My farrier recently told me she is sometimes unsure what to do when a client is talking, letting the horse graze behind and the horse steps forward onto its lead. Do I say something? Do I let it go? Will this horse freak out, or… Oh, it’s okay it moved off it anyway.
I know the feeling. Although innately confident and fairly dominant, my horse is incredibly claustrophobic—gates, cross country obstacles, trailers, aisles, wash stalls, cross-ties, creeks, and puddles can be a challenge for her to navigate. But Dancer also panics when she feels trapped around her head, which means that just asking her to lower her head a few inches can feel about as safe to her as me plopping a mountain lion on her neck.
I’ve taught Dancer to lower her head and relax, and she will drop her head all the way down to the ground with just a few ounces of pressure at her bridlepath. This “porcupine game” uses steady pressure to communicate what I want my horse to move (her hips, her face, her neck, etc.) but it also tells where: down, up, back, forward, left, right, etc.
I once assumed that the “where” of the porcupine game is always “away,” and… it is, technically. I want the horse to move off pressure, not against it. If I push my horse’s chest backwards, I expect her to step backwards. But it works the other way, too: if I use the lead to ask my horse forward, I expect her to step forward and off the pressure instead of leaning backwards or even rearing at my feel.
When I watched my horse almost step on her leadrope and cringed because I knew she would panic and hop off the ground and fling her head to release the pressure, I decided to use the porcupine game to address this issue. I could already lower her head with downward pressure from above (pushing on her bridlepath), and I could already ask her down with the leadrope under her chin (downward pressure from beneath her head), so why couldn’t I ask for her to stay down using the same kind of steady pressure?
Here’s the thing: Dancer doesn’t see it coming. She raises her head from grazing—or tries to—and all of a sudden the halter tightens around her, like something heavy landed on her. She can’t process the fact that she is standing on her own leadrope and tying her own head down. For a claustrophobic horse, it makes sense that the only option is to fling her head violently and rear up so that the pressure is released. For a while, it was her only answer—it was the only way for her to feel safe. So how do I create a repetitive practice of this, in a way that only releases the pressure when she does?
I’ve seen horses tied by the bridle to gigantic tires for hours, unable to lift their heads more than a few inches—this process usually ends in a bloody-mouthed horse that ran in circles for hours before giving up. While this method is certainly safe for the human, I strongly believe it is more traumatizing than helpful for a horse, especially one that is claustrophobic, unconfident or even super dominant. For a reactive horse like mine, flooding her and trapping her by force is absolutely not helpful. With that said, the message still has to go through: stepping on the lead rope is just another porcupine game… it’s no big deal. But what to do?
Standing with my foot on the lead rope is ineffective because it is hard to keep the same amount of pressure on the rope when she flings her head, however slow, and it could be hazardous. When I first started working with Dancer on recreating her head claustrophobia, it was the first method I tried since I figured it would keep me safely standing near her and not crouching. Unfortunately, I was still teaching her to break through the pressure instead of yielding to it.
Next, I created the “football pose.” I placed my fist around the rope—a few feet from her halter so that I was positioned next to her and not under her—and planted my fist on the ground. I watched her feet and her head to be aware of her movements… I could get out fast if I had to dodge a bad rear, but I could also stand up as she flung her head, still keeping the same amount of pressure on the rope.
I concentrated on keeping my fist on the ground and waited for her to bump into the end of the slack I’d given her. When she raised her head and her feet to avoid the pressure, I stood with her, still pushing my fist toward the ground with the same amount of pressure. When she landed on the ground and then dropped her head again, she won the round and got to graze uninterrupted again. After a few repetitions, she would bump into the pressure and just keep grazing, un-phased.
The second time I played this game with her, Dancer only got worried once. As we continue to practice this game, I’m able to put my fist closer and closer to her halter, and I can safely use my foot on the rope provided I leave enough slack. Soon, I’ll allow her to step on the rope herself, and I won’t cringe inside like I have before. It’s got to build, though. I believe this grazing game works well for Dancer because I’ve asked my horse to lower her head countless times from above and below, from the ground and from the saddle. I’ve thrown ropes around my horse’s head many, many times, and she’s still getting used to ropes hanging by her ear. This is certainly not the first thing I’d do with a headshy horse, but it’s what works for us right now. These things take time. And if we take the time it takes, one day it will take less time. One day, I’ll be talking to my farrier after our appointment, and my horse might step on her rope and nobody will even cringe.
Can you relate? Do you have a claustrophobic horse? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!