My plan for ‘solving’ Rocky’s opposition reflex to stepping on his rope

I’ve been struggling with this one for a while. On one hand, Rock doesn’t always panic when he steps on his rope while grazing, and when he does panic, it’s not as big as it used to be. On the other, he still does sometimes panic, and I have not been able to tell what makes those times different. It might be that he’s stepping closer to the snap and therefore has less play in the line when his head comes up.

Rock can't wait to learn the new way to lead by the leg

Rock can't wait to learn the new way to lead by the leg

I called the Parelli Savvy Club Gold hotline today for the first time to ask what I should do about this. I spoke with a woman named Julia and told her what I have been doing: lots of porcupine to bring the head down, lots of head down, variety in putting the halter on while squatting, etc. (And as I talked I got a warm thrill as I remembered how hard this was for Rock when I started, and how these days I barely have time to close my hand on the line now before he lowers his head.) I explained that this mostly happens when we’re out grazing, as I try not to trip him him when we’re playing, although that has happened to.

We talked about a lot of things but here are my action items:

  • I can handle the rope better (or take it off for grazing) so he doesn’t get into this situation. I thought that I wasn’t supposed to manage it during down time, that he was supposed to learn to deal with it. Turns out nope, once I put the rope on, it’s my responsibility to manage it. I can do that!
  • She asked if he pulled back when tied, which made me realize I hardly ever tie him. He’s on the high line for at least an hour, sometimes two, every morning to eat his beet pulp and supplements and pellets out of a bucket, so he gets practice at tying, but that’s a rather yielding setup as well. She suggested that when I tie or practice tying to a rail, I wrap the line rather than tie him hard. (There’s a Savvy Club DVD segment about how Pat teaches horses to tie and not pull back, which I will review.)
  • Instead of holding both sections of the rope when leading by the leg, just hold the one side. I’ve been holding both to keep slack on the halter and just apply pressure to the leg. Now it’s time to play porcupine in both places at once, the leg and the head, so Rocky can solve that puzzle: lower my head and step forward. Now that I think about it, well, duh. When riding a person often uses multiple cues, many of which are porcupine. And you don’t see David Lichman‘s horses doing the Spanish Walk with their noses in the air. Julia said to practice this in a safe environment where Rocky feels comfortable so he can tune in and solve the puzzle without additional stress, and to go as slowly as he needs.

One thing that resonated strongly was the idea that when a human puts a humany thing on a horse, the human needs to stick around to give release. We were talking specifically about the rope but I think it applies beyond the line and will ponder it further. I said that I was always nervous about just turning a horse out with a lead danging from its halter, because it seemed to me like a good way to break a neck or take a bad fall. She agreed, and noted that when it comes to lead ropes, the horse can’t give himself release the way a human can.

I can simulate a downward pull by stepping on the rope, letting it slide under my boots and holding it in my hand so I can give Rocky drift if he needs it. I saw Pat do that with the rescue horse at the Reno Celebration (“want to learn how to do a backflip?” he joked). But if the horse is standing on his rope he can lower his head but he’s still trapped until he figures out how to move his feet. By then the release isn’t connected with the lowering of the head.

Heading out to the Back 40 now, either to lead them to the Back 80 (now that Sterling is living down the road a piece at the trail-riding ranch, the herd doesn’t have a fearless leader through the pass) or to practice leading by the leg in this new way, or both.

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