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The Barn

We're Building a Barn! Continued

On Monday we were ready to move horses. That was July 4th, Independence Day - very appropriate. We moved the Iceys first. Both horses loaded like a dream. I do love good loaders! And I never take it for granted when horses load well. They travelled over with the last of the round pen panels and a load of stall mats. We got everything unloaded, the Iceys settled, and then went back for the other three.
None of them had been on a trailer in years. Magnat hadn't been on a trailer in close to fifteen years. He has a heart condition, so early on I made the decision that he didn't need to travel. And Peregrine had an early history of being a determined non-loader. I never know what to expect from him. The last few times he's traveled, he's been good to load, but I never take this for granted.  
Peregrine was the first on. I love my trailer. It has so many configurations for a horse to travel in - straight load, slant load, box stall, whatever suits the horse best. Peregrine tensed up when I tried him in a straight stall, so I let him get off and loaded him up front in the slant load. That he was okay with. So next came Magnat and finally Robin. Both horses walked straight on as though they'd been trailering every weekend. Good horses!
Five horses - five easy loads. That's what I like, and I never take it for granted or fail to appreciate horses who load comfortably onto trailers.  
So now the horses are living in the middle of a construction zone. And they are taking all the noise and the machinery clattering around outside well in their stride. It's amazing what horses can be totally blasé about. Loads of stone can be dumped right outside the arena door, and they don't even lift their heads from the hay.  

The horses are settling well into their new lifestyle. I knew once we got them out of the boarding situation we would see changes. They are already so much more relaxed, so much less testy and fussed by people. Peregrine is the only one who hasn't settled in well. He's not bothered by the construction, but he is clearly anxious about not being in his familiar environment, so I've been camping out at the arena to make sure he's okay through the night. The boarding barn where they lived for years had set hours. I couldn't go see them in the early morning. Now I'm out there every day before dawn doing chores. 


At clinics we always begin by going around the group and catching up on what everyone has been doing with their horses. People will often very apologetically say they haven't done very much. They haven't had time to ride. Well I definitely would fall into that category. At the moment there's no time and certainly no energy left to ride. But that doesn't mean that good training isn't occurring. I get to interact with the horses so much more than I did in the boarding situation. I always did all the evening chores, but now I'm there throughout the day.  


One of my favorite John Lyons' quotes is "Good training should be boring to watch", meaning there shouldn't be a lot of Hollywood theatrics going on. There shouldn't be horses rearing or bucking their riders off into the rafters. Good training should look like a well run classroom. It can be a beehive of activity. There can be lots going on. There can certainly be lots of laughter, but there should also be an underlying sense of stability. I was going to write order and control, but those are such loaded words. Stability and a sense of purpose are better.  


We tend to think of training as something separate, something we do after the chores are done. And I certainly often get asked how to manage all the "mother's little helpers" who hover about getting into things. How do you do chores when you've got a clicker-trained horse glued to your side wanting attention? I know some people solve this by using the presence of their treat pouch as a cue for training time. When they just want to do chores, they take their pouch off. It's a strategy that works for them, but with my own horses, I would see that as missed opportunities.


When I'm around my horses, I always have my vest on, and I always make sure there's a good supply of hay stretcher pellets in the pockets. This morning when I was cleaning stalls, Robin and Peregrine had free run of the arena. Robin had taken himself off to eat the hay I'd put out in their "grazing" area. Peregrine was sticking to me like a barnacle. Of all the horses he's the one who has struggled the most adjusting to the move. He's needed a lot of reassurance, and a lot of social time. So when he followed me into Robin's stall, I didn't send him away so I could get done faster. I let him hover around me. When he asked for social time, I rubbed his face, I stroked his neck. I didn't click and reinforce him for these interactions. But I did click and reinforce for other things, such as an offered pose. He's completely at ease with clicker training. He knows the treats are not going to go away, so he doesn't get anxious when I'm not clicking every little thing. I am always a clicker trainer when I am with my horses, but that does not mean I am always clicking.  


There's so much good training that can be done while you are doing chores. When I needed Peregrine to shift out of the way of the wheel barrow, I asked for backing, or for lateral shifts of balance. We wove in and out of the stalls with Peregrine making way for me as I needed to move the wheel barrow or bring in water buckets. Who would have thought cleaning a stall could be such a dance!


At the boarding barn the horses couldn't be loose in the aisle while I worked. That's something I missed. In some of the small barns where Peregrine has lived, we had the luxury of being able to let the horses wander about as they pleased. That's been something I've been looking forward to being able to do with the horses. It's so clicker compatible. If we want thinking horses, we need to give them an environment in which we can give them choices and some degrees of freedom.


Now my training time just looks like stall cleaning. Those maneuvers we've been practicing in our formal training sessions to build good balance are just as needed here but for very practical reasons. So the training session that I would have had in the boarding barn, out in the arena, in a formal work session, asking Peregrine to back up, to yield his hips, to step over laterally, I can now have cleaning a stall. Next time I work formally, I expect I'll find I have a tuned-up horse to play with, not one who is stiff and stale from too much time off during my travel season.


I'm enjoying these small interactions. I get to check in on manners. When I bring the hay cart into the arena, are manners preserved? Can I walk down the row of stalls passing hay out to the other horses without Robin or Peregrine creating a fuss. Can I bring the buckets of grain out and have the horses go to their stalls? We hear so much about "respect". Here in all the small interactions of chores I get to find out what that really means. The horses came into this situation with lots of good training, but definite boarding house manners from years of being fed by kids who just wanted to get the hay and grain passed out as quickly as possible so they could get back to their friends. Now I get to shape better manners. It's nothing fancy. If you came to the arena, you wouldn't see horses doing "circus tricks". Instead you'd see them accompanying me through the flow of the day's chores, backing when asked, maneuvering out of the way when needed, sharing my time and attention with the other horses. It's just quiet training that anyone can do, and that has such good ripples into the everything else I'll want to do with them.  


While I'm in the arena with the horses, I can hear the work crews outside. The excavator is back on the job, building the composter and the ramps. I was impressed by how well the horses handled having the work going on immediately outside the arena. They had one day to settle in, then on Wednesday the excavator arrived with his heavy equipment. With the open wall on the front side the horses can see the bulldozer as it trundles along back and forth across the front of the arena smoothing out the top of the hill and pushing the excess dirt over to build the access ramps. Out the back door they can watch as the back hoe tears down even more trees to punch an opening through the hedge row into the back field. They didn't mind at all when he dug a deep trench for a culvert pipe or brought stone in to cover it up.  


I'm writing this on July 23rd and the front still isn't finished. The brush is still there, but it's been consolidated into one pile. The ramps are shaped, but not surfaced so they still aren't really usable, and without the final finishing work, we still can't fence the field, so the horses have been confined to the indoor for almost three weeks.


The composter is almost finished. I've been bagging all the manure into trash bags so we don't attract flies to an unmanaged manure pile. It's a huge bother, and I now have a line of trash bags several layers thick lining the long side of the arena. I tell myself they serve as temporary kickboards. I shall be very glad when the composter is usable, but I am glad I got to see how the foundation for it was built. It's much more of a foundation than anything we've done for the barns. They dug out the bank and put poured concrete frost walls.


It's all a work in progress.  And it is very much an exercise in using clicker training principles outside the training arena.  I've heard so many stories about construction projects, and they all seem to include a stage where things get behind schedule and are held up.  We're in this stage now.  The builder can't leave his other project to come work on ours.  We've been promised a full crew in August.  So I'll end this report here and pick it up later when more of the work has been done.


Alexandra Kurland

July 23, 2011

Postscript: This journal leaves you with the barn half built.  You can read the conclusion of the barn building saga in my blog:

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