Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 6: the not-so-subtle nuances of xcel's feet

As Xcel's feet were slowly becoming more comfortable, I began to do some of the TTEAM leading exercises with him, usually on our way out to the paddock in the morning or back to the barn in the evening. There was a nice grassy area in front of the barn where I often did ground work with my horses. There I always had several 12-foot jump poles on the ground in various configurations. I also had a heavy piece of plywood and four plastic "blocs" for setting poles on to make cavaletti or small jumps.

I often had a TTEAM exercise laid out called a "labyrinth." I have found the "labyrinth" to be an important tool. It consists of 6 poles laid on the ground in such a way as to allow a horse to be led into it and make two, 180 degree turns before being led out again. This wonderful tool helps develop a horse's coordination and balance. It encourages bold horses to be patient and to have self-control and it offers insecure horses a place to feel safe. Though I have been using the TTEAM labyrinth for over a dozen years, I am often amazed at how well it works and in how many ways.

To lead Xcel through the exercise, I used a wand and sometimes a chain shank to quietly ask him to walk forward with his nose even with my shoulder and to stop in balance. As I led him through the maze of poles, I asked him to halt once or twice and encouraged him to negotiate the turns in balance. I did this by using signals on the lead to help him turn, and touches on his chest with the wand to signal him to halt. I also made sure that his head was just above wither height. Too high of a head would not allow him to think clearly, too low of a head would tend to make him heavy on his forehand.

I also made sure that he bent himself around the turns and was balanced enough to keep the clear four beats of the walk around the turns rather than pivoting or stopping the movement of one leg. It was a great exercise for Xcel. It helped him slow down, since he always seems to be in a hurry, and it focused his attention on me and the exercise.

I also used another TTEAM exercise I really like called, "pick-up sticks." This consists of (usually) four jump poles piled haphazardly on top of each other. This is great for developing a horse's eye-hoof coordination which is important in all horses, but especially in those who jump. Many people are not aware that they can take a horse that is not well coordinated and improve it dramatically by doing this type of exercise. I had already led Xcel over many single ground poles, through the poles of the labyrinth and then over them before attempting the more complicated "pick-up sticks." As I led Xcel over these haphazardly placed poles, he had to pick his way over them, watching carefully where he was going to place his feet. To help him do this I picked my feet up high in an exaggerated manner as I stepped over the poles, to encourage him to do the same. We find that horses will mirror this action and do the same.

For the first few times, I arranged the poles in such a way that they were fairly easy for him to negotiate. This is so important! I consider this type of ground work preparation for jumping. When teaching a horse to jump, it is very, very important that you do not over face a horse and so scare him. It is so easy to do if you are not very careful. Over the years I have seen many people ruin good jumping horses by over facing them-scaring them by asking for too much too soon. Even though all I was doing was asking Xcel to walk over a few poles on the ground, I wanted to make sure he could do them successfully. I believe success breeds success, failure breeds fear and frustration. It is all too easy for a horse to stumble, or have a pole roll under it's foot and have a bad experience. It would be silly to have something negative like that happen when just walking over poles. So I always proceed carefully.

The interesting thing about teaching horses to jump, is that one can apply the principle to all types of training-that you never overface the horse. If you think about a thing like trailer loading, many horses are over faced by an entire trailer. The TTEAM way of trailer loading is to break the exercise down into smaller parts. Get the horse walking over, and backing off of a heavy piece of plywood on the ground, then raise it up off the ground and do the same thing. Get the horse comfortable about walking through a narrow space, and under something above it's head.

When we put these parts together into a whole trailer we find the horse is much more willing to load. In this way we have created a horse that is more confident in itself and more trusting of us because we have not over faced it. This confidence, we find, carries over to other things the horse may be faced with later. Linda Tellington-Jones calls this method, "chunking down," breaking an exercise down into smaller parts to make it easier for the horse so he can build his confidence.

Xcel was a very good student! He stayed very focused most of the time and learned quickly. He is a very athletic horse and is well balanced and so was able to negotiate the ground pole exercises fairly easily. But when it came time to put him back in his stall, he planted his feet and refused to walk into the barn. Because I sometimes hand grazed him in front of the barn, I knew that this is what he wanted. I saw this as a great opportunity to use a leading method we call, "Dingo." I switched the lead to my left hand and the wand to my right and used the wand to stroke Xcel's back then to gently tap him on the top of his croup after giving him a signal to go forward on the lead shank. This helped him understand that he should walk forward.

I find that very smart horses often give their opinion on various things and while you can't indulge their every whim, I think it is important to at least acknowledge that they have an opinion and to listen to them as they may be trying to say something important. Our horses' behavior is the only way they have to communicate with us. If we brush off every attempt they make to communicate, they may lose trust in us and we lose the opportunity to become a real partnership.

I really wanted to do some lunging with Xcel. I had put him on the lunge line a couple of times since I purchased him but because of his sore feet, I couldn't do much with him. But since he was getting sounder, I decided to do a little bit. Basically I just wanted to see if he knew what lunging was all about. Though he used the opportunity to do some bucking and leaping about, it was clear to me that he understood the concept of moving around me on a circle and he was reasonably responsive to my commands when he settled. He did stop and refuse to go forward a couple of times though. (hmm, was this a tendency that I was seeing?)

All I wanted to do was to get a sense of what he knew about lunging so I knew what I needed to work on since he was too sore to do more. I was not surprised that he wanted to play. That seems to be quite a habit with him which I will keep in mind for when I start riding him! 

As for Xcel's feet, my farrier, Derek Poupard said that it would just take some time for them to grow out and develop a thicker sole. In the mean time, in an effort to keep him comfortable I had put Xcel on a herbal supplement called, "BL Solution" that I think helped ease some of his discomfort. And when he was in his stall at night, I put magnetic bell boots on him made by "Natural Vibrations." I use magnetic boots on my horses quite frequently. I also use a magnetic blanket on them made by "Norfields" and I often use magnets on myself. I find them to be helpful in relieving pain.
Though Xcel had gained weight, he was still not eating his grain very well. He ate his hay well though, particularly his alfalfa but I was still searching for a grain that he really liked. The difficulty was that I really wanted to take him off of sweet feed and put him on a plain grain without molasses but he was having none of it-literally!