How to help your ‘herd bound’ horse.

“The bucket project.”
How to help your herd bound horse, giving a good reason to leave home maybe? The best horse motivator is food isn’t it? I came across this strategy two times now on the internet so the second time I decided to give it a try. It is using the latest insides of horse training based on positive reinforcement. This is a full report of our “bucket project” and it was a huge success!
My Lipizzaner Dáma was never easy to hack out alone. Sometimes it took me more than 10 minutes only to leave our field. And she would stop and call her friends after just a 100 meter further on the way. I used lots patience, or I just dismounted and walked with her for a while. She had no problems leaving the herd when I took her friend Fanny with us.

Dáma is a stoic kind of horse, she doesn’t show her emotions easily. Because she is bomb-proof I might have overlooked the fact she just feels insecure being the only horse… Obviously she could not see me as part of her herd either. She had lots of trust issues due to her past. When she came to me she was not moveable. She completely froze when applied even the slightest suggestions to move , forward, backwards, sideward she simply refused.

Lots of training while using positive reinforcement, groundwork and hanging out together already solved a lot of our challenges. But leaving home was still a big issue. “The bucket project” is a team building activity meanwhile positively reinforcing the desired behaviour: going from home alone.

“How would you feel if somebody took you from home. You don’t know where you are going, Why you are urged to leave your home? Will you ever get back? When will you be home again? The person who took you spoke Chinese and, every time you were hesitating he kicked you in your ribs to walk on. If we humans use our fantasy more to think like a horse, we would have much more patience and understanding.”

How does “the bucket project” work? The idea is to place a bucket with grain out on a trail, everyday a little further from home. Leaving the herd will soon be a positive thing. This food gives a good purpose to go from home. Lett your horse eat, when he is almost ready with his food lead your horse home again. This makes going home not being attractive for the horse, which horse on earth wants to leave his oats unfinished? You slowly build it up day by day. Do not ask too much too soon if your horse is an insecure type and you will gain a lot of trust. Patience is the key.
Day 1 : I had placed the bucket about 300 meter from home. She was not active when we walked out, but she followed me. We went to the bucket and I had her eat from her oats but not all. I will never forget the look on her face when I said: “come on, lets go back home to your buddies.” I had to pull her away from her bucket. When I led her in the direction “home” she tried to turn around to go back her food again.

Day 4 : It starts to work! I had placed the bucket along the road in the forest. When I entered the paddock she was so easy to catch she came straight up to me. That was something new, she used to be difficult to catch. She almost pulled me with her, I had to walk fast to keep up with her. Straight away from home without doubt. When we arrived at the spot where I had placed the bucket earlier that morning we got a big surprise, it was gone… I don’t know who was more disappointed me or my horse. Without the jackpot bucket of oats we had to go home again. Mission uncompleted.

I had an idea who took our bucket, because I heard somebody shooting a rifle. About an hour before we went, the hunter must have been there and took it. I jumped in my car to go talk with him. When I met him at his house, I started explaining that I was missing a bucket of oats from the forest. What, you what?

( Note this coincident : the farrier who I once had sent home because he was so rude with my horses, and bragging about how he solved “problem” horses. Was at work there, shoeing the hunter’s wife’s horses. So this time he had to listen to how I solve problems)

I gave my best explanation why I placed buckets of oats in the forest. The theory behind it and about positive reinforcement. This was my chance to show this two man there is another way of dealing with ‘difficult’ horses. The hunter grabbed his telephone and called the chief, who confirmed that indeed he took my bucket. Next morning a car stopped at my house and the chief brought the bucket back to me. This new day we counted as day 4 again.

Day 5: Dáma was so eager to come with me. So I just opened the paddock today and spontaneously left the halter home. I was pretty sure she would come with me. We searched for the bucket at liberty. Boosting our good vibes on a winter day.

Day 6: It was windy, and Dáma was dragging me with her. Normally not the best scenario: “Horse drags human.” But in the light of our project, this was totally fine by me. Today we got another bucket surprise… Obviously somebody must have hit the bucket by car or something, but donated us a another one and poured the oats in that new bucket. The broken one stood next to it (which was an already repaired by me with ductape so it was not such a big loss) This act of kindness really made me smile. Instead of turning around we finished a small loop today to get home. This “bucket project” is full surprises.

Day 7: We headed for the same loop but in the forest we turned left. It was a real cross-country hike. The bucket was hidden in the forest today, not on the road.  Dáma really enjoys our walks and activly searches for the bucket now.
Day 8: We took off in a the opposite direction today. I was playing with my position, practised leading her from behind. That is real good preparation for riding. Because when we lead our horse in normal position at his shoulder or in front of him, he can hide behind us, because we are facing supposed danger first. If we sit on their backs they cannot hide behind our back. Practising leading from behind tells you a lot about your horse his confidence. We had a really playful walk, and she matched my energy so well. We did trot, and walk transitions. Walking slower and faster and halting.. Having just a good time like two buddies.

Day 9: Same as day 8, leaving home in the opposite direction, and playing with different leading positions in walk and trot. We did not finish this newest small loop I had in mind, because I wanted to build our distance slowly.
Day 10: The big test if the bucket project works. I mounted Dáma today, I wanted to try this new loop riding. I was so super happy with her. It definitely worked she left home with fresh energy.

After this great success I slowly builded our endurance going further and further away from home. It is so important to keep her motivated so instead of just hacking out I kept increasing the distance and time from home gradually. Now and then I still placed a bucket somewhere along the road as a surprise. I love using food for motivating stoic horses like Dáma. I always make sure they don’t regret going with me.

To give my horses motivation for going somewhere with me, I always make time for them to eat during our trips, making that fouraging time instant rewards.

The repetitions of ”the bucket project” installed a new habit and willingness to leave home with me. I know there are people out there who say “You have to be the boss and your horse has just to listen.” Well, for me that sounds too black and white. On some horses it might work. (With the risk, the best you can get is a “working” relationship) But for sure you can ruin your relationship with a horse like Dáma.

I have a different point of view: “horses just aren’t robots” They have feelings, emotions and opinions too. And the dominance theory is dead anyway. Making shaping plans to solve problems can help. Take your time to think about how to solve problems and use patience so you can build new behaviour step by step.

This ‘bucket project’ was two years ago. And this winter when I had Dáma led me she took me straight into the forest instead of going home when she had the chance to.

Let the horse be with you!


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