Sunday, June 3, 2012

Puddle Problems: Got Any Advice?

Recently, Annie simply refused to cross a puddle. I vowed to work on the problem. At home, we went back to our groundwork foundations, lunging, leading, etc. Then we went for a walk, on a conveniently rainy day. I tried to lead her through as many puddles as possible-- with dismal results. No matter how hard I tried to guide, nudge, poke, shove and lead her into a puddle, she determinedly stepped over, around and beside them. It was nice bending practice, except that's not what I wanted!

Fine, I thought, what I need is a puddle so big she can't avoid it! So we went to the pond in the pasture... which she walked right through.

I thought maybe this was because the pond was too familiar, and full of floating weeds, reassuring her that it was safe to walk through. It wasn't a "puddle" at all. So I built my own puddle! I took a black rubberized tarp, spread it out in the yard, and hosed it down with water. There! A dark reflective puddle, too big for her to avoid! Perfect. Annie was slightly hesitant and began her avoidance techniques, but eventually we did it. After about the dozenth time leading her through it, she was walking over it like a pro. I saddled her up, and we rode over it a dozen more times. There, I thought, that's fixed!

Feeling very self-satisfied, I gave myself permission to go on a nice trail ride. There weren't any puddles around to test our new skills on, but I was confident we didn't need any more practice. Hah. Pride goes before a fall!

We reached a place where a neighbor's driveway extends a little ways into the roadbed. The driveway is made of designer concrete, that bright shiny-white kind. As we went past, Annie stepped around it. Frowning, I turned her back and asked her to walk on it. She refused, and began the avoid-the-puddle dance. Oh crap.Trusting in the good nature (or at least the absence) of my neighbor, I moved her around the house to the other side of the driveway and pointed her towards home. There, I thought, now we're going home through that driveway or else!!

Of course when you argue with a horse, it usually ends up being "or else, " except you're the one on the receiving end. So it was with Annie. Despite twenty minutes of patting and coaxing, firm cues, then firm pushes, then hard heels, then taps on her butt, she went up, down and sideways, but not forward. I was tired of bouncing around, and my neighbor's lawn was taking a beating. We backed off. I asked her for circles, bending, etc, which she performed without a bit of protest. Back at the EVIL concrete, her resistance returned. Finally, I got off and led her. She was reluctant, but followed me across the dreaded uber-puddle. And that's what the concrete was; it was a big, shiny, flat object-- a huge "puddle." I hadn't improved anything except possibly our ability to walk over wet tarps.

Damn, what do I do now?

I know why this is happening. It's the flat object problem. The flat object problem is one we've all encountered-- it's just that we don't always recognize it. All of the following problems are really one problem:
  • Horse refuses to step through puddles or over tarps
  • Horse over-jumps a jump, or jumps too soon or too late
  • Horse is nervous about shadows or changes in pavement color
  • Horse won't cross a ditch or gap, or jumps it instead
  • Horse seems to be looking at something, but then suddenly shies from it
  • Horse turns his head to look at something while traveling, doesn't go straight
What's going on here is that horses don't perceive depth or distance very well. A puddle is a scary black hole; it might be 3 inches or 3 miles deep. A normal jump might be a simple pole-hop... or a death-defying leap. It's hard for a horse to tell.

This in turn happens because a horse's eyes are on the sides of its head. They have "monocular" vision, meaning they're only looking at things with one eye except for an area in front of their faces.

The next time you're dutifully following your spouse around a boring mall/car show/convention, try keeping one eye closed. As you walk around the unfamiliar space, you'll notice you're having more trouble reaching out and grabbing things accurately, not bumping into things, finding the best way through the crowd, etc. It's because you lack the two different inputs from both front-facing eyes that give you depth perception. And that's despite the years and years of practice you've had judging distances with your binocular (two-eyed) vision. (This exercise has the added benefit of making your spouse want to leave early. Super bonus points to you if you use an eyepatch and growl "arrrgh!" at vendors.)

Horses have monocular vision because it allows them to see the most stuff at once-- they get a nearly 360 degree view to check for predators. Other prey animals, like deer, rabbits and mice, also have side-eyes/monocular vision. Predators, like wolves, cats and snakes, have front-eyes to more accurately judge depth, allowing them to pounce on prey. Birds can fall anywhere along this scale, depending on how predatory they are:

From left to right: Cute & Fluffy, Slightly Scary, Badass Predator

Exceptions to this rule include front-eyed kangaroos, which are not meat-eaters but have no natural predators themselves, and humans/apes/monkeys, which are complex cases. We're all slightly predatory (yes, even chimps hunt sometimes) and we're also hunted by other things. Mostly, I think we need depth perception in order to swing through the trees and get decent scores in mini-golf.

Pardon me for all that there digressin' -- let's get back to the horses. Horses have adapted to their lack of depth perception in several ways:
  • Whiskers provide a way to "feel out" the distance/depth of objects near the face
  • Turning and looking at something worrying allows maximum perception of that object (binocular vision)
  • Lowing the head brings the zone of maximum perception closer to a ground-level object
  • Instinct to leap first rather than look (spooking and bolting) because vision is unreliable
  • Avoid and fear areas where visibility is further reduced-- i.e. woods, etc
So what do we do with horses? We shave off their whiskers (well, I don't), ask them to move straight and keep their heads level, require them to move through puddles and such, and do as much as we can to suppress their flight instincts! Sometimes I wonder whose bright idea it was to ride horses in the first place...

Anyway, I know why this is happening, but not how to fix it! Have any of you found a way to defeat a persistent puddle/flat object problem? If so, please post in the comments below!!


  1. North Horse,
    I have a mare that when we went on a trail ride with friends at a place that crossed a river 5 times.. the first time across it took us over 20 mins, a friend on the ground IN the river pulling on her lead rope, ME on her back using leg ques, a stick AND lots of seat movement...
    We did get her in, and she has been good about large bodies of water ever since...
    BUT last year in Oregon we were in a parade.. she refused to walk up and over a bit of water running in a gutter next to a curb on the street.
    What you need to do is have a second person, but ON the ground, before you ride, teach her a "go forward" que.. John Lyons has one, its where you tap the hell out of the horse's hip bone, and start lightly, keep it up, increasing the number and hardness of the taps.. the INSTANT the horse goes forward, you stop, praise, pet.. treat... and then ask the horse to go forward, IF it balks, you do the tap tap on the hip bone again...
    You start with in/out of a door or stall opening, light to dark "shadows to sunlight", soft surface to plywood... you get the drift.
    Once you establish that. Start on the puddles.
    Get another person who is on the ground, you in the saddle, and ask her to go forward, have the person on the ground apply gentle but consistent pressure on the halter. Now if she puts her head down (IMPORTANT!! and allow her to do this when teaching her go forward que) she needs to "acknowledge" the thing in front of her, let her sniff it. Once she has had a good look at it, tap her with either your hand or a light crop at the place you picked to be where her "go forward" que to be, it could be her shoulder, a place on her neck.. and tap it, over and over, have the person on the ground still do the gentle, consistent pressure. WHen she takes even a tiny step forward. STOP...Give praise, pets, rubbies.Then sit quietly for a moment and ask her to go forward again, with leg ques, seat/hands and verbal like a cluck. IF she balks again, simply have the person on the ground begin to pull on her halter, you give her the go forward que...
    repeat until she is in OR as usual with most horses.. suddenly lurch/jump OVER the puddle. But you need to get her to acknowledge it, sniff it and then ask her to walk through it using a person on the ground, in conjunction with you in the saddle giving the go-forward que you have worked on.
    Its not fool proof.. but it has helped a few horses I have worked with. They mostly just get annoyed with the person who is tapping on their side or hip bone so move forward to get away from it.. that is when you stop and praise, and then try to continue with out using the tapping..but you usually have to go back to it a few times...

  2. OK... this is probably not what you want to hear, but I'm going to weigh in anyway and you can take it for what it's worth.

    I do not understand the fight over the "puddle" and why we (as riders) obsess over horses going in to them. My horse crosses everything just fine... tarps, water, mud, whatever. However, if the puddle is small enough to step over (or around) and he's not being an ass about it, I don't press the issue. When there is no "go around" spot, he will walk through it without a problem. So, it seems your horse is trained just fine and really doesn't need any reinforcement unless there is some situation that was dangerous that you didn't mention?

    I don't know... seems like a big battle for such a dumb thing. My opinion only, though...

  3. Carol: That's pretty great advice. Unfortunately I am alone at the farm most of the time, so the leading+riding might not be possible, but the "go forward" cue is really something I need to work on. It would help with trailering as well.

    SweetPea: Yeah, I can see what you mean. It's the same thing as backing up; there have been about zero situations when I've absolutely NEEDED my horse to back up while riding-- we can usually just turn around. But there ARE situations where there are no go-around spots and she still won't walk through, and I'm sure at some point there will be a situation where we will HAVE to back up rather than turn around. For those (admittedly rare) times, I want to have control.