2010 update: Charmer has found a new home!

Thank you Ken Archer and Donna Pieper of Georgia Equine Rescue League for including Charmer's information in GERL newsletter! Thanks to you, Charmer has found a new home with Christy Owen of God's Country Farm in Blairsville GA.

Following is the story of Charmer's training while he stayed with me at Serenity Creek Farm during 2007-2010.

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Charmer is a seven-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse. His owner, Renata di Pietro, could no longer provide Charmer with the care, attention, and exercise that he needed, due to her health issues.

Charmer posing Charmer's face Charmer in extended trot

Charmer has been ridden on trails. In the past years, he did not have much riding or handling time. I took him to Serenity Creek Farm, where I live, to put enough clicker education on him to make sure he is safe and pleasant on the ground and under saddle. His first few months of boarding were sponsored by public donations. Special thanks go to the members of Alexandra Kurland's web group, The Click That Teaches.

Charmer is looking for a dynamic, experienced horseperson, who would fill his life with companionship, exercise and adventure, and who would enjoy the journey as much as the results.

Charmer is vibrant, athletic, and wide open to new experiences.

Charmer trotting A closeup of Charmer's eye

 

He views the world as his playground. I had not realized that the pasture where my horses had lived for 5 years was such a fun place, until Charmer arrived...

Charmer playing with feed pan Charmer playing with rag

Left: playing with a feed pan. Right: "Look what I found!". Charmer is trying to entice Ogeechee to play with an old rag that he had dug up somewhere. Bottom: chasing a goose - what fun!

Charmer chasing a goose

 

Charmer is a lot of fun to work with. He quickly became quite a clicker training enthusiast. He is a fast learner and loves this work that engages his body and mind.

Charmer waiting for the clikc to take carrot from my hand I click Charmer for waiting

Showing off his food manners: I am offering him a piece of carrot without having clicked (left). He tucks his chin refusing to take it until he hears the click (right).

 

Charmer responding to forward cue Charmer responding to forward cue2

Here, I am in the process of teaching him the forward cue. As I slide my hands apart on the lead rope, he steps into the contact on the snap (left). My left arm should be fully extended pointing to his hip, but I am still working on my technique... On the right, we continue to walk together. Charmer will get a click and a treat in a few moments.

Charmer on lunge line

The "forward" cue in place, Charmer is now calm and relaxed when I ask him to walk a circle around me.

 

Charmer backing up Charmer halt

Our first ride together. On the left, I am releasing the rein as he steps back softly. On the right, he adds a flexion at the poll to his stop.

 

Charmer walking Riding Charmer

My leg did not mean much to Charmer. By asking him to give to the rein and then to yield his hip, I got his feet unstuck, and now we are moving forward.

 

In the spring of 2008, I moved on from the basics to riding in the arena, mainly exploring the mechanics of one-rein riding. Charmer was getting lighter on the bit and finding his balance under saddle. For those familiar with Alexandra Kurland's work, we have been working on WWYLM under saddle, progressing to 3-flip-3.

I took him on walks to the confidence course beside the arena, where we worked on crossing a tarp, walking over ground obstacles, and loading into an imitation trailer.

Working in the arena when other horses were coming and going was a problem in the beginning. Eventually, Charmer gained enough confidence to keep engaged in our work regardless of what other horses were doing.

In May, we moved on to riding in the fields around the farm. There was a definite point when Charmer decided that he was comfortable with me having the controls. All of a sudden, it did not matter what other horses were doing, and spooky things became easily negotiable.

riding in the field visiting with friends

We encountered some problems moving on to the trails. Whenever a perceived obstacle (a puddle, a bend in the road, a clump of bushes) was too much for Charmer, he would start popping up, resisting requests to soften the jaw, and waiting for a chance to take off running for the barn. From experience, I knew that this kind of situation can escalate very quickly and uncontrollably. He seemed to snap into the panic mode so fast that I was not sure what I could click for. He was responding well one moment, and a second later, he was practically unreachable. Working with him anywhere near the scary spot went quite well, but as soon we were at the scary spot itself, I had a completely different horse. Finally, I decided that all four feet on the ground for even a split second constituted a clickable moment. Leaning from the saddle to deliver the treat was a pure act of faith on my part. But it all worked. Charmer was back in the receptive mode and no longer blasting off.

***

I continued working with Charmer, albeit more sporadically. The year 2009 brought a lot of changes into my personal life, and it was sometimes difficult to find the peaceful place inside to work with Charmer. Keeping up with the costs of boarding was sometimes a bit challenging as well.

The original plan that Renata and I agreed upon was to sell Charmer to a good home. I advertised him for sale, but given the unstable economy, there were not many people interested in buying a horse. Of the ones who called, most were looking for a bomb-proof horse with smooth gaits, and Charmer was certainly still "in the works" in both respects. Prospective buyers who came to look at him were all pleased with his disposition and willingness but not with his gaits.

That still left us the trot, a perfectly good gait if one were not looking for a gaited horse. In the field, Charmer often displayed a breathtakingly gorgeous trot, yet under saddle, he invariably stiffened his back, resulting in a stilted, bumpy pace. Somewhere between his walk and gallop was also a lovely rhythmic canter, but it was hard to isolate it from a maddening variety of gaits, some of them quite bone-jarring. In fact, some of his gaits seemed to startle Charmer just as much as they did me! I felt that before we could even dream of sorting all this gait mess out, Charmer needed to learn that being asked for more speed was not a reason for anxiety.

Because of gait problems I had encountered with my own Tennessee Walker, Arrow, I already knew some things about working with a pacey horse. A book by Lee Ziegler, Easy-Gaited Horses, had been my favorite resource for working with gaits in a gentle, fully clicker-compatible manner. According to her, Charmer was a "nervous pacer". On page 157 of her book, she writes:

"To help a nervous pacer find a less lateral gait, it is important to relax him first and teach him to stretch his body. Then you should begin work to recondition his muscles so that he can carry his body in a more rounded frame."

We already had a great tool for relaxation in our toolbox: head lowering. I knew Charmer was a bright student, but it still amazed me how fast he was able to progress from head lowering standing still to picking up a beautiful, relaxed trot under saddle!

We started with lots of head lowering and worked on duration. When Charmer became an expert at this exercise, I asked for it while walking him in hand. The next step was transferring the rein cue to a visual cue, raising of the hand. I needed that because I sensed that Charmer would not be comfortable trotting in-hand. I was going to experiment with lunging, and for that I needed a head down cue that could be given at a distance. We progressed to walking on a lunge line with head down, and Charmer seemed to enjoy the relaxed way it made him feel. If I asked him to pick up speed, however, his head shot up immediately. I could see that he needed to move on a bigger circle to balance himself better. I let him loose in the round pen and asked him to walk with his head down. When he did this happily, I asked for more speed. He shot forward at a pace. I waited. And then - a lightbulb moment! Down went his head, and in the same instant, his choppy pace switched to a floating trot. Click! A jackpot and lots of easy hand targeting as an extra reinforcement.

Unlike many horses who, once they find the answer, go through a period of losing it and finding it again, Charmer really GOT it from one try. In the very next session, he offered trot under saddle in both directions. I kept our sessions short to let him integrate the new neuromuscular pattern gradually, without forcing it. In less than two weeks, he was able to trot in the arena and in the field. Trot gave us an access to that sweet canter that I knew was there. It was too early to expect him to be able to do it on request: he needed to recondition his muscles and settle into a new calmer attitude promoted by trotting in a relaxed frame. But I enjoyed the bonus of a nice canter whenever he offered it voluntarily!

In the spring of 2010 I was contacted by Georgia Equine Rescue League about working with some horses that were practically untouchable. I worked with two Arabian mares, Eryzeka and Rosie, on the basics of handling, haltering, and leading, which enabled them to subsequently find a loving home. (Click here to see a GERL newsletter article about their adoption. Scroll down to page 25). It occurred to me that GERL might be able to help me find a home for Charmer. Although they could not take him into their adoption program, they offered to put his information in their newsletter and to handle the adoption process. This was fabulous news. I knew that GERL adoption criteria were very rigorous and they would check on the adopted horse for two years. What could be better to give me and Renata peace of mind!

When Christy Owen contacted me after seeing the newsletter ad, I had a feeling that we might have finally found the right person. Christy firmly believed that the bond between the horse and the person was of paramount importance. She did not expect to get a perfect horse and was willing to work on improving on the foundations laid by previous training. She had years of experience providing foster and respite care for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder and knew that love and compassion also mean structured teaching practices and good management.

I was encouraged! We set a date for Christy to come and meet Charmer. She invited Renata to come along since, as it turned out, they lived not far away from each other. Christy came with her five children and her Dad, quite a crowd! I was a bit nervous, but Charmer took it in stride. I was thoroughly impressed with Christy: all her questions were spot on, she was genuinely interested in what we had been doing training-wise and HOW we had been doing it. And she really loved Charmer!

For Renata, the visit was very emotional. She had not seen Charmer in a long time. Before leaving, she took me to the side and thanked me for taking care of him like he was my own horse. I sincerely hoped that Christy would adopt Charmer so that Renata would not have to worry about his welfare or his future.

After meeting Charmer "in person", Christy's mind was made. She wrote to me the same day:

Tanya,
    What a privilege it was to meet you today.  Thank you SO much for taking time out of your day to introduce us to Charmer and let us get a "feel" for him.  …I got a complete picture of him overall and was soooooo pleased with his attitude and responsiveness, particularly to you.  His ground manners were impeccable (I can handle a little pawing during grooming or a bath!).  He was a total gentleman and he seemed very calm and intrigued by my children, not at all alarmed or nervous.  They are fairly calm, as children go, despite their ages ... and do have some farm manners and common sense.
    I was very, very impressed by your clicker training and his response.  I loved that he has a lively personality yet still behaves well.  My children are expected to be obedient, too, but they laugh freely and enjoy life. 
    I was happy to include Renata in our little escapade.  ...She is an incredible woman and we were delighted to meet her.  We are only about 40 minutes from Renata's home, so if Charmer came to live here, we would make an effort to pick her up for a day each month or so to enjoy him a bit. ...
    Horses are not property; they are family.  So I completely understand that Renata would have a vested interest in knowing that he has a good, forever home. 

 

Soon after the visit, Christy arranged for a carrier to pick Charmer up. I had a pang of sadness in my heart when I heard his whinny as the trailer rolled down the driveway. This was inevitable after getting to know him so closely. I knew though that he was going on to share his life with the people who would love and appreciate him as a unique being that he is, and there is a new path of growth and discovery ahead of him.

 

 

 

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