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Getting over the teeter-totter is more like climbing a mountain

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - June 2nd, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: I was working with my 4-year-old Mustang mare, “Cowgirl,” and tried to get her to go over a “teeter-totter” obstacle. She would walk around it, but as soon as I would try to get her to step onto it, she refused. I tried going over the side of it, and the most she would do is jump it and mess around. I stayed out there for a long time, and it didn’t help. How can I fix this?
— Jacky Hare, Silverado, Calif.

HEY JACKY: This is the perfect example of when “minimizing your loss” is the right thing to do. As long as Cowgirl didn’t become stressed out during her experience, this obstacle shouldn’t be that difficult to face again. It boils down to preparing your horse ahead of time with other “walk-ons” and “walk- overs” away from the teeter-totter before coming back to it.

You should have a good handle on your horse before you return to that obstacle. Make sure you can move your horse easily forward, backward and sideways — front-end and hind-end alike. It doesn’t matter what tools you use — hand, rope, stick or wand. Try not to use a sharp whip if you can avoid it because you don’t want to add to the fear and stress she may already be feeling about this challenge. To start, place a pole on the ground about two feet from –and perpendicular to — the fence. Ask your horse to walk in the 2-foot space between the pole and the fence until she feels comfortable and relaxed. You should be positioned as if you were lunging and reversing, over and over again. Next, close the gap between the pole and the fence until she either jumps or walks over the pole, and continue until she walks calmly over it.

Now you can replace the pole with a tarp or sheet of plywood and position them like you did with the pole , leaving a couple feet between the fence and the obstacle. It may be helpful to have one of the corners pointing toward the fence initially since the horse will have an easier time jumping over the corner as opposed to jumping the entire width of the obstacle. As she becomes more accepting of this challenge, close the gap between the obstacle and the fence until she walks calmly over the obstacle.

Jacky, you are on the right track when you proceeded to attempt Cowgirl to cross over the short side of the teeter-totter. Now that we have allowed Cowgirl to hop and skip and jump over these various obstacles along the fence, this will be a perfect time to slip in the teeter-totter. Have her repeat exactly what she has accomplished before. Remember, leave a couple of feet between the obstacle and the fence, and as soon as she becomes comfortable and relaxed, begin closing the gap. Be sure to have the end of the teeter-totter that is facing the fence down. Understand that even though we want her to step on the obstacle, jumping over it is not a refusal — it is actually a good thing. As you repeatedly ask her to go from one side of the obstacle to the other, she will eventually get tired of jumping. Eventually, it will be her idea to put a foot down onto the board and test its safety. Then, one foot will turn into two, than three, and later four — until she will stand on it, stop, rest, and feel as confident as a circus elephant on its platform. You should be rewarding for any effort — as slight as it may be — by stopping, resting, rubbing and scratching. But when she finally stands with at least two feet quietly, make sure you throw a party of praise.

This will be a good time to put her away and have her sleep on it. By the time you take her out for another session, her memory of this experience will have grown. She won’t remember whether she stood on it sideways or long ways. Simply pull the teeter-totter away from the fence and ask her to walk up as if she were going to walk straight through. You can stand on the side of the teeter-totter as if you were loading her into a trailer by sending her in, or you can stand in front of her on the plank and ask her to follow you through. Take great care not to get jumped on or run over the moment the teeter-totter shifts from up to down. I’ve seen horses simply walk all the way through as if they have done it before, and I’ve seen them jump off cat-like in nine different directions. If the first option happens, praise them and give them a moment to understand what they have accomplished, then create a positive pattern by doing it a couple more times before putting her away. If they do a triple back-summersault with a twist in your direction, you do not want to punish them for it, but by the same token you can’t reward them either. So, find a rewardable exercise for Cowgirl, like turning her on the forehand by moving her front end around her hind end two or three times around. Tell her, “Good girl!” and give her as many chances as needed. Eventually, she will prefer to be rewarded for staying on the plank, as scary as it may be, instead of working her butt off at the other rewardable exercise. You need to have faith that this process will work like a charm — it’s not a matter of IF it will work, but a matter of WHEN. It will be sooner than you think. This challenge will be to build a tremendous amount of trust in you and confidence in Cowgirl that will carry over into other challenges in her life. Jacky, I assure you that you will feel much pride in yourself and your horse after going through this experience.

Remember to always trust your instincts and think safe.


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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