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September 10, 2020: More on Lessons Learned

This morning, early, the sun was shining brightly, it was pre-frost conditions. A few degrees colder and this would have heralded the end of summer. As it stands, we have a few days of good weather left, and I intend to take advantage of them.

After breakfast, I hurried back outside. I didn’t have a lot of time because I had to organize books for the upcoming recycling center artwalk sale. I had been thinking a lot about Wendy William’s blog on the subject of learned helplessness – thinking about instances in which I’d seen it in other horses; of course, not my own. I was also thinking, as the article inferred, about learned helplessness in the context

Alys and Tyra

of horses that had completely shut down; that is, those docile animals that have no remaining joy in life.

Then I got to thinking that I have seen this in my horses. First Raudi, who for some time was not very forward. I solved the problem by riding her by holding onto her mane and with very light rein contact, well realizing that the problem was that I was holding her back. Secondly Hrimmi, who in arena settings comes to a stop. Pete solved the problem by first walking her in the arena setting, then ponying Tyra off of her.

Icelandics are very stoic creatures. They do not wear their heart on their sleeves, so it’s hard to tell sometimes if (as in most cases with learned helplessness) their parasympathetic nervous system has gone into overdrive. And so, I was slow to pick up on the fact that Tyra, Hrimmi, and Raudi in particular were showing signs of this malady.

This made itself most apparent last month when doing agility. It was a difficult course, with a handful of the obstacles requiring Parelli-esque rope cues. The other obstacles lent themselves to the use of targets (feed bucket lids); the problem was I had so many lids after I set up the course that the horses, on lead, were pulling me where they wanted to go.

I like to see the horses do well in agility because this means that I’m doing a good job with their groundwork education. Alas, in watching the videos we were to send in, my heart sank. Raudi in particular was very unhappy, and of course not listening to me. I now realize I was not listening to her. She was telling me that she had no choice but to go along with the program, and she was displeased about this.

What to do? I was stymied for a while, then the wheels started turning. I first decided to do liberty, off lead work with all three. I started out with Raudi. She seemed more interested, but then again, I had these targets all over the place. This morning I had ah ha moments. I decided to use the target stick, and while at liberty, I led them through the course. I had just enough time to work with Tyra and Hrimmi. Then tonight, with Raudi.

Off lead, the ponies had a choice. They could wander off if they wished, well knowing that if they returned to me and touched the target stick, that they would get a reinforcer. The results were dramatic. Because they had a choice, meaning I was no longer pulling them around, they all came back to life. Again, as in the past, agility was way fun.

I rewarded them all by tossing the small gas container filled with packer pellets out in front of them. This, then, was a far more upbeat way of ending the session.

This all verifies what I’ve been thinking for some time. The more items you have in your proverbial tack box, the more options you have. And the more options you have, the less apt you are to end up with a situation in which you close the communicative doors on your horse.

Next: 251. 9/11/20: The Pacific Northwest Apocalypse

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