The story of Hero and Sha begins long before you see the first pictures of Sharon and Hero together. Like any horse, adult Hero is made up of all of the experiences that baby Hero had. As professional horse trainers I can tell you unequivocally that horses that are handled correctly as foals have a much easier time when it comes time to learn to be a ridable horse. Actually, the luckiest horses don't really have a big "ta-da...your life as a baby horse is over, now you're a grown up" moment. Good horse training is made up of every single moment starting from the moment a foal hits the ground. This doesn't mean that foals are "in training". What it does mean is that every single time you lay a hand on them you ARE training. Just like children a foals first lessons are simple and all designed towards keeping everyone safe when that cute adorable little foal is a 1,000 pound adult.
While the subject of this post covers Hero's introduction to "scary water", Mike's ability to communicate appropriate behavior when faced with, to what Hero thinks is a very sketchy situation, is based upon what Hero learned as a foal and that has to do with responding to pressure. Ultimately a safe riding horse is "pushed forward" from behind. Their engine is behind them. This holds true whether their ultimate job is being a great western pleasure horse, reining horse or a dressage horse. This is why from the very beginning Mike and I have a halter on our foals with a long soft rope, referred to as a "butt rope". There are a couple of variations on the theme, but this one has always got the job done for us. On a very young foal, they wear this just to get used to the feel, and the wrangling is done with more of a "body cradle, an arm across their chest if they get too rambunctious, a hand urging their hind-quarters forward if they get stuck. And, in what might seem like a counter intuitive move, we don't have the foals follow the mare, we have the foal in front of her. First of all, the mare is happier because she can see her baby! Our mares are very well trained and comfortable with us handling their foals and sometimes participate in this part, seeming to know that we're part of the "baby protection brigade". Within a couple of days the foals the foals have this figured out really well. Sometimes you might have to move mare and baby across areas that wouldn't be safe for a curious foal to wander and managing them this way keeps them safe and teaches them valuable lessons that make things much easier as they get bigger and stronger.
In the photo above, the mares and foals have just had a short trailer ride, moving to a gorgeous field that is specially fenced for the babies. You can see that from being taught halter skills from a really young age, Hero already knows to look to his human handler for clues as to how to behave and what to do. The lead is attached to his halter, and the butt rope is on. He's already learning to stay in his own space which is a very important part of becoming a good "equine citizen". Don't step on the little humans!
Fast forward two years and you start to get an idea of what a big boy Hero will be! You can see here he has great leading skills, perfectly positioned as Mike takes him down the hillside. Even so, Mike has Hero tacked up for ANY shenanigans that could occur. A horse, after all, is basically a thousand pounds of instinct preprogrammed to find and respond to threats from predators! So, Hero is wearing a chain. Which you can see appears to be absolutely not needed, but we've never been sorry we had one, but upon occasion we have regretted when we didn't! Mike is heading out into a VERY large unfenced wooded area and you just never know what might pop up while they're out there. Secondly, attached to that chain is a lunge line. Not a lead rope, a lunge line. Mike will use this occasion to reinforce what Hero has already mastered in his lunging lessons. Thirdly, Mike has a lunge whip which since Hero has long graduated from "baby butt ropes" is used to remind Hero, should he "get stuck" of where is forward engine is.
Every situation can be turned into a positive training experience if you TAKE THE TIME to do so. Yes, today's lesson is ultimately the creek, but here you see Hero making a real big deal over a PUDDLE! And Hero has grown up with lots of experience with central New York rain. He's no "barn bunny" and this is a great example of natural horse behavior. Horses have a much different view of the world than we do...literally. In this case, there was a reflection on that puddle. The most important thing Mike did was not to rush this situation. As long as Hero didn't cross certain boundaries of good behavior Mike was going to use this as a precursor to when they get to the creek. First of all, all Hero has to do to get a "passing grade" is to forward calmly AND NOT TRESPASS into Mike's space. The picture above shows him getting a B+. By working on this puddle for about 15 minutes, Hero got an A and walked, not jumped and not ran, calmly through it. The important part is that Mike did not leave this "hazard" until Hero was completely "chilled out" about.
Above is one of my favorite pictures from this session because it shows perfectly how most horses react when faced for water for the first time. And this is completely normal! Why? Have you ever seen those nature shows where the crocodile comes out of the water and grabs a zebra for lunch? That's why! The ancestors of the horses who were wary lived to breed on! That doesn't mean that you can't teach a horse to handle water. It does mean that you need to have some basic communication skills to get it done safely. Our number one goal here today is not "get Hero in the creek". The goal is "teach Hero that he can trust us if we say the water is safe to go in". Bonus points for the session if Hero feels like a rock star because he did what he was told.
There is so much to say about the conversation going on here! Hero has got an A+ on position, but he's "stuck". Hero is definitely saying "I know you've never let me down before boss, but seriously? This looks like a bad idea". Mike's body position says volumes. Eyes reading Hero's expression. Lunge whip used in a way we call a "block", the entire length of the lunge whip delineating the line that "shall not be crossed" to remind Hero about the space thing. From this position Mike can touch Hero with the long end if and when he needs to. Equally important is the way Mike has that length of lunge line in his left hand. He is ready to feed out a lot of line IF things go "pear shaped" and Hero opts to do a bolt and run through the water. Being prepared like this means Mike probably won't get jerked off his feet if that happens.
Not gonna lie, there was a lot of discussion before this happened! But it would be a REALLY boring blog showing lots of pictures of Hero putting in one foot and changing his mind. Putting in two feet and then deciding that was good enough. Long story short (or shorter) is that while Mike insisted that Hero go in, he never punished him for not going in. The only thing Hero would get sharp "tap" for was if he went into reverse. Huge no-no. Backwards is never an option. Go forward as slow as you want Hero and you'll get an "atta boy". Think about turning tail and running...not happening! One thing that doesn't really show in these photos is the footing under the water which, to me, is creepy. Think egg to baseball sized rocks. Very unstable and something naturally unsettling the first time a horse has to deal with it. Which is why we really prefer to let them figure this out without the complication of dealing with a riders weight as well...if we can.
Now that he's realized Mike was RIGHT Hero thinks this is pretty cool. You can tell by his left ear that he's still scanning the woods for scary monsters, but he pretty sure that Mike's got security covered for him. Hero wants to look all cool and brave (Hero's are like that) but take a a look at his tail. His butt cheeks are still pretty clenched!Mike's actually lunging Hero at a walk here. So that Hero has some task that he's very familiar with to provide Hero with an answer to the question "what should I do boss"? And you can see that Mike has "laser eye" on Hero's every move. And believe me Hero knows that!
I think this photo is another of my favorites because you can see that this wasn't so much about the creek water crossing itself. It was about how to face all the unforeseen challenges that will come up in a horses lifetime. It's about developing a "protocol" for any scary situation and that should always be based upon listening to the cues your handler/rider is giving you. Above, Hero is literally asking Mike "what next"?
Hero BF. Two years of training done. A life time to go but well on our way in the story of #heroandsha