Today was triumphant, although not in a way that most people might recognize – today I was able to walk Tally around our back acre without a single spook! Sounds unremarkable, right? After all, she grew up in that field. But for me it was a banner day, and proof that I am on the right track with this challenging girl. To understand how significant an event this is, you have to know my Tally.
Tally was created on a whim, at probably the worst time in my life to have a foal. I was busy with my job, eventually losing it in the economic crunch, and having to adapt to another far less desirable position. In between these events we suffered many personal losses, leaving me with little motivation to educate a young horse. The result, to my shame, was a very large seven year old mare who knew only how to lead and hold her hooves for a trim. Never had I raised a horse with so little education! Fortunately, she was a friendly soul … less fortunately, she’d always been hyper-vigilant and hyper-reactive. Standing just a fraction under 17 hands, and tipping the scales at well over 1400 pounds, she was rather imposing when she decided to explode!
Searching For Answers
I’ve worked with a lot of horses with a host of issues, but I’ll admit to having only dealt with one other mare that came close to Tally in being so reactive. That mare was also homegrown, but with far more skills from the very beginning. She never quite reached Tally’s size, but by the time she matured we had established a host of automatic responses to rely upon. I had also never encountered a horse so hyper-vigilant – not a single change to her environment escaped her notice, no matter how small. And every change was worth a high-headed, rigid response before deciding if a 180 and bolt was in order.
I have tried all of the variations on dealing with spooky horses – move their feet, lower their head, move them sideways toward the object, concentric circles toward it, let them look/don’t let them look … at one time or another every one of these has worked on at least one horse. But those horses were generally spooking at a single object in a specific occasion – it was not a way of life. And most of those horses already had a skill set to begin with.
I tried many, if not all, of these techniques with Tally – to no avail. Each one would just put her into a fighting frame of mind. Many times I despaired that she would ever make a suitable riding partner.
Best Trick Ever!
I continued with her ground training, best as I could. I also started combing through various behavioral and training texts, looking for new ideas. In this context I ran into many debates upon the merits, or lack of, to using treats in training. I’ve always given treats to my horses, and used them extensively in training dogs – but I had never used them as actual reward in training horses (from the saddle, it’s not exactly practical, so it never occurred to me). On one particularly bad day, when a trash can had “invaded” the barnyard, I tried something on a whim. For each step that high-headed, hyper-tense Tally would take toward the enemy trash can, I would give her a treat. If she actually got to the trash can and touched it, she would get a bonus. Our route was not direct, but it was the least dangerous approach to a killer object that we had taken.
Pretty soon I was armed at all times with treats. Anything and everything that caused her alarm would start the scenario again. As time went on, she had to take more steps to get the treats, eventually only getting the treats when she touched the object. Then came the day when we got a delivery of hay. Out from the front of the barn she immediately was head high and tense – but this time she nearly dragged me, still head high and snorting, directly up to the pile of hay … touched it with her nose (still snorting) then turned to me looking for her treat! Magic!
I understand, behaviorally, how all of this worked – but to think that you could overcome the fear of a flight animal through shaping and conditioning using only treats is a rather phenomenal idea to me – and far less confrontational or forced than any other method I’ve seen. After this epiphany, I ran into several articles (like this one) and an excellent video (not free, but worth the buck and a half) that supported what I was experiencing. All began to go well, until I made one badly calculated error.
Reaping The “Rewards” Of A Bad Choice
Tally’s education was coming along, and the spooking was less frequent – mostly sound driven by now. But I knew that I did not have the facility or time to start her under saddle. Nor was I in riding shape, having only just started my own journey back to the saddle. I have only ever had two horses started by someone else – one went beautifully, and one was a disaster that was never fully reclaimed. I tried very hard to choose well with Tally, and thought that I had. But my “large and in charge” girl was far more emotionally vulnerable than I’d been aware of, and she came back more tense and explosive than before!
Now there was no leading her anywhere without an explosion. She was even more ready to fight at any attempts to address the problem. In fact, every day that I took her out to work, she began with a “put ’em up!” attitude. The visual spooking was rarely an issue, but sounds were now the TNT – and we live in a busy, rarely quiet, neighborhood. So, what to do to get back the trust and control?
Back To The Drawing Board
My first tactic was to start from the beginning, with the most basic command of all – whoa! Of course, when she’d explode, my main goal was to stop. But, I started to take it a step further – at any time that she began to look like she was getting uptight or worked up in any way, we’d stop. If she’d buck, we’d stop (I’ve never gone with the crowd on solving bucking by going forward – it only seems to compound the issue). Bolting – stop. Head coming up – stop. Gradually, an interesting thing began to happen – when she’d start to get worked up about something, she’d stop herself! I’d let her stand, and watch as she’d gradually begin to get over whatever was bothering her. As her head would come down and relax we’d just go on.
I also began to reteach a basic back-up – in the halter, I’d give a slight pull backward until she’d take a step backward. Release, and treat. I would pick quiet times for this, so she could easily focus. Gradually adding steps, with the result that she’d lower her head as she stepped back (the natural response, if done in a relaxed manner). Now, I don’t subscribe to the notion that lowering the head calms a horse – there just is no biological logic to that. In addition, many methods of lowering a horses head would be far from calming. But I do believe, like many others (Andrew McLean notable among them), that the act of refocusing the horse’s attention can have a calming influence. I recently heard it said best by Charles de Kunffy: “You have to get the horses attention first. From attention then comes trust.”
Gradually, with all of this, there was more control over her spooks – even she would stop herself after the initial jump. I would follow that up with a couple of steps of backing up, to refocus her, and her emotional recovery time got shorter. All of this has taken time, and progress has been in very small increments.
The End Result
During all of this re-schooling, we stayed in and around the barn. Things had been improving, but I was expecting to be back to the drawing board when we started going out back again. She is very contextual, and all trips out back had been a struggle. I was actually dreading facing it again. But, she recently gave herself a bump on the leg and is on hand-walk and turnout only. So, this morning, off we went to the tune of soft snorting from her nostrils. She was looking, and clearly on alert – but she was obedient to every whoa (each one rewarded with a carrot), and walked at my pace the entire way. All the way to the very back, and around again! We even found a nice patch of grass to nibble on – in complete peace and calm. For the first time, ever, I felt that her attention had turned into trust. I no longer question ‘if’ we will get there – it’s only a matter of time.
So, today I had my small triumph – but it felt huge to me! This mare continues to be a humbling experience. All of her problems have been of my creation, one way or another – and she challenges me to find creative approaches every day. But the evolutions she has gone through have shown just how resilient horses can be, and how willing they are to trust and bond if you just give them a chance and hear what they are trying to tell you!
Be good to your horses!