Updated: May 23
What is opposition reflex?
It is when the horse or pony's instincts kick in and they push against pressure. Horses are a prey animal and have evolved over 1000s of years to eat low quality food and to push against predators. If a mountain lion jumps on their back they will flip over, pushing into the pressure of that lion and try to smash them. If something pops up in front of them they will push through it to run to the other side.
I don't halter Oliver very often just because I don't need to! He follows me everywhere like a puppy dog and is very 'helpful' with all my projects. Not to mention that we have had some terrible winter weather over the last month and I had no need to be out there haltering any ponies in 30 mph winds and 20 below. I have noticed the last few times I did halter him, he was starting to show more and more opposition reflex when some pressure was applied to the lead rope. This would happen if:
he wanted to go left and I was going right.
if I needed him to follow me through a man door at the vet clinic
or hop into the horse trailer. (To be fair he was awesome about the trailer but his first response was to try to sit back on the lead rope and argue when I asked him to step forward. He did hop right into the trailer after a few minutes of thinking, without me asking him to move forward with the lead rope.)
His desire to NOT do what I was asking was out weighing his desire to give to pressure. And because I haven't spent a lot of time working with him, he doesn't have any automatic behaviors, aside from those he was born with. So, it's not a surprise at all that this was happening.
Today, this opposition reflex reared its head in a not so handy way. He ran to meet me at the gate, I put his halter on, then I went to put Zorro's halter on. Oliver was bossing his way between Zorro and I, tossing himself all around, pushing against me and Zorro. When I asked him to move away he threw himself at me harder. This is not acceptable so, he got a little boot. Much like a mare would do if he were being a bossy butt to her. Much like I've seen BOTH Sky and Zorro do to him when he is attempting to boss them. This sent him away, as he absolutely understood what I was "saying". I didn't kick him and neither do they, they simply bump him with their hocks and I bumped him with my knee.
I took Zorro out and tied him up to eat his breakfast of supplements and meds (hoping against all hope that he would eat them. I'm tired of wrestling him about it.) Then I went in to get Oliver.
Oh! I forgot to mention: Today is FREEZING. Not below zero but probably pretty darn close. The wind is howling at least 30-40 mph and it's just plain miserable out there. So all the ponies were acting out a bit today. Though I understand where they are coming from, I just can't have naughty ponies even when the weather is nasty.
Back to Oliver... I walked up to him and he stood like a good boy, he was standing on his lead rope. LOL! Then I turned to lead him out of the track so he could eat his special breakfast and he put those brakes on and started going backward as fast as he could. I used the end of the lead rope to swish him up and he did come forward but with his head and neck straight up in the air and his head pulling backward on the lead rope the entire time. I swished him up a bit more and got him out of the track and tied him up to eat. Then I went about my chores.
I did not scoop manure today, as I have learned, more of it blows off the fork and spreads around the track than ends up in the wagon anyway. However, my morning chores were full of misery and frustration. The wind was making everything extra difficult. The cold hay nets did not want to be stuffed with new hay, my fingers were freezing so badly that I could barely hold on to anything and that was with my gloves on. Then I had to haul water and somehow sloshed a good portion of a bucket of water INTO my winter boot, so my foot was sloshing around in freezing water. When I poured water into the different buckets I use to haul it, much if it would blow away and not end up in said bucket. Opening gates was a struggle because they either didn't want to push open or would FLY open slamming into things. Opening the chicken coop meant I got a face full of sawdust, chopped straw and chicken manure as the wind, swirled it up into a perfect tornado. Lovely. Of course Gracie thought I was the scariest thing she had ever seen up close and was acting out all over the pen. Goldie didn't want her pill. Fun times.
Even though the wind was howling and it was freezing I knew I had to address this opposition reflex with Oliver. He is so incredibly smart, he learns the good things super fast and also catches onto bad habits very quickly. I don't want this to become a new pattern or habit of his. He is going to be spending a lot of time on line hiking and going for walks with Zorro and I this year so leading is going to be key! I don't need a repeat of Zorro's antics as a two year old when we went hiking. I do plan on allowing him to run free a lot of the time that we are in the mountains but need him to be responsive and polite when he is online.
He finished eating his breakfast just a minute before I finished all my chores. I put Zorro away and then went back for Oliver. I untied him and he stood very nicely, watching me and paying attention very well. But as soon as the lead line put a little pressure on his halter he started heading back wards. The more pressure on the line the faster he pedaled. So I went to the shed, that was right in front of me, and grabbed a carrot stick with a long string. Then we went on a little walk about.
What did I do to help Oliver?
As soon as he would start to run back ward, he would run into the stick. I would just hold it behind me and tap his rump with it when it ran into it. Then he would bounce forward where, I would ask him not to race around and bounce off the lead rope in that direction. When he could move forward with just a suggestion from the lead rope and not bound ahead, I relaxed my body and told him "good boy!" which he knows from all the other stuff we have been playing with at liberty, like the obstacles and such. Then he would settle and start thinking about, stopping to eat grass, and wondering what Samson was doing, which would lead to him either leaning backwards into the lead rope or bouncing ahead. I just stayed neutral, unless he was back pedaling, then I supported him with the stick. It didn't take him very long to find that nice quiet, neutral spot. When he found it then I would stop and bend down, to act like I was eating grass, running my hands through the grass and picking at it. A cue I can use allowing him to graze. He would eat all around me and nuzzle into my head and along my cheek. When he was done eating at that patch, I would stand up and use my energy asking him to walk with just my intention first, then a little pressure on the lead rope, if it was necessary. We meandered all over the pasture doing that. He was really catching on at the end and only needed a little support with the stick when faced with a long patch of very white snow. I knew the snow wasn't deep but he wasn't so sure so needed a little help but once he got going then he was happy to walk beside me. Tomorrow will be the test! He is so smart I have no doubt that he will follow a feel very nicely.
Timing is everything
Of course when teaching these little life lessons having good timing is everything. If every time he gave even a fraction of a try and I ignored that, he would quickly tire of trying to find the answer. The faster I can acknowledge and reward every little tiny try, the faster he will catch on. So, if he gave with his chin, at first, that earned a release of all pressure. That moved into him giving with his neck, then a release of pressure and eventually we worked out way down to the feet. I only used the stick if he tried to run backward. I didn't use the stick to ask for forward. I used my energy and intention to ask for that and slight pressure on the lead rope, if he didn't follow my intention. In this way, he will grow into a lovely, light pony, just like Zorro is now. Happy to follow my lead when I even think about moving forward down the trail.