leading. To my surprise she was leading way better than expected, and after walking a couple of laps around the pasture, I began jogging to see if she would follow at a trot, and she did! After this point, I chose to use this as my stopping point with leading, and end on a good note. My beautiful Bella. My beautiful Bella, after she realizes my dog is back.
I worked very briefly on the Parelli's Yo-Yo Game*, and she picked it up so quick. The first two times I asked her to go backwards, I had to emphasize my cues pretty largely in order to get a response, but I could see the gears turning in her head. By the fourth time, she was backing away from me with just a movement of my wrist. After this, I spent a while just petting her and spending time around her, and then chose to take her halter off. *I realize many of the Parelli methods are controversial on this forum, but I have found many of them to work really well on horses like Bella. I personally used the Parelli method on my first horse, Flicka, who was incredibly similar to Bella, and it worked wonders. I combine my training methods with many different sources, so I will never classify myself as a Parelli trainer, but my roots are based in the Parelli method. I do however focus largely in natural horsemanship, and that will most likely be my focus with Bella.
Once I took her halter off, I was pretty worried that she would be completely uninterested in me, and that she wouldn't allow me to catch her again. I immediately started one of the games I like to play with hard to catch horses, where I pick a point in the distance, walk to it, and then squat down. I was really hoping that Bella's curiosity would continue to get the best of her, and it did. She followed me to wherever I went to investigate what I was doing, and was rewarded with bits of apples and carrots whenever she touched me with her nose. I chose to end this session together after a few successful join-ups, and promptly left the pasture after she greeted me one last time. Bella greeting the weird squatting human. Bella making sure the treats were up to par.
This session left me feeling really great about the progress I made with Bella in just an hour or two, however, session two proved to be a challenge. I believe that you never stop learning with horses, and I have a feeling this mare will teach me all she has to offer. To be continued...