I went out to Hacienda Becerra today and volunteered to play with a 10 year old Percheron mare named Savannah Havana. (The Hacienda is a rescue/volunteer organization mostly for off the track standardbreds (trotr.org) but they have all breeds, ages, and sizes out there; really nice folks too!) She has in recent months developed a behavior of bolting when she feels the line on her halter. I thought if I gave her 22 feet instead of 12, it might help. And that she needs more Friendly Game with the halter and line, and some Hide Your Hiney as bolting is an extreme way of turning her hindquarters at the human.
I made mistakes, learned a lot, and left things on a good note — for myself and for the horses.
I tried Catching Game in the pasture at lunchtime with a very dominant mare, in a herd of 30ish, in a huge dirt lot, with two border collies who wanted to herd the horses too (I drove them off, finally, with my carrot stick and voice). What did I learn from this, other than don’t try this yet with all those distractions around? Well at one point I think I shouldn’t have tagged her when I did, as she had slowed and I think she was allowing me to approach and instead I tagged her … in a giant field, at liberty, and of course then it was forever before she gave me two eyes again. But at the same time that was the only time I mis-tagged, so I’m getting better at reading the horse and playing this game. I didn’t actually have to tag her at all as she would move off at just a look.
The upside was that I got a lot of exercise and I had actually put on sunscreen moisturizer this morning so I got barely pink on my nose instead of sunburned all over my face. Also, I became more aware of when to tag and when to give more time (long phase 1!) for the horse to give eyes. So interesting to play with a horse so much more reluctant to tune in to me than Rocky is!
Maybe it wasn’t a mistake to try this, and though it was very challenging for me, I still think it was better than marching up and putting her on line right away, given what happened later. She gave me two eyes more often after the first half hour. Playing in the large space changed things too. She has a huge bubble and I was able to keep my bullhorn pointed about 15 feet behind her tail, and then to really stay far away during the two-eyes portion of the game, without losing her attention. She looked at me for minutes, not seconds, and licked her lips more obviously as the game went on. When I gave her that additional space she tuned in more. Hm, how interesting! Had I picked a better time and place I think she’d have gotten into this game!
I did eventually end the game when she gave me two eyes, walking far into the middle of the field and sitting down, and resting there for a long time. She watched me for minutes and minutes before going back to her hay. And I waited longer, so that when I next approached her it would be a new game. When I next approached her I kept my eyes soft and my belly button pointing well in front of her Zone 1 on an almost parallel trajectory so while I was technically blocking her I was not really trapping her. And she gave two eyes and two ears and allowed me to approach. I made sure to keep all my energy beams pointing outward from her and scratched her itchy spots.
I also tossed the halter and 22 foot rope (alas, not a Parelli line; and I have the rope burn to prove it!) on the ground where she sniffed it fearlessly. Then I rubbed her with the halter for a while. Not a twitch. Then I put it on her head. No fear at all from her. She had her head low, her eyes drowsy, her back swayed, her leg cocked. I rubbed her with my carrot stick for a while. And that’s where I should have stopped, taken off the line, petted her for a while longer, and left the field. That might have generated some interest in tbat the human wasn’t out there to drag her somewhere.
Instead, I picked up the rope with some energy and … BOLT! ZIP! goes the rope. OW! goes my hand. I let her go before she hit the end of the line though, as I didn’t want to get dragged, nor did I want to panic her more.
She slowed to a trot and I learned that she isn’t afraid of the halter or line pulling on her when she steps on the rope. She just flicks her head up and lifts her foot to get the line free and keeps going. But when one of the other mares stood on the rope, Savannah Havana started to panic. Then she got her leg caught on the taut rope before I was in range to move the other mare forward and her fear really came up. Right before she exploded and probably crashed to the ground and broke her leg and ruined my chances of ever volunteering out there again, I moved the other mare off with my carrot stick, and Savannah Havana was able to run off instead.
I should note, here, that by this time, I had a little string of yearlings and two year olds following me. They were riveted by the catching game I’d been playing with Savannah Havana , and when they started following me I tried to do a little bit of energy on/energy off with them too. It was so cute! And neat that it happened without my noticing much because I was so into my session with Savannah Havana and where my energy was and how she was responding (or, alas, reacting). Eventually I scooped up an armload of hay, once Savannah Havana climbed the little hill in the middle of the field and stopped, and walked out to her without driving her off — this time with four or five fillies in line behind me, because I had the hay, and perhaps that helped Savannah Havana feel better.
I dropped the day for her and slipped the halter off over her head without bothering to struggle with the knot. She didn’t panic at that, wasn’t bothered by the halter on her poll or ears or eyes, didn’t shy at my hands. I let the rope and halter lie there and rubbed her for a while. I think that the hour or more we spent with catching game is what led to my being able to approach her for this. Eventually I backed off about 25 feet and sat on a rise with the carrot stick as a defense just in case. One of the fillies was apparently stuck to me, so we did a little friendly rubbing. Eventually I gathered up the end of the rope and dragged it all the way to the gate — again with young horses following, this time with their noses down to snuffle the halter and line.
Here’s what I would do, if I had Savannah Havana as a project. I would move her out of the huge field and herd into a smaller, individual pen. (That would be a feat in itself and I’d want to try it with a 45 line.) Instead of free-watering, I would bring her water however many times a day you bring a horse water when you are teaching them that humans are a source of good things. I would spend undemanding time. When that was reliable, I’d bring the halter and line in and ignore it, but have it near me. Eventually would move to lots and lots of friendly game with the halter and line. I’ve seen that some people can play at Liberty with horses that aren’t okay with the line, so I’d try to learn about that and do more stuff. I’m betting the catching game with no other horses in there and a smaller spot might be fun for Savannah Havana .
However, with all that said, I’m not sure how to introduce the line, now that she’s spent months getting herself nice and scared of it. I would call the Parelli hot line and also ask for other people’s experiences in the forum. A round corral would be good because when she bolted she’d have a place to go where she could have slack in the line but still be on the line, and one could use the stick to keep her out of one’s space, and try to shut down that right-brain reaction. (I did try to shut it down but the heavy rope I had didn’t carry the squiggle up to her.)
I didn’t do much good, other than teach the fillies about the catching game, but I don’t think I did her any harm. It was interesting to see that she wasn’t spooked by herself stepping on the rope, only by other things confining her. I did accidentally try to play beyond my savvy but I recognized that and retreated, then made sure to end on a good note.