Twenty Minutes in Photos: Trust-Based Training at Work
Back in May, I wrote about the beginning stages of gentling Sandstorm, who arrived at In the Night Farm as a completely unhandled bundle of nerves. I haven’t been able to put nearly as much time into her this summer as I hoped to, but we’ve spent about fifteen sessions laying a foundation of trust in anticipation of future work. Here’s a series of photos taken last Saturday during a twenty-minute lesson on the cusp between gentling and training:
When her inside ear was on me and she showed interest in stopping, I shifted from a driving posture to an not-threatening pose, inviting her to turn inward. I approached her at a medium walking pace, gaze and shoulders dropped. Her body language demonstrated that she was quite unconcerned. This represents major progress since the early days, when I had to creep toward her, inch by inch, while she trembled on the verge of panic.
Sandstorm is distinctly right-eyed. She’s doing much better, but sometimes still goes to great lengths to avoid watching me with her left eye. Here, she was thinking about twisting her head around to look at me over her withers. It was this behavior that led me to put a halter on her, though I had to put her in a squeeze chute to do it. She was learning that she could avoid me by turning waaaay away, so I spent a few sessions teaching her to give to halter pressure so I could gently bring her head back around when necessary.
As usual, I touched from poll to tailhead, under her belly and down her legs. My hand on her withers provided a mental anchor, enabling her to better sense my movements, and giving me warning if she was about to leap away.
Notice, too, that I stood with my body touching hers. For humans, this takes some getting used to because it feels unsafe, but to the horse, it is a great comfort.
I’ve spent hours working on getting Sandstorm to allow me to touch her face, particularly from the near side. It’s been a painstaking, inch-by-inch process, but she’s finally begun looking forward to getting some rubs on her itchy spots.
Incidentally, I can also touch both ears, inside and out, without the slightest reaction. It’s amazing what you can do when you take the time to develop trust instead of forcing a horse into something for which it isn’t prepared.
That goes for training a horse to pick up its feet, too. This mare can’t be haltered without restraint, barely leads, and is far from being ridden, but she lets me handle her feet better than many a seasoned show horse. Why? Simply because I gave her time to choose to stay. She could run away, but she knows she doesn’t need to.
This was only the second time I’d picked up her hind hoof. Notice that I stood well forward, with my right knee soft. If she’d panicked and kicked my leg, she’d probably have knocked me down, but hopefully my knee would have escaped serious damage.
I only held this foot up for a second or two before releasing it. This was critical, because I was asking her to compromise her most basic defense — the ability to run. She needed to be released before she felt trapped.
At this point, we moved beyond review into mostly new territory. I touched Sandstorm with with the just end of the rope, allowing her to get a good look at the way it stretched, snakelike, between us.
She took a nervous, sideways step when she realized the rope was attached. I let her move but followed, keeping the distance between us the same. You can see by the angle of her ear that she was nervous about the rope, not about me.
If she had chosen to turn tail and run, I’d have not only let her go, but moved her around the round corral, dangling rope and all, until she settled down with her attention back on me. Then, I’d have proceeded calmly as if nothing had happened.
I put light tension on the rope to ask for a “give” in my direction. Sandstorm responded immediately with several, tentative steps. Not all horses will move their feet when first asked to lead, but Sandstorm had the advantage of some earlier “give to halter pressure” lessons performed at the end of a lunge line several weeks ago.
When handling her hind hoof, I didn’t bring it behind her as I will eventually for cleaning and trimming. That step, which puts me in a potentially dangerous position, is better reserved for when I have a handler at her head.
So, there’s the update. It doesn’t seem like much…until I recall the days, not so long ago, when this horse shook if anyone so much as eyed her from a distance of twenty feet. When I look at it that way, Saturday’s lesson seems just shy of a miracle.