The story below came from one of my students, Laurie. Laurie has done such a great job with Annie, a rescue horse, that I asked her to write about her experience. I think she did a tremendous job and I hope you enjoy Annie’s story as much as I did through Laurie’s eyes. – Kirsten
How do you react when the driver of a horse trailer delivers a horse and says, “this horse will kill you!” What do you do when the horse will not let you catch her, will not walk forward when she is prompted (in fact, she completely braces and pulls backwards halfway down the barn isle), will not let you near her legs in order to pick up her hooves to clean them, is terrified of a water hose when she sees you approaching with one from 20 feet away, is terrified by the sound of the fly spray bottle (and I mean when the horse being groomed 15 feet behind her is being fly sprayed!), and will not trailer load? What do you call a horse who will head-butt and bite you when she feels she is out of options? We call her Annie . . .
Annie, whose registered name is Little O. Annie, arrived in February 2011. Upon arrival her hind quarters were severely underdeveloped, she appeared to have unstable rear legs, and demonstrated some physical issues that were later diagnosed to be associated with a neurological condition. Along with these physical issues, she came with extreme behavioral issues that are, let’s face it, not uncommon with new horses that arrive at a horse rescue. With each new day and next step in the process, however, Annie presented one more problem that needed to be addressed. It would soon be concluded that Annie, who was 16 years old at the time, would never be able to be ridden, but if she had a chance to live comfortably in the human world, she would need to find peace within herself and that meant confronting her worst fears.
It has been my experience that people tend to put labels on horses. That’s just how a Paso Fino is–hot and won’t stand still.The horse is blind so we have to handle her carefully and not ask her to do too much. I have also often been asked Why does the horse do that? Is it because of something in her past? It’s only natural to try to associate an undesirable behavior with a negative experience. What I learned from working with Annie is that we can speculate all we want, but we will never really know the why and, just like with people, any imperfections should not define the horse (e.g., she does that because of her neurological issue). We will never really know the horse’s experiences, so we have to work with the horse that we have now and use everything we have learned about working with horses from Kirsten’s classes and from the one-on-one guidance that was provided by her and others. I remember well the day that Kirsten asked if I would take Annie as my project horse. I saw this as a chance to use what I had learned thus far, and I would soon find out how much I still had to learn.
There are many principles, pointers, and words of wisdom that I have tucked into my overflowing horsemanship toolbox, but I learned early on that there are some that are the foundation to everything we do when working with any horse, not just a horse that needs rehabilitation:
- Patience and consistency always come first. My initial approach with Annie was to gain and build trust. This takes time. The slower you go, the faster you will get there.
- Good leadership is what every horse wants and they will definitely test you every day to see if you have it today. Leadership is all about consistently controlling yourself (mentally and emotionally), controlling your personal space (between you and the horse), as well as controlling motion and direction (horses are very keen as to whether you can move their feet or they can move yours).
- A learned skill or desired behavior may take many hours of effective training before it is ingrained in the horse or becomes a solid habit. It begins with basic handling and groundwork. These can never be overdone and are usually underdone.
- Set appropriate expectations for each session. That is, work from where the horse is coming from, not where you are coming from. You may have to put pressure on the horse, but also know when to release the pressure.
Each session with Annie was a building block to the next. As with other horses, you may think we will never get past certain negative behaviors, or you ask yourself “Will she ever be ok with this?” And yes, there were setbacks, but those setbacks were just that — a bump in the road to success. That reminds me–I should add a #5 to the above list: offer the horse the opportunity to be successful at something with each working session.
And everything you learn may not work for every horse. Think about the different tools in your toolbox to determine what might work with the horse you have today. Be creative. Because of the issues with Annie’s hindquarters/legs, we determined that she needed a lot of physical support while doing groundwork. Lunging does not offer the support that she requires, but using a combination of a bridle (the bit), customized balance bands, and long reins did wonders! The additional support guided the horse into better, more balanced movement. I could tell she felt better.
With the efforts of the volunteers at the horse rescue, today Annie is easy to catch, both in her stall and in the pasture. The other day she saw me at the pasture gate and came over to me almost at a trot. She takes baths easily–just drop the lead rope and she stands quietly while the water runs over her head-to-toe. She quietly accepts the fly spray and just recently has been picking up all four hooves for cleaning as well as for the farrier. She loves going into the trailer. We no longer have to practice that skill on a regular basis. In the beginning, it would take me and Annie almost 2 hours to leave the area around the barn (her comfort zone) and continue hand walking or long reining on a trail that should normally be a 15-20 minute walk. Now we long rein with a bridle and balance bands off the property and down the road, visiting the neighbor’s horses and cows (for some reason she loves walking up to the fence to see those cows). A couple of weeks ago she came face-to-face with her first deer and both handled it well!
I don’t want to give the impression that Annie has completely overcome everything. She sometimes gets nervous while we are taking our hour long constitutional, but she then returns to trusting her confident leader who is doing her very best to bring Annie the peace that she desires and deserves.