Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Solution To The Gate: Learning to Wait & Controlling the Feet

I got to work with my trainer today on the issues Leah & I ran into last week on the trail.


1. Leah escaped to the left when closing the gate. 
2. Leah escaped to the left when walking along the cliff trail across from the Waste Water Treatment Plant. 
3. Leah did not want to cross the State Park bridge obstacle.

Trainer's Assessment:

1. I need to practice controlling where Leah is putting her feet.

2. Leah is a forward horse (likes to move when nervous), but she needs to learn to wait to see where I'm asking her to put her feet.

Sounds simple, but as I'm sure all of you know, it's not.

First, you have to know where each of your horse's feet are at any given moment, which is hard to do from the top.  Second, your horse doesn't want you to control its feet!  In fact, your horse pretty much gets pissed off when you want to control its feet.

In light of all this and the many steps it takes to get a horse from point a to point b, we started by playing the T-Bone Game.

(I feel like Beel & Ranger with this hand-drawn diagram. Be patient with me.)

The T-bone Game: Walk Leah in a circle and guide her toward a fence post.  Let her choose to stop herself.  Keep her at that "T-Bone" position (90 degree) angle to the fence. Rest. Repeat. The goal is to teach her to stop and wait patiently for direction and to look ahead and think about what's coming.

At first, Leah wanted to walk right through the fence, but after a few tries, she began to stop ahead of it on her own.  We did it circling both ways and were getting some great stops.  Eventually, though, she got tired of doing it and started to veer out to the left again (like the other day). To the left, to the left, to the left.  My trainer had me go with her--keep calm--and let her stop--all the while having her face the fence in that T-bone position.  If her evasion got too fast to the left, she had me pull her head toward her tail and make her work harder to go to the left.  

Once she was stopping nice and consistently, we moved to diagram 2.  Stopping Parallel to the fence. The goal here is to control her speed & the "wait", and to direct her feet near the fence and be able to push and pull the fence & her body.

Leah didn't like stopping on the left side or side passing to the fence.  My trainer said that it has probably always been an issue with her, but it just took the right circumstances to bring it out--like the State Park Gate.  I stayed very patient with her and if it didn't work out, we just walked off into the circle and tried again. We did it both ways--left and to the right.  To the right, she did wonderful.

Once I got her relaxed and parallel to the fence, my instructor had me reach my hand over and push and pull the fence--pulling and pushing Leah's body as well.  At first, Leah was easy to move--she wasn't balanced. Our goal was for her to balance and brace herself against the weight of my pull.

She did.

I rewarded her.

Repeat.  She got better and better.

All of this work was pretty easy, but mentally taxing for Leah.  Those two sections took about 45-60 minutes.

Which led us to our ultimate goal. Opening and Closing Gates.

We did the same thing we did in diagram 2, but our approach to the gate was foot by foot--very deliberate placing to approach the sweet spot--the place where I could reach down easily and open the gate.  On our first attempt, my instructor did all the actual opening of the gate.  I was to position her correctly and then follow the gate with Leah's body in the same angle as the gate.  Each step, we were to rest & practice the "wait". (Leah did not like to wait, but she did.)  After we'd get relaxation, we'd move another step or two.  Then, we'd circle her shoulder around the gate and go the other direction.  Having my trainer work the gate was nice.  We did that about 4 times until Leah was relaxed waiting & okay with the gate "moving" in her space.

To top off the lesson, we went back to the bridge, but this time my trainer wanted me to ask Leah to wait at the bridge until I gave her a cue for movement.  When she could do that, she had me ask for the right foot onto the bridge. Then the left foot.  Then her whole body...and on and on. It was all about waiting and specific direction for her feet.  Leah, of course, just wanted to go right over the bridge herself, in her own time, with whatever foot she wanted. But she learned to do it my way.  At the end, her waiting and her foot control was excellent.  We'd also learned to communicate to each other, in our own way, about which foot to use and at what speed.  I would lift the reins up gently and shift to the right to ask for her left foot to come up, and vice versa. It felt like she was mirroring me or I was mirroring her.  You have to put your weight in your right leg to be able to lift your left leg.

She was finally waiting and listening!

My homework is to do all these things at home and to have her practice waiting & using specific feet going into the trailer and going into and out of her stall.

As for her blowing out to the left, my trainer suggested that I bring her head toward her tail, when she does that, and let her work in a tight circle.  The couple of times I had to do it today during this lesson, Leah responded immediately.  I think it will put a quick end to the left side "blow-out". 

All of these waiting & listening lessons will help us in tight situations.  It will also help her be more patient in the trailer.  I guess you could say they are the building blocks for pretty much everything.  


  1. That sounds like it would be frustrating for a horse, but beneficial. I had an instructor who gave me the homework of walking ten feet, trotting ten feet, walking ten feet, trotting ten feet... Lostine was pissed. She was switching her tail and crow hopping the whole time, because she thought I couldn't make up my mind. I'm not sure I understand how you tell the horse which foot to move. What if you are going forward and you want the right foot to go first? Do you squeeze with just your right leg and open up the right rein?

    1. Good question. For me, I open up my right leg and lift up my right rein as if I'm opening a door and "asking" her to walk through. She can move her shoulder more freely if I'm not pushing on it. In a way it's like I'm picking up my own right leg to move it.

      Last week we worked on a different exercise to accomplish the same thing. At the walk, my trainer asked me to pick a spot on the ground over to my right (and then left later) and open my door and ask Leah to put her right foot on it as we walked out. It wasn't a turn, but it was a deliberate stepping off to the right trying to hit that chosen spot. We worked on that quite a bit and it helped Leah and I get a feel for our own communication. The rein was gently lifted as if I opened a door wide for her and asked her to step through. And, of course, you have to get out of her way so she can go through the door.

      The bridge was the same exercise, but it started from the halt. It as a matter of saying, please put this foot right here. Now put that food over here.

      I didn't squeeze her at all. In fact, I tried that, at first, and it only served to propel her on to the bridge with all feet. The lift of the rein up and forward was my ask--along with opening the way for her with my leg.

    2. Thanks. That's a clear explanation that I should be able to remember.

  2. I'm totally borrowing this exercise. i think it will be great for us!

    1. Let me know what you think. When you're doing the T-Bone, don't ask for the stop as you approach the fence, even if it looks like they're going to walk right into it. That's A-okay. Just make sure they don't turn their head away from it and are lined up in a T.

  3. Hahahaha! My first thought was Beel!

  4. Good stuff! When you're putting her nose to tail and working in a tight circle - are you going both directions, or just to the left? Ray used to tell us to mentally picture that our reins are connected to a foot, and it was like controlling a puppet. That mental image really helps me. When we're working on foundation work or the basics, it always has fantastic pay-offs for everything to come. Always work on the foundation no matter how far along you get. That's what I've been taught. You guys are really doing well, and moving along faster than I think you realize. :) Wish we could ride together...

    1. The left circle was only when she was scooting off to the left. It was a way of making her work harder without fighting her for a stop. It's also safer, since she could really trip herself up flying out to the side. If it happened to the right, I'd do the same to the right.

      That is an excellent description to think of it as a puppet! That is exactly how it feels. You lift your rein up and point it where you'd like them to go. My trainers calls it opening doors, but the puppet is perfect--or maybe both.

      I wish we could ride together, too. You could really be that extra set of eyes for me!

  5. It sounds like good training exercises. It's always nice to have a plan to let them know what we want and to follow it up with how to get it. You're making great progress with Leah!

  6. Controlling the feet is the foundation for everything we do with horses. Sounds like you are working with a pretty good trainer.


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