Dottie is a two year old filly we have at the rescue. She had no previous handling before coming to the rescue and was very skeptical about people for a long time. We started working with her this summer and got her friendlier toward people, as well as teaching her some of the basics like haltering, leading and trailer loading.
Still, although she’s gotten comfortable with Dawn and me, she can still be a bit jumpy and can be pretty skeptical about new people. I had one of our other volunteers working with me yesterday, so it was a perfect day to work a bit with getting Dottie more comfortable with unfamiliar people.
So, we took Dottie to our small round pen and I showed my friend Megan some simple things to work on with Dottie. She started by approaching and feeding Dottie a treat and then backing away. This took the pressure off and gave Dottie a chance to figure out that she didn’t mean any harm. Pretty soon, Dottie was following a few steps when she backed away. And pretty soon after that, Dottie was following her around the round pen like an oversized puppy.
After that she worked a bit with Dottie on scratching her on her shoulders, neck and back. Dottie can be a bit skeptical about this, but she did a great job going slowly and not doing any more than Dottie was ready for.
Then, she worked on leading a bit with Dottie and led her back to the pasture. We wanted to make sure we ended on a great note, while things were still going really well.
With the shy, fearful, or skeptical horses, I’ve found the slower we go at the beginning, the better. Because, if we go slowly at the beginning, we end up being able to go really fast later on. We spend a lot of time at the beginning building trust and curiosity. I want the horse to think training sessions are the best part of their week.
Once the horse is friendly and really wants to be around people, other tasks are a lot easier to teach. Of course, progress can sometimes seem slow at the beginning and we want to rush on to other bigger, better or more fun things. But slow and right at the beginning means we don’t have to spend time reteaching things in the future.
I talked about some similar themes in a previous post, How long does it take to train a horse? In short, if we take the time to build a strong foundation and do things right at the beginning, we’ll have a horse who is a willing partner and easy to train later on.
Boomer, our two year old gelding who just got adopted, was as skeptical as Dottie was last May. I remember when Dionne came to visit, we worked on having one person lead him while another person walked beside him–this was pretty scary for him at first!
A lot of what we did with him this summer was getting him super comfortable around people and super comfortable about new and strange things (fly masks, trailers, etc.) And it paid off. He was recently adopted and his new family loves him. They’ve started working on ground work and desensitization exercises with him and he’s doing great. He also was a perfect gentleman for the farrier this past week, even though he’s only had limited work with picking up his feet. But he trusts people now and he’s learned that people are usually trying to help him and work with him, rather than fight him and work against him.
So even though we have big dreams for Dottie of saddles and lunging and all sorts of fancy ground work, she’s not quite ready for that yet. We’ll keep working on the simple stuff and the little building blocks. Once we get all of that perfectly in place, I bet everything else will come easily.