The time it takes

On Saturday, Rocky was so relaxed and calm with my nine-year-old niece in the arena, I led him out to walk around the ranch on a mini trail ride. As we passed the new-to-us potbellied pigs, he snorted a little and looked, but otherwise walked by fine. But the second time around, he went completely right brain. Jessie had to dismount while he was moving backward (and did a great job of it, too), and I had to draw on every bit of horsenality and situational behavior strategy I could think of.

Jessie eventually went to play with the barn cats. It was heartwrenching to see that even two hours later she still had her helmet on, in hopes of being able to continue her ride.

Because, yes, two hours later, I was still approaching and retreating.

Parelli Law #1: Put the relationship first, gaining trust and confidence above all. Principles before goals.

For the first hour, I kept him on the path near the pig pen. We’d stand far back and just look and snort, then I’d put a little pressure on the halter that he could release with a step, then we’d wait there a bit, then back up that step.

Eventually we were able to do this in full view of the pigs. Which had not moved this entire time — they lay sprawled in their little hollow with their eyes closed and noses twitching.

Pot-bellied pigs and Jessie (age 9)

Pot-bellied pigs and Jessie (age 9)

By the end of the hour, Rocky could follow me along the path without stopping, although he did look and snort and was not calm. I then started walking the entire loop of the path.

I’ve never seen it take longer than two days. ~ Pat Parelli

Jedi joined in. Then my sister Patricia arrived with my nephew Alex (age 5) and their dog Miga. Jessie explained to them what I was doing. Miga joined in the loop walk. Then Alex did. Then Patricia did. The Jessie did. So as we looped and looped, we had four humans and two dogs and one horse in the herd, with the horse in the back. We all practiced not stopping as we went by the pigs — except for Rocky, who sometimes froze on four feet, which meant I got to the tip of the rope and leaned a little to give him pressure that he could release by taking a step. When he did that, he’d get a little rest, and then we’d walk on.

About 30 minutes into that, I stopped giving him the little rest, just waited with light pressure until he stepped forward and released the tension and then we’d keep walking.

By the end of the second hour, we were all sweaty (did I mention it was 90 degrees Farenheit when I started all this, around 5:00 p.m.?) and coated in dust and grime. I had additional sludge from Rocky’s snot, as every time he snorted like a velociraptor at a kitchen window, I got sprayed, and from my previous exertion before they all joined in.

Also by the end of that hour, Rocky could walk by in both directions without stopping. I then led him to a familiar “safe zone” and gave him a cookie and a rest, then walked by to another safe zone and repeated. When he did that and was able to eat his whole cookie and lower his head without my putting any pressure on him to do so, I took him home.

Then Sunday he was fine in the arena so Jessie got to have another ride, as did Alex and Patricia — all of which happened after I did enough freestyle to know he was safe. He was patient and gentle but did not want to come unstuck from me, which I know hurt Jessie’s feelings. I’ve never been the one the horse is stuck to before, only the one in the saddle trying to get the horse unstuck from Teacher. He also got some free roaming time to explore the ranch on his own.

Paco watching Rocky be free

Paco watching Rocky be free

Today, Monday, I set a few handfuls of hay in little spots along the path by the pig pen, then got Rocky. I am now going to take charge of the evening feed for the back 40, so I can feed them after I play with him, and not always be taking him away from his dinner. Thus, he was hungry when I got him, and I cleaned his hooves and talked to him a bit, then led him down the lane toward the first handful of hay.

He got high-headed and snorty but not nearly the panic he was in on Saturday. And he ate his hay. We had a lot more approach this time, with retreats of shorter distance. He really wanted to look at them and I let him stand and look except when his skin started trembling, and then he had to do squeeze game. Which he did not want to do, but did, and then when he got the shakes out, I’d let him stop and look.

I sang him several songs, a selection of Lyle Lovett , the Eagles, James Taylor, Glen Campbell, and Alabama, which he really seems to like. When I stopped singing, the head went higher, so I’d start a new song, just to experiment. ( I notice that since I’ve decided to only drink wine in celebration with friends and not as an evening routine, my voice has become stronger again, prettier and more able to stay on key. Go figure.)

I also kept my body between him and the pig fence, and spent a lot of time looking at the pigs and putting my energy toward them, holding the carrot stick suggestively, trying to let him see that I would protect him from them. This time the female was in her house and the male was wandering around at about 1 inch per minute, then returned to his house and burrowed into the hay.

Naturally Rocky decided he had to push all the way up to their fence to watch this, and I suddenly found myself having to back him up so he wouldn’t get poked or shocked. (The electric wire is on the inside of square wire fencing and only up to about 14 inches off the ground, but it’s Rocky — he would find a way to scare or hurt himself in an empty zero-G chamber.)

Rocky and pigs

He is still not nonchalant about the pigs, but he’s not terrified either, and actually showed enough curiosity to have to be wiggled away from them a few times. He relaxed enough to munch the hay and to graze on the little patch next to their fence. I let him have a little free time and then took him home and threw the hay down for them.

I am so proud of him for becoming curious. I am touched that once he got curious enough to approach, he sidled to be near me, but did not crowd too close or put me in danger of being stepped on or barged into. Each time he looked away from the pigs, gave me two eyes, and put his nose out for reassurance and a bit of “can you believe it? what ARE those things?” I felt like he was extending trust along with his muzzle.

It confirmed that I was handling it right, giving him the right balance of time to get used to the new weird semi-predatory creatures, space to retreat to as needed, and support to stay in the zone between comfort and paralyzing fear so that he could expand his comfort zone.

Horses teach humans and humans teach horses. ~ Pat Parelli

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