What I learned from this one set me on a whole new path with horses…
A while back, I revealed my stupidest dog training mistake, ever, involving our Jack Russell Terrier Lucy. That’s here.
This one’s a doozy; my Arabian mare Allarista was on the receiving end of a desensitizing effort gone very, very wrong. I bought her as a green-broke 3-year-old. I had started and ridden youngsters before, so it was no big deal (so I thought). However, a few years off to have a baby can change a lot about a woman manages dicey situations involving horses. Allie was (is) a good girl. She was started right by her breeder and has excellent ground manners. But she wasn’t too sure about her new owner (me) who didn’t seem to have her act together.
I quickly realized that I was in over my head, and set about getting some professional help.
I hired a “natural” trainer to come and work with us. Things were going grandly. He was confident and had Allie going nicely under saddle again with just a few rides. She liked him, and the sessions were relaxed and productive. Then, one day before mounting up, he happened to flip a rope across her back – it came down and slapped against her offside hind leg. She startled and jumped into him. Nothing terribly dramatic – but still an invasion of his space – certainly not her normal behavior. It offended him, and he set about “sacking her out” with the rope around her hind legs. Nothing violent or hurtful, but she didn’t like it, and she was having trouble standing still. He should have left well enough alone and visited that problem another day, but he did not. The situation escalated to the point that she was kicking out violently whenever the rope touched her. To make a long story short, the guy realized he was in over his head and bowed out – leaving me with a mess.
Finally, days came where she was mostly unconcerned by the rope – dragging at her feet, touching her body – swinging around her legs. I could drape it across her back and she’d walk quietly with it hanging off both sides. I could loop it around her pastern and pick up her foot with it. We even used a soft black rope to make sure she understood that ALL ropes were OK. She was a real trooper through the whole thing. (Another retrospect: I should not have made this effort a part of every single training session – she was starting to get sick of it – but I couldn’t get the awful image of her with her fright out of my mind. I wanted to “fix” that once and for all.)
Allie snorted and took off with the rope sailing benignly at her side.
Fine. I thought. “We’ve spent months getting you used to this. You can just run around until you remember that this thing’s not going to hurt you.” (insert loud warning buzzer here)
So, after about 400 rounds at a mad gallop, it became clear to me that she was NOT going to remember that the rope was harmless. I was angry and frustrated as I watched all that work vanish while my horse careened around – mortally terrified for her life. I marveled at how strong that stupid thread was that was holding it fast. I tried reeling her in (making the circle smaller) so I could grab it, but the tighter the circle was, the harder she scrambled to stay at a dead run. She stumbled and took strides on her front fetlocks/knees frantically fighting to stay ahead of her “predator”, as her hind feet stepped on the fronts when she couldn’t catch herself fast enough. I was home alone, and to say that the situation was dire is an enormous understatement.
What kind of an idiot really can’t stop a tired horse on the end of a lunge line?”
Well, that would be me. And I thought I knew all the tricks. I suppose if I’d yanked and brought her off balance she’d have fallen and that would have stopped her – but at this point I was as scared as she was. Finally, fringe-y demon rope had had enough of the sport and let go. I was left with a horse that could barely stand on trembling legs, panting like I have never seen a horse pant, with pencil-sized streams of sweat running off each fetlock. It’s a wonder her heart didn’t burst. We were worse than back at square one.
The shocking image of her fright/kicking, held in my mind, is apparently more powerful than all that training. Remember in the movie Ghost Busters – when Dan Akroyd’s simple thought of the Stay Puft marshmallow man morphed into a literal monster? It’s like that. Thoughts are powerful things. Horses are experts at reading non-verbal communication. I won’t go so far as to say Allie could read my thoughts (don’t want to get carted off to the nut-house) but I do know she could tell that I was not 100% OK with that rope, either – even if my reason had to do with the fact that I knew SHE wasn’t OK…
The horse/human dynamic is truly a biofeedback system with an interesting (albeit potentially dangerous) twist. Thankfully, there are folks like author Linda Kohanov, Anna Blake, and Michael Johnson that understand this, and are pioneering efforts to help the rest of us expand our horizons.
This sweet quote is from Anna Blake’s new book Relaxed and Forward – Relationship Advice from Your Horse, the T-shirt says I TRAIN HORSES TO EAT CARROTS, the horse is Billy – a worn out rental trail horse I bought in South Dakota. I spent considerable effort trying to locate his registration papers; the halter he was wearing when he was delivered is ironically embroidered “Clue” on the noseband and it also contains a distinctive brand burned into the crownpiece – a brand owned by John Hauer, author of The Natural Superiority of Mules. Photo is by Lauren Duncan