Sunday, January 22, 2012
I will continue to use this blog for longer stories about the wild horses, stories about those who have been gentled, and about some of the owners, but since Facebook is so popular and easier to use as far as adding photos and comments, I and some of the others who follow the horses, will be using the North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry Facebook site for publishing more information and photos of the horses. Please join us there and help up spread the word of the beauty and value of the horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Difficulty accessing this blog has, for some time, kept me from reporting on the wild horses or those being trained, but I have recently fixed the problem and will try to post some updates before the next season starts.
I will get to updates of the bands remaining in the park, but first must share more of Hawk's story, because I am so excited at the progress he has made.
By spring of 2011, Hawk was doing everything he needed to do to be ready for his under saddle training. He was obedient and gentle with every part of his handling and enjoyed each new aspect of his training. It was time to start the riding. Since I have not started a horse since my 11 year old gelding, and since Hawk has always been extremely timid and sensitive, I had decided to find a natural horsemanship trainer to start his under saddle training. Birgit Schwartzenberger had bought one of the stud colts from the park; in my many conversations with her, I had decided she was the perfect trainer for my sensitive boy.
We took Hawk to Birgit on one of our trips to the park so that he would have company in the trailer for such a long trip. He seemed to accept his new, temporary home very well that first day. I was wondering how he would accept a new leader in his life since I had been his only handler for his first 1 1/2 year in captivity. Birgit had told me that she starts every horse as if it had never been touched so that she would know how it would respond to her and so that there would be no holes in it's education. I was pretty confident in the things I had taught Hawk, but was not surprised that he would struggle to accept and trust this new person. The first report Birgit gave me was that he was unwilling to give her 100% of his trust. She said some horses took months, even years to fully trust, but she would not skip this vital step in his training. She was hoping he would one day yield himself completely, especially his right side, to her patient persuasion; it might be the next day or several months down the road. The good news was that what he knew, he knew well. She was amused at how much he liked to play games and play with obstacles. He had also gained a friend, a goose; they became unlikely buddies and playmates.
After a few more weeks, Birgit called to report again on Hawk's continuing education. This time she was delighted to report that he had began to trust her and give his whole body to her. She was not riding him because, at first, he would not stand perfectly still with nothing on his head and allow her to saddle him. Even though he had been fine with my English saddle and small western one, he wasn't sure he wanted her big western saddle with all it's attachments. More time, patience, and determination on Birgit's part convinced him that it was easier to let her saddle him than have to run around the round pen. She was planning to ride him the following weekend, when her husband would be home to pick up the pieces if there was a wreck, though she knew Hawk would be fine.
I was anxious to hear how the first ride had gone, but waited for Birgit to call because I knew she would when she had time and something to tell me. The next report was again a bit of a downer for both of us. Birgit was pleased that Hawk did not attempt to buck, but he also did not want to move. It seemed pretty logical to him that he should stand still no matter what she did with him. We had both been teaching him that for the last 20 months, so why would she suddenly change the rules? Actually, he knew very well how to move away from pressure when his leader was beside him, but he could not seem to transfer those cues to having her on his back. Birgit is not one to use spurs or whips, so it took a little longer, again, for him to understand that she wanted him to move forward, but he eventually got it and began to walk around the pen. She had hoped again that the light would go on and he would start feeling OK with moving forward with her on his back, but he seemed confused or unwilling to accept this new arrangement, so each day was a challenge. Having trained wild horses before, Birgit found that they were more comfortable and willing to move out when they were out in the open, so Birgit took him out to the yard and into a field. What happened next surprised even her; he ran. Well, that was not in the plan, so she stopped him and took him back to the pen for more training.
Weeks went by with less progress than Birgit wanted to see. He was starting, stopping, turning and backing, all on light cues, but he just did not seem to enjoy having her on his back nearly as much as he liked having her next to him. It was soon time for me to pick him up, and Birgit was still not satisfied with where he was in his training, but she assured me that he had no holes in that training; he just needed time to get used to the riding. When I came to pick him up, we spent a couple hours working with him so that I could see what he had learned. He was timid and unsure, but he did what she asked. Again she reassured me that I could take it from there or, if I just wasn't comfortable with riding him, just give him more time to grow up and bring him back the next year.
Well, even though Henry was gone most of the fall, Hawk and I did "play" as much as we could in the round pen. I took him back to the beginning too, going through all the steps before stepping up on him. At first, he was uneasy; he even took a little frightened jump once in a while, but just one jump at a time and not too hard to sit, even with the English saddle. We started by having Henry ride Fire around the pen so that Hawk could follow him. That worked well, so that by the time Henry was gone to SD, Hawk knew he was supposed to walk forward. Sometimes he would get stuck and I would have to bend his neck around the side until he stepped forward. It also helped to walk beside him and give him the verbal cues as well as the pressure on his side. He was pretty good with verbal cues when free lunged in the round pen. Little by little he became more comfortable with the riding around in the pen. I slowly added cones, a rail, and the bridge. He began to enjoy walking around and over the obstacles. One day it was time to ask for the trot. Since I knew he would be startled if I asked too much, I just used the verbal cue to trot. He trotted! Then he realized he was trotting with me on his back; it freaked him out a little and he stopped, but I just reassured him and asked him again. Each time got easier for him.
When Henry got home again in December, it was time to move to the big arena. He was fine with that and seemed to enjoy having more space. He still wasn't completely comfortable with the trot and only wanted to trot in a straight line. That was OK. Again, I started adding obstacles to give him something to think about. It worked well for him. He became more and more interested in trotting, even trotting over the rails and around the cones. He was like a kid at an amusement park with the cones, rails, chair. Oh, and best of all, the bridge. Hawk loves the bridge; he thinks he should go over it every time around the arena.
I may not have made what some would think was a lot of progress with riding Hawk. We are still not cantering. He isn't doing fancy figure eights, roll backs, and sliding stops like some three year olds, but he loves to "play". He hangs his head over the gate after I have let him go because he isn't done playing yet. He has been an unusual horse all along in that trust came slowly, he had to have each new aspect of training introduced slowly and carefully. I believe that, if I or the trainer had pushed him too hard and too fast, he would have rebelled or become a horse that would tolerate something for a time and then blow up. Because we took our time and allowed him to use his own timetable, he is a happy, curious, interested horse who develops an incredible bond with those he knows. I could not ask for a more enjoyable riding partner. I think he looks forward to our sessions as much as I do.