Case Study – Avatar

For our first case study of 2016, I’d like to introduce Avatar.

[responsive]Groundwork with Avatar[/responsive]

According to his owner, Avatar is a coming 4 year old Egyptian gelding. At our first introduction he came across as nervous and unsure but kind. When approached in a stall he was curious and didn’t react adversely to being pet and stood well for attention. When direction was given to move back or to the side he seemed resistant, but that could very well just be from not understanding what was being asked. Outside on a lead line he led with his attention on just about everything other than the person leading.

Avatar has a great demeanor and does not seem the type of horse that is so bothered that he feels he has to attack. Outside of some nipping that the owner has experienced, he doesn’t kick or paw nor seem apt to running anybody over. When pushed harder and placed in an uncomfortable position he will do his best to escape, usually by rooting and throwing his head in combination with moving away. A fearful horse is generally better than an overconfident horse that has found that attacking is the best way to get release. That confidence though isn’t placed in the human, but in himself to protect himself.

In terms of what he requires and what we’re working on, it’s solely ground training at this point. Avatar has never had a saddle on him and the goal is to have him ready for a saddle and his first ride before summer. For now he needs to be able to be led and directed without any trouble. As he’s so young, we would not give a recommendation to ride much or for long, but slow starts in the saddle can be very beneficial as it encourages lots of groundwork. So while this case study isn’t about physical rehabilitation, as there hasn’t been any indication of any physical problems, we’ll be working on helping him mentally.

The owner has let us know that he has had some groundwork done with him by the previous owner. He’s a quick learner so it makes sense that somebody has done something with him but it’s not expected that it was carried very far. In other words, he’s almost entirely green other than he accepts a halter quite well. He doesn’t get his head down yet for it and prepare, but he also doesn’t run off and try to get away. So some great work has been done there.

[responsive]Groundwork with Avatar[/responsive]

The first session with him consisted of just feeling him out to see how much he understands of what is being asked. He led erratically to the area we were going to use to assess and tended to walk ahead or push from behind. When stopped he tended to glance off and pay attention to other things and when asked to backup or move around he wouldn’t move off calmly. While he seems to understand he needs to do something, it doesn’t look like he’s yet able to do it peacefully and calmly.

About halfway through this first session he seemed to have had enough of being asked to move around and stopped responding to being asked to backup. It took over 5 minutes to get him to back just a step, but slow, methodical and consistent asking got him back and from there the rest of the session went well. His owner was left with some homework to have him move back and forth “like a marble on glass” through light requests with the lead rope. Doing basic circle groundwork was also introduced with the hopes that some practice could be done before the next session.

At the end of the first session Avatar left an impression of being a smart and capable horse that likely will have trouble with what is being asked as he’s not used to complying. He seems to have a few habits that he probably has felt has kept him out of what he considers trouble. It doesn’t mean was in trouble or that he was likely to get hurt, but that he felt troubled and practiced getting away. He’s quite adept at throwing his head around and I would expect he has been quite successful with that technique. All in all a really wonderful horse though and hooks on really well when he is inclined to do so.

[responsive]Groundwork with Avatar[/responsive]

For Avatar’s second session we concentrated on the circle exercise with more backing and some direction changes. There was another 5 minute standoff of getting him to back with even more rooting and throwing his head around mid-session, but he managed to get his feet unstuck well enough to continue on well for the rest of the time. Here is a quick clip on that:

This second session had much more time with the owner practicing, with mild direction from myself, each exercise directly with him. This is always the difficult part as with a green horse they can respond pretty adversely to certain pressures. Even the owner noted that she wasn’t willing, nor physically able, to hold him back or down if he really tries to get away. For this I always recommend to do each exercise with more frequency but less duration.

For example, if we’re doing the circle exercise on the ground and at about one circuit around the horse tended to pick up the pace out of concern, then I’d suggest to draw the horse from that circle before then, maybe halfway. Then start again. Perhaps even it would just be an eighth of the circle of moving, barely enough to take a few steps, before you’d draw to disengage the backend. Each time you would build on your success and you’d get more done by doing less. It’s the direction that is given that is responded to that can be built on.

In this session he managed to get circles done one way quite well, the other way he still moves off with a bit of trouble. He tends to have a lot of impulsion when he moves from a stopped position and we’ll continue to work on letting him know that a flag or rope isn’t out to hurt him, it’s just something to let him know to move his feet. He also got direction changes done not too badly and his backing has improved. It’s obvious the owner had been working on it. Again though, when he got worried he got stuck and we had to spend almost 10 minutes having him relearn that throwing his head isn’t going to get relief. He catches on fast though.

[responsive]Groundwork with Avatar[/responsive]

For homework, this second session was left off with changing directions on circles and concentrating on placement of both the feet of the person and the horse. More backing is required under the the simple idea that it should be possible to move him in any direction we want, when we want for how long we want. Any sign of any trouble in any direction is indication that he needs some more practice. In the end he should be so knowledgeable and experienced in particular direction requests that when it comes to sitting on him in a saddle we should be able to move away from hand direction and get to leg aids very quickly.

Update 03/29/2016: Avatar is coming along very well as we move past his sixth session in groundwork. Over the first few sessions he learned how to respond to the flag or the tail end of the rope as it’s swung around. He also learned how to move on a better feel through gestures by the leading hand and direction changes by following his nose. We worked on using tarps both on the ground and on him and while he had a hard time at first, he now has very little issue walking around or on a tarp while doing our groundwork.

Around the 5th session he was saddled and surprisingly accepted it very well. History on his training is relatively unknown and there isn’t any information on if somebody has already worked with him with a saddle on. I expect he has at least been well blanketed and perhaps a rope around his girth area as he didn’t give any trouble when cinched up. While not unheard of, it’s unusual to see a horse accept a saddle pad and saddle with so little concern, which leads me to believe that he has had some done in the past.

Once he was saddled we worked with him to do all the groundwork we had been doing up until that point to see where he was weak. By introducing another pressure item in an exercise, that a horse can under normal circumstances get done, we can then see where the weak spots are and improvements can be made. This is both for the person working with the horse and the horse himself. With our groundwork training we’re working very closely with the owner to have her do most of the work with guidance. This will create not only the best bond between the two but also allow her to learn how to control his feet instead of just being handed the reins of a finished horse.

Avatar has a serious issue with how he used his head for his first 5 sessions. He has had a lot of practice of throwing it around or using it to move people and it was important to finally get him to figure out that he doesn’t need to do that. His sixth session concentrated on both getting him to put his head down and also to accept a flag being moved around him.

[responsive]Avatar head work[/responsive]

Again, not being sure of his past and what training or abuse he may have been subjected to, we had to work with what he was showing us. In this case he threw his head up when touched anywhere on the face or neck, the top of his head or ears was almost untouchable. With perseverance and softness using good timing of pressure and release, he got to a point where he would keep his head down for more than a few seconds to accept the affection that allowed him to feel safe. While that took about 15 minutes of dedicated effort, this was maintained throughout the rest of the session in between working him in circles and direction changes. By the end of the session the owner finally had the moment she was waiting for with him where she could just cuddle his face and head without worrying about him throwing his head up into her.

[responsive]Avatar flag work[/responsive]

His flag work is far better as he was pushed a bit beyond his comfort zone a few times and brought back down to a peaceful state. He has learned that while the flag is to be respected, it doesn’t need to be feared. In the beginning he was dancing around and trying to run off, in time he took direction with much less concern for his life and instead could concentrate on what he should be doing.

For his next few sessions we will be continuing to work on circles, direction changes and more work with his saddle on. He is very worried about having the stirrups hit his side, and when done manually he tends to try to bite and push off with his head. At one point when pressured enough he tried to cow kick me, which essentially just tells us that he really can’t handle any physical pressure like that. He needs a lot more hands on work up close and physical so that when it does come time to encourage his feet to move through the movement of the stirrups, he won’t get so worried.

Update 04/18/2016:
We’re coming up on 10 sessions for Avatar and he has really come a long way. He now does his circles and direction changes with proper movement and yielding that allows our bubble of space between us. He backs with minor direction of just lifting a finger or moving the rope up and down very slightly and follows the feel of the lead rope when led around. His coordination is better and we’re working more on timing of the feet for the turn so he’s more fluid.

The latest sessions involved getting him better with the saddle and in our last session he made great progress with the stirrups banging against his sides and being lifted and moved.

[responsive]Working stirrups with Avatar[/responsive]

As you can see in the above picture, he’s not calm and accepting of grabbing and hanging on to the stirrups. This is something that really needs to be worked out on the ground. He’s very sensitive and responded with worry and concern about the stirrups when rubbed on his body or knocked against him. Over time as we worked through our circles together while playing with the saddle, he came to a point of acceptance that it wasn’t going to hurt him.

In between messing around with the saddle I would make sure to get other exercises done to give us both a break from the repetitive actions. Like backing with softness, or just lowering his head for pets and snuggles:

[responsive]Backing Avatar with softness[/responsive]

Throughout all of this there have been lots of practice of circles and getting him to reach back down the lead rope to move with quality and good timing. I like this picture as it shows how lightly I can hold the lead rope to get a direction change done.

[responsive]Changing directions in groundwork with Avatar[/responsive]

He used to really pull on the lead rope and be unresponsive or with poor timing. Now he is always paying attention and will readily make direction changes, sometimes in expectation of the request. It’s these times that I test him a bit by reaching with one hand but not actually leading him out the other direction. All good practice.

[responsive]Preparing for the change of direction with Avatar with groundwork[/responsive]

As you can see, his ear is right on me and ready to make a change while his other ear is forward. He is also rounded out around me rather than having his nose straight, or even worse, to the outside. All great signs he is ready to follow my lead.

I really look forward to seeing where he’ll get over the next month as we take things slowly to get him ready for his first ride. The owner is 100% involved and does each and every exercise that I do to make sure he doesn’t just get used to me, but in fact has consistency from all those around him. Having the primary rider going through all the work to get him ready for his new life is invaluable, and in my opinion, required for the best connection. I’ll keep updates coming as we progress, so stay tuned!

Update 06/24/2016:
It’s been a while since our last update on Avatar as his owner has taken some time to catch up on things and get past an injury. Avatar is a smart horse and the work that has been done and being maintained has paid off as we needed to get him past his fear of water. A while back it had been a bit rainy and there was a trickle of water going down one side of the area we were working in. We were doing groundwork and practicing circles and each time I’d have him go near the water he would have a lot of trouble. In fact, we never really got him to a point where he would just walk through a puddle.

So, in our last session we got him down to a creek to see about getting him to cross without losing his mind. This is where all the practicing with the lead rope to get him to move his feet forward, back and to whichever side is asked for, paid off. While he fully understood he was being asked to walk across the water, he had a lot of trouble with it. At first he tried to just back up and get away. When that didn’t work he tried to just run me over out of fear and thinking being close would help him out. In fact, at one point my timing was a bit slow and he did run me over getting through the water, but I kept at him until finally he was able to step in, stop, turn around and then exit again. It was an amazing day of progress for him.

Once he was good with the small creek, we moved forward to a bigger one where he walked in just fine and we practiced groundwork in the water like I did in this video. Once that was smooth we were finished and we went back home.

It’s exercises like these that leave horses in better places than they were beforehand. Not having the tools available to direct him would have made this exercise impossible as it’s just not feasible to drag a horse around. It is important to be able to drive them forward with some pressure, with direction. This is all accomplished with solid groundwork exercises that take weeks to get good and months to get great. All in all, a very good day.