Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Two days ago I shared a blog about Oliver's desire to NOT go where I was going, which can also be called opposition reflex. Because I hadn't been working with him very much he wasn't in the habit of following a feel. Without a halter on he will follow me ANYWHERE, including into the tack shed. LOL! But with a halter on he tended to sit back on the lead rope first and then reluctantly follow the feel on the rope.
What did I do to help him?
I took about 15 minutes to spend some quality, one-on-one time with him, helping him understand what the feel on the rope meant. Helping him have an understanding so he didn't need to feel reluctant, or fearful, or argumentative. Instead, he could find the sweet spot in the movement that following the lead rope would bring.
I haven't had Oliver very long. I brought him home in August 2020. So he has been here 6 months. In that time I have found out just how smart this little baby pony is. He learns the good stuff fast and he picks up on the stuff I don't particularly want him to know just as quickly. Because I have a good understanding of that, I knew I needed to address the problem right then, in a snow storm with the temps hovering around 15 degrees, with the wind howling. I knew I didn't need to spend a lot of time working it through with him, but what I did need to be was precise with my timing when supporting him in the forward motion, and very generous with my praise when he found the right answer.
A key when working with babies is quality of time spent rather than quantity. They can get overwhelmed quite quickly and then you are just simply flooding them which doesn't lead to learning. Short, sweet sessions that are positive and end positive are key.
Side note: Sometimes things aren't beautiful, our timing is off, the weather is making it harder (even though you would think that was the case the other day, wind and blowing snow don't bother Oliver. He is from northern Montana where they make our wind seem like a breeze. lol) the other horses are making a fuss which is making the one you are working with distracted, you aren't in a good place emotionally which is throwing things off. If this is the case, PUT THE HORSE AWAY AND COME BACK LATER. In that case don't worry about ending on a positive note, just don't make things more confusing and put the horse away. One trick I do use is to always give a handful of hay pellets when I un-halter my ponies. I do not want any of my ponies to pull away when I am taking the halter off and walk, or trot, or run off before I walk away. So, to mitigate that I try to make our sessions fun and engaging for us both AND I say "Thank You" with a little handful of pellets. Even if we are struggling in a session, at least we end on that positive note. This makes it so much easier when I come to catch them later as well. They all meet me at the gate and try to put their halter on themselves - to get that little handful of pellets that comes when the halter goes on.
What was the outcome of that session?
The day after our session, yesterday, Oliver waited patiently at the gate. No bumping me or Zorro, no pushing or bossing as the halters went on. He led politely through the gate, turned and waited for me to shut the gate. Then, he led quietly over to the feeder for his breakfast. I put Zorro away before I put Oliver away and let Oliver have a little tie lesson after he finished his breakfast. After a short session of pawing and walking back and forth, trying to graze and tossing himself around a little bit, he was standing quietly. I went over and spent a few minutes brushing him and picked up his feet, without any drama (which he was starting to offer me when I asked to pick up his feet. He would hand them to me then stand on me, try to paw his foot away and the other day when I trimmed his feet he offered to kick with his hind a little bit.) After that quick little session I untied him and put him away. Short and sweet!
Today, he was again, waiting patiently for his halter, actually he stuck his nose in it before I was ready. I really like that attitude! Zorro got his halter on and I opened the gate. Oliver waited for Zorro to go through and then he walked through and turned to wait for me. A little less patiently today, but that was quickly addressed and when he knew what I expected, he stood quietly. Off we went to their feeders where they were tied up and had breakfast.
I let Zorro stand tied when he was done today, as I believe standing quietly tied, without anything to do is an important lesson every pony should understand. My ponies are actually very good at this but that is because I actually do tie them and let them be bored quite a bit! I don't want Zorro to time his sessions, so I stopped cleaning the track, and went to put him away. This left Oliver tied to the tie wall by himself. Right now it doesn't bother him at all when I take the other pony away and I really like that! So we will continue to practice and practice.
After I had finished cleaning the pens I went and brushed Oliver all over, getting him used to being touched, gently, all over his body. Then I squatted down and both said out loud, "let's pick up your foot" and pictured in my mind him politely handing me his foot. I barely touched behind his knee and he gently picked up his foot and held it until I put my hand under it. He stood calmly while I "cleaned" it. No trying to walk, or tipping over, or trying to paw. He just stood quietly. I told him Good Boy and then went to his hind foot and did the same thing, said "let's pick this foot up" and pictured him handing his foot to me. He lifted his hind foot and put it right in my hand.
Side note: I am reading Sacred Spaces: Communion with the Horse Through Science and Spirit, By Susan D. Fay PhD. It is BLOWING ME AWAY. I can't recommend this book highly enough. She teaches the visualization of things in that book and helps us become more grounded and in the moment with our horses.
I went around and picked up each foot in this way and he never once tried to pull a foot or objected in any way.
Then I untied him and said, "Let's take a little walk around." I stood with him beside me and focused my thoughts on him walking calmly beside and a little behind me on my right hand side, all the while keeping the lead rope slack. Then I breathed out and upped my energy and off we went! I didn't even need to put a feel on the rope. We walked down the side of the track, on the outside, then crossed the driveway and went to the front yard. Sky came around the hay shed and gave a few whinnies as we crossed the driveway but Oliver never hesitated. I found a little patch of grass and we stopped, I told him he could graze and he took a few bites. Then we walked to another patch and repeated the cue. This is a little bit of point-to-point, which is something I love to do with my driving ponies, to get engagement and forward out on the trail and when ground driving on the road. (I thought I had a blog post about this but found out I do not! I will write one when we have a bit more grass showing, so I can make a video.)
The entire time we walked around Oliver followed my intention to walk, walked quietly on the lead rope, and when he thought about stopping to eat, I put a little feel into the lead rope, and he quietly followed the feel without a trace of opposition reflex. I was so pleased with him. Also, this told me that he had complete understanding when we had our session two days ago.
Does this mean he won't ever have opposition reflex again?
No. He will sometimes revert back to that behavior, but if I am consistent and clear with my intentions, he will follow the feel faster and faster until the opposition reflex pretty much melts away.
If you can take a few minutes and have the tools to break down an idea to a level that they can understand, you can save yourself and your pony so much heart ache, discontent and confusion later on!