Re-learning how to lunge

Breakthrough!

Its been just over four months since Spiker had his eye removed. The swelling finally went completely down after about four to five weeks. Even though he has the silicone ball prosthetic, the eye has sunken somewhat into his skull (not more than a 1/4″ – 1/2″ inch) which took some time getting used to.

Spiker's slightly sunken post-surgical eye

It has been really surprising from everyone at the barn regarding the huge improvement in his behavior. He is a model citizen, walking out to the paddocks in the morning (most times, he’s a Thoroughbred so he definitely gets those “funny” days they tend to have!) quietly, pushing all the other horses aside in the afternoon to come in… his changed outlook has certainly not affected his personality!

The first thing I noticed when getting him back to work in January (except for one short ride, he was off for about 2 months) was that he hadn’t quite figured out lunging to the right. I am a firm believer in ground work, and Spiker is a pro at lunging and long-lining. It was a bit of a surprise to find he would not travel to the right, the side without the eye. No amount of coaxing or encouragement would convince him to take any more than 2-3 steps before he would stop dead and turn in my direction, until he could see me again.

Puzzled, I was not sure what to do. I didn’t like the idea of eliminating ground work, but since everything was still relatively new I decided to take him back to basics. Instead of lunging, we would walk around the arena for 20 minutes, focusing on walk/halt/back up. I made sure to ask him to do these things around obstacles, and with me on either side of him (on his good and impaired side). I communicated with him by scratching him on the neck (to indicate where I was) and talking to him when I was on his bad side.

We practiced this both inside and outside, while grazing and while in crossties. I used my voice to indicate things instead of just the physical cues (i.e., saying “move over” instead of simply applying pressure to his side when leading him).

Once he was comfortable with that, I put him into the long-lines and worked on long-lining him at the walk and a little trot around the arena. Despite being a little look-y and jumping when pigeons flew from the ground up to the rafters, he did not have any problems traveling in either direction on the long-lines.

When I did get back in the saddle, overall he was excellent. He was fairly unsettled by the rattling in the indoor arena, or if a horse came trotting up behind him (on either side) he would spook and do a little bolt forward. He was trying so hard to concentrate on what was happening in front of him, it felt like he was startled by activity going on behind him. I am hoping this resolves with time.

The biggest step forward happened this week, when I had the vet out to assess some other lameness issues he’s been having (unrelated to his eye). The vet asked me to lunge him, and I warned them he would only travel to the left. He had also been inside for most of the week, with only arena turnout until the paddocks are de-iced. I was a little uncomfortable, worried he was going to explode on the lunge. Not only did he trot and canter to the left without any major meltdowns, but (upon the vet’s encouragement) I tried him to the right….

SUCCESS!

He walked and trotted to the right. I didn’t try the canter, but he was excellent. Although the desensitizing may have helped, I think also the extra few months for him to figure out where everything was (even though he can’t see it) has really helped. I was so happy with his progress, as I thought it may take up to a year to see a big improvement however was pleasantly surprised.

I am considering taking his groundwork to the next level and trying something new (to both of us!) which is clicker training. I am hoping that this may bridge the gap by giving him something else to focus on, instead of just what is happening around him.

We will be trying the clicker training starting this week on the ground, and eventually transition to using it while under saddle. I will be sure to update Spiker’s blog as more information is available!