Monday, July 22, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Training Spotty Dottie

Sam named the filly Spotty Dottie because of her dapples.

Late last fall we bought two Morgan fillies, a dark chestnut weanling we named Willow and a 2-year old palomino our granddaughter Samantha named Spotty Dottie because of her dappled appearance. Willow hadn’t been handled, so we spent some time getting her to be easy to catch and lead. Dottie was halter trained and was already easy to catch, lead, and tie up. Her former owner said she’d been saddled but not ridden.

My daughter Andrea and her kids enjoyed working with the fillies. The little girls sometimes went hiking with us as Andrea and I (and sometimes 14-year-old Emily) led the fillies almost daily through the fall and occasionally during the winter, taking them on long treks up and down our country road and over the hills — until the snow got too deep. Then they didn’t get handled much until this spring, when we started leading them again.

Dani accompanies Andrea (leading Willow) and 14-year-old Emily leading Spotty Dottie.

Dottie has a mellow personality, but when we started saddling her, she was very apprehensive and tried to shy away. We realized she must have had a bad experience with saddling. My oldest granddaughter, Heather Carrie, enjoys training horses (something she’s been doing in the summertime for about 6 years), so when she was home from college for spring break, she played with the two fillies one day and got them both to be at ease with a saddle blanket touching all parts of their bodies.

Young Heather (home on spring break from college) getting Dottie accustomed
to the saddle blanket touching her anywhere

During calving (April) we didn’t take time to do any more training with the fillies. After Heather graduated from college and was home again training horses, she told me she’d like to work with Dottie in exchange for some hay for her horses and some pasture for her two old retired horses (Molly, age 30, and Chance,  in his 20s) that can no longer chew hay with their bad teeth.

I had been working with Dottie’s feet (she needed better manners about having her feet picked up, cleaned, and trimmed) and started tying her for longer periods so she’d become patient instead of pawing the fence, but I hadn’t had time to do much else with her. In mid-June Heather started working with Dottie every day when she came down to feed the old horses their pellet “mush” and change Chance’s fly mask.

She started with simple groundwork, to teach the filly to give to little pulls on the halter rope and flex her neck around to one side, then the other, and give to hand pressure — to move her front legs (pivoting on hind legs) and move her hind legs (pivoting around her front legs).

Simple groundwork, teaching the filly to give to soft pulls on the halter
and flex her head and neck around to the side

Dottie learned to move her front legs and pivot around.

Heather works with Dottie for a while in the mornings and spends the rest of the day working with the other horses she’s training at her place — in her round corral and in the new arena (not fenced yet but created with dirt that our son Michael hauled in and smoothed). As the youngsters progress she takes them out on the range, ponying them from another horse or riding one while her mom ponies another, then switches and rides the other one on the way home.

It took a couple of days of persistent work to get Dottie over her saddle phobia. Something must have happened that scared her during saddling, because she was very skittish about having the saddle put on from the left (traditional) side but had no fear of its being put on from the other side.

She kept jumping and spinning away from the lightweight training saddle as Heather tried to desensitize her with it (and nearly wore out Heather’s arm with the constant repetition, as she tried to persuade Dottie it wasn’t going to hurt her). Heather finally put her in a corner where she couldn’t move away from it, and Dottie eventually resigned herself to having the saddle swung onto her back.

In the corner Dottie couldn’t move away from the saddle
and finally learned to stand still to be saddled.

Then Heather started longeing Dottie with the saddle on, getting her used to its feel and sound and the flopping stirrups as she trotted in circles. After that, Heather spent a couple of days playing with a tarp, letting Dottie walk on it, paw it, and get used to its being put over her back or over her head and even trotting in circles with it over her back. She’s not a bit afraid of new things, so we realize that her saddle phobia must have been caused by something that really scared her when she was being saddled.
Andrea’s youngest girls, Sam and Dani, “helped” Heather work with Dottie a few times, playing with the tarp and longeing Dottie with it draped over her. Then Heather got on Dottie for the first time, and I led her around the pen, to get the filly used to the feel of someone on her back.

Trotting in circles with the saddle got her used to its noise and the stirrups flopping.

The second day of playing with the tarp, young Heather
let 8-year-old Dani help lead her over it and put it over her back.

Dani was able to lead Dottie around with the tarp over her back.

Then we had a week of rain and windy weather the end of June and the first part of July, so we skipped Dottie’s lessons while it was cold and rainy and her pen was wet and slippery. After a week off, Heather got on her again, and I led her around in circles. The next day we did this again, and Dottie was a little nervous and jumped around a little but didn’t buck. She soon settled down, and Heather was able to ride her in circles around the pen as I led her. The following days she did very well, and soon Heather was riding her solo around the pen without my leading or longeing her.

Within a few more days, she was able to start trotting in circles, with me at the center of the circle holding the lead rope. After her first bit of panic, Dottie settled into it and by the next day didn’t need me anymore. After a couple of more days of working in circles and figure eights and learning to turn and stop at the walk and trot, Dottie was ready for bigger things.

After putting weight in the stirrup during several sessions, young Heather
got on Dottie and made her first ride on the filly with me leading her.

We took her around to the new corral across the creek that Michael built for us when he tore down the falling-down round corral; it was built here on our ranch around 1890 by the original homesteaders for breaking the horses they ran on the range. The new corral isn’t round, but it’s bigger than Dottie’s pen and has better footing for training horses. Heather rode her in there for a few days, working on walking, trotting, turning, stopping, and general flexibility. She’d been using just a halter with reins, then started using a bridle, giving cues with both the halter and the snaffle reins to start making the transition. Then she was riding Dottie to and from the corral, always doing something more and something different each day.

Young Heather riding Dottie in the corral

On Saturday, July 13, young Heather had a good session with Dottie, riding her around the barnyard and the corrals and up into the little pasture above the corrals. The next day we introduced her to the presence of another horse, using Ed (the old mare I ride range and move cattle with). She’s never lived with Ed but is familiar with her because they lived across the haystack alley from one another last fall and winter. Dottie was a little unsure about the other horse at first, but Ed is an excellent “babysitter horse” because she is mellow and not moody (like some mares). She doesn’t kick or get grumpy if a horse comes up behind and bumps into her or crowds her, for instance.

Dottie’s first experience riding out in a pasture,
walking and trotting in circles and learning to
turn, stop, and follow the rider’s cues

For a while we may intersperse rides out into the big wide world with a few refresher lessons in the corral on responsive stopping and turning at all gaits. Dottie is ready now to venture farther afield and go over some of the hills and trails we explored last fall and early winter — this time with a rider.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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