The occasion of Noble’s first birthday seems a good time to share his story. His addition to our family was unplanned, and what initially seemed a stroke of luck soon turned into one of my greatest challenges.
Out of a Dream
I first met Noble in October. I answered an ad for a free Dutch Warmblood colt, and in a long phone conversation his breeder and
I hit it off. She lived on the East Coast, and had leased a mare in California hoping for a filly from her aging stallion. She had been lucky enough to have two lovely fillies, earlier in the year, and was hoping to save this little fellow a trip across the continent. It turned out that I knew the mare owner, and had known the colt’s great grandsire who was imported by my former trainer. I was also the first to respond from California. The fact that I could meet him before making my decision really appealed to the breeder. And so, there I was, meeting him for the first time. I watched him trotting next to his mother, pinching myself that this lovely colt would be mine. I was just not that lucky! What would go wrong and make it all fall through?
Into a Nightmare
Nothing did go wrong. I took over his expenses, and three days before Christmas we made the drive to pick him up. A horribly traumatic thing to do to a baby – a three hour trailer ride, snatched from the only home he’d known. But the brave boy took the ride well. I could see his ears busy, twitching to take in every sound – but he never moved from the center of the trailer. Arriving home, we settled him into the barn and gave him time to adjust to his surroundings.
The mare owner had warned us that he was shy with strangers. He’d only been handled by one person since his birth, and the farm he was born on was very isolated with little human traffic. His only exposure to other people had been two surgeries – one for a large face wound early in his young life, the other for a hernia surgery when he had also been gelded. Knowing all of this history, I was not overly concerned when he showed signs of avoiding us when we moved around the barn.
A day and a half after his arrival, I decided to make my first overture of friendship. He was in a double-stall, with plenty of room for maneuvering. I entered, expecting only to step a few feet in and just “be there” and let him get used to my presence. I fully expected him to run to the other end and glare warily at me. I was greeted, instead, by a charge! I barely escaped being bowled over by his shoulder. Any move I made, other than toward the gate, was greeted with aggression. In the choice of fight or flight, this colt was choosing fight!
I knew this aggression was rooted in fear – but that made it all the more alarming. How to proceed without confirming this aggression? I stood at his stall, feeling distraught as he glared at me, daring me to just try entering. All I wanted to do was comfort this beautiful boy and reassure him that all would be well – and he wanted nothing to do with me!
Pondering the Options
For three days I fretted over the right approach to take. I had worked with frightened horses, and I’d worked with aggressive
horses – but I had not worked with fear aggression in a horse (although we do have a dog with that issue). Pondering my options, it was easy to eliminate all of the “Natural” Horsemanship approaches – I had never seen one of the practitioners work with a fearful horse without escalating the fear until the horse finally reached the point of surrender. They also rely upon causing flight in the horse, and my only option to get him to flee rather than fight would be to clobber him. Since his fear was based upon painful experiences, that was clearly out.
I’d seen Ben Hart, on video, working with a mare that could not be approached. I admired his calm, patient, slow, horse-centric approach – but, again, that was a mare who retreated. Retreat was not in this colt’s playbook – but when I was not actually in the stall, he ignored me completely. What I needed was a way to give myself some value. Ben uses scratching, and it works beautifully. But any attempt at touch only aggravated the colt into another attack. What value could I give myself?
Horses value three things very highly – safety, social interaction and food. There was no way to convince the colt that he was safe, without months and years of living a safe life here. Clearly he wanted nothing to do with me, and he had other horses around, so social interaction was not something he would value from me. That left food – an obvious value to all horses. And so I settled upon a technique I’d used on two previous occasions – once with our Mustang colt and once with (of all things) a wild cockatoo.
Meet Me Halfway
I’d gleaned this idea from years of reading old cowboy novels. Of course, in some cases, it was taken to the extremes of starvation – but the best of the heroes used it in moderation and with patience. The idea is this – I place the food midway between me and the colt. In order to eat, he has to approach me. When he gets to the hay, I linger a moment, then retreat. I was lucky that my office was closed for the holidays, so I had ten days at home to repeat this process several times during the day. At times I despaired of ever getting through to him – but perseverance was the only option. As he got comfortable with the distance, I would gradually decrease it. Within a few days, he was reluctantly taking hay from my hand. I was far from touching him, but there was no aggression as long as I made no advances.
Once he was eating the hay out of my hand, I began to introduce carrots. We were making some progress, but I knew that a more portable treat would be needed to facilitate later steps. His initial reaction to my little orange offerings was suspicion – but I had been down this road with other horses. On each visit to the barn, I would offer him a piece of carrot, then immediately feed it to his neighbor. I cannot tell you how many horses I have convinced to take treats by feeding them to a neighbor. Within two days, he would actually sniff the carrots. The next day he made an attempt at tasting it – a tiny nibble and lick. Two more attempts and he had his first real taste.
Once he had his first taste of carrots, I suddenly had much more value! I was still a long way from putting a halter on him, but I was now generating more curiosity than fear. After two weeks of work, I could touch the upper part of his neck. Another week and I could put a halter on him. A month after his arrival we could finally lead him out for turnout time, following one of the adult horses to the arena. It felt so good to see him out playing in the sun!
I continued to work on gaining his trust, and his personality began to bloom before my eyes. I settled on the name Noble, as befitting the alert aristocratic face that began to regularly watch for my approach and the shockingly deep “huh-huh-huh” that now greeted me. Then came the day that I knew the “war” was finally won.
I was leading him into the arena for turnout time, about a week after his first turnout. As we got through the gate, a loud noise from behind sent him bolting before I could react – the lead rope was ripped from my hands! Off he galloped, lead rope flying behind him. I had visions of him tearing around with this “snake” chasing him – I would never catch him! Then an amazing thing happened … he stopped in the corner, turned calmly around, and marched right back up to me with an expression that said “Gee, mom, what happened?” You can bet he got a lot of carrots for that!
Set For Life
Since those early weeks, Noble has blossomed into a smart, funny, brave and charming fellow. I have raised a number of young
horses, and never has one so perfectly suited my personality. He is a truly special young man, and I am humbled by the trust (and now affection) that he has given me. The food that I used to give myself value now has less value than me, as he will leave his meal just to come and socialize or for a good scratch! I look forward to the partnership I hope we will share – but after the journey we have already taken, I will be pleased just to share a lifetime with him.
And so, Noble, my little friend, Happy Birthday to you! May we have thirty or more birthdays together!
Be good to your horses!