My stupidest horse training mistake

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.

So, after that I was on my own. Just me, Allie, and our nemesis: the rope. Rummaging through the odds and ends in the tack room, I found a soft white cotton lead rope with no hardware. The ends were soft and fringe-y. Everything about it said “harmless” (at least to me). Each night the three of us would head to the round pen for a session of fun. I soon learned that it was completely unproductive to push her past the point where she was uncomfortable – as I couldn’t get her back. Once she got a scare, then our soft, fringe-y rope morphed into an evil demon and she responded accordingly. Suffice to say, I had an enormous amount of time invested in convincing her that the rope was harmless and that she was safe with me. Then at night, I’d lie awake in bed replaying that awful kicking incident in my head – praying that I’d never cause/see a reaction like that from her ever again. (In retrospect, I realize this was a very bad thing – continuing to harbor that image in my mind)
Allie with rope

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.)

At some point, the saddle was added to the mix. We’d do a little rope stuff, then saddle up and do some ground / lunge work, and if all went well I’d mount up and ride. But she was never 100% OK with the rope – so I kept revisiting that (read: obsessing) One day, I’d draped our softy-rope-friend across the saddle and had her walk/trot with it while I lunged her. The details of exactly how it happened have left my mind – but something startled her and she jumped. The rope slid off – but then the fringe-y end caught in a buckle on the saddle. I swear it had to be just one thread that caught… This left the full length of the rope dragging.
Allie snorted and took off with the rope sailing benignly at her side.

Allie saddled trot
quotation mark left 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.

Now, a certain amount of folks out there are going to ask:
quotation mark left 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.

And to the folks that are saying “That horse is crazy.” I would like to point out that we have a line of Hedge-apple trees that border our pasture. They’re huge trees with thorny branches that just arbitrarily fall off, in spite of our best efforts to keep them trimmed. More than once I have worked to disentangle large, thorny sticks from this mare’s tail at night when they come into their stalls. If she can walk around all day with a large thorny stick hitting her back legs and not run herself into a frenzy, then she can surely tolerate a cotton rope. The problem is me.
TankGlovesAllieBLOG
Allie and I enjoying a much calmer moment – showcasing HoofPrints new I TRAIN HORSES tank top, and HandsOn Grooming gloves in action. Note the gnarly Hedge-apples in the background.

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.

These days, I am much more focused on telling my animals when they did something right, than I am correcting them for mistakes, or letting them make choices that have dire consequences (like the rope-dash above). Contrary to what I previously believed, feeding treats for a job well done did NOT turn my horses into lawless brats. (If I had been paying attention when I was a kid – the stallions at the Lipizzan show I attended were all getting treats – and they certainly had good manners)
I love telling folks about positive reinforcement, and HoofPrints carries a line of products that focus on this gentle and useful training technique.

TTHCw-AnnaBlakeQuoteThis 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

3 thoughts on “My stupidest horse training mistake”

  1. Very entertaining but frightening story! So good that everything turned out okay.
    Another scary element to your story is that of the apple tree In close proximity to your horse. We also HAD apple trees by our pasture’s fence line, planted long before we moved here. Those barbs are insanely sharp and tough AND a horse’s eye’s worst enemy. My horse is now blind in one eye due to a puncture and subsequent complications from the barbs of an apple tree. It was a long, painful and expensive process to endure as we attempted to save her vision in that eye, to no avail. Out of concern for our beautiful equine companions, I would state my belief that apple trees and horses do not mix. Stay safe, and happy trails 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. You are right about these trees and their thorns. I am pretty diligent to keep all the sharp stuff trimmed off as it grows, but it is a calculated risk. This is the only shade in the whole pasture and they use this area a lot when it is hot out. These were originally planted as part of a government incentive to mitigate erosion after the dust bowl years. Both as a windbreak and a hedge to contain livestock. When we first moved here it was virtually impenetrable, so we cut all the lower limbs off, to a level above the horses’ heads.

      Like

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