Bentley is the newest arrival to our training program. This petite 13 hh, 6- year old pony was just gelded in January and comes to us from the MSSPA. As part of a state seizure case, not much is known of Bentley’s history but it may be assumed he had little handling and was not ridden.
Because he was only recently gelded, Bentley still has some stud characteristics such as hyper-vigilance and concern around the comings and goings of other horses. Fortunately he is not aggressive, but rather is super curious, insecure on his own, and a bit pushy and socially awkward with others. We know that he will continue to settle and mellow out with time, and currently have him out with two bossy geldings who can keep him in line and teach him better social skills.
At this point, our major goal in groundwork with Bentley is to get him thinking about us. He is so busy and distracted that we need to get his attention before we can productively work on anything else. To do this, we begin by making a commotion (waving a flag, snapping the lead line on the ground, etc) whenever he turns his hind end to us and goes to leave the scene. Bentley is sensitive, and so he quickly turns and comes back to us to make the commotion stop. In time, this noisy commotion can tone down until all we’ll need is a subtle cue to tip Bentley’s thoughts back to us. The idea here is for him to start associating leaving us (both mentally and physically) with noise or commotion, while turning back to us brings peace and quiet. In this way, without any coercion directed at him, we can get Bentley thinking about us and choosing to stay with us.
We have also been considering the importance of our intention when working with Bentley. If we’re thinking about him and how he’s running around screaming, and we’re just reacting to his movements then he can easily continue his distracted behavior. However, if we flip it around so that we have a task to do and he just happens to be with us on a lead, Bentley begins to relax and follow our movements much more easily. For example, we might go adjust a jump, stop and pick rocks out of the arena, go open a gate or suddenly reverse direction and check out the other side of the arena. What we do doesn’t matter, the key component is our focus on that task. If Bentley cruises past us when we stop, we simply turn around and head off the other way so that he has to catch up. Meanwhile here we are practicing walk/halts on a loose line, yields of the haunches and shoulders as we change direction, and regulation of pace. Bentley picks up on our focus, and begins to relax and softly follow our movements. Someone else is in charge, and his only job is to keep track of us and move his body as needed.
With these initial training sessions, we also practice multiple times a day. If Bentley is ‘with us’ for a few minutes on the lead and has put in a good effort, we’ll turn him back out and then practice again a little while later. Short, frequent intervals will be more productive then one long session, as they allow Bentley to be rewarded often and give us the chance to practice again with a fresh mindset all around.
Horses can only learn when they are in a calm but focused mental and physical state. For this reason, the initial foundation we lay with Bentley must include relaxation and looking to us for direction. Once Bentley is able to softly follow and stay with us, then we can begin to teach him the skills he’ll need to become a successful member of society.
This video demonstrates a lot of the ideas described in the blog that we have been working on with Bentley. In this video you can see that in the first clip Bentley is still fairly distracted and is “missing’ a lot of his handler’s cues. In the later clips he is starting to relax, focus and be attentive to his handler’s aids. As you can see, this method and these tools are really making a difference for Bentley.