When you weigh over 1300 pounds, view the world from somewhere north of seven feet, and have feet large enough to serve dinner on, you command a lot of respect. Add to that a genius for picking up on cause and effect, and you can pretty much have your way – especially when your feeble caretakers are less than one sixth your mass! Such is life for my Noble, the giant in the family – a giant by most standards. When dealing with such an individual, who is well aware of his advantage, it is less about telling and more about bargaining.
By many people’s standards, I am well behind in the education of Noble. He’s only had basic lunge lessons, and is nowhere near being ready to be backed. By my own standards, that is late for a four year old soon to turn five. However, I have also never had such a large, smart, juvenile delinquent to raise. When he learned, two years ago, that he could break away on any whim, my options were immediately limited. I tried, for a while, to keep him engaged – but his juvenile brain found “school” boring. So, I decided to try the waiting game, and hope that the friendly, level headed boy I once knew would come out on the other side. All indications seem to be that it was worth the wait.
It is difficult to explain the differences in Noble last year, and Noble now. Perhaps someone who has raised a child might understand. I have watched some of my friends struggle with teenagers they barely recognize – bad attitudes, bad manners, and bad behavior popping up seemingly out of nowhere. Depending upon the youngster, it might be months or years before the parent again finds the loving, sensible, even charming child they once knew. So it has been with Noble.
For nearly two years he has been restless, mischievous, bratty, and prone to tantrums. His answers to nearly every question have been, “No! I don’t want to!” I have been encouraged by many to “put him to work” to solve the problem. With limited time, facilities, and physical strength, I could not see how that would be productive. Some urged me to send him somewhere else to get a work ethic – an appealing idea, except that two of the three horses I’ve done that with have come back mentally and/or physically broken. I’d rather have a “useless” Noble who is otherwise healthy than to try to patch him up from someone else’s damage. My experience with him as a terrified foal was enough to convince me that a “broken” Noble will only be a dangerous Noble!
So, I’ve chosen the waiting game. Beginning last fall, we began to see signs that the juvenile delinquent might be settling down. So, we started working on little things that we could do in his stall and paddock. Picking up his feet has always been a challenge – at over 1300 pounds, you can’t just knock him off balance – so I taught him to pick them up on voice command. He now picks up each hoof, on command, and holds them quietly until I am done.
Last year the fly mask was an issue – he decided that he just didn’t want it! Noble’s head in a normal position is too high for us to reach, so his cooperation is clearly necessary. The last two fly seasons we’ve gone through an extended struggle to get him to comply – and part of last year we had to just give up. As his attitude softened last fall, I decided to set us up for this spring by teaching him to lower his head on signal – the signal being my hand in the air. He now lowers his head and places his poll under our hands. This fly season, putting his mask on is easier than ever before!
My mother wanted to join the party, so she has taught him to allow us to handle his ears, eyes, mouth, and nostrils – as a vet would, during an exam. She has even put the vocal command to these, with “Ear!”, “Eye!”, and “Nose!” resulting in the named part being placed against the nearest hand.
It would be easy to say that this work is what is turning his attitude around, but none of this is new. When he was younger, he enjoyed work like this – it was a game. Over the last two years, I was lucky if I could hold a minute or two of his attention. Now, he demands that we come “play” with him, and so far we have not exhausted his attention span. In fact, it was the change in his attitude from tantrum prone to solicitous that started us looking for ways to bring out the Noble we once knew.
It is still largely bargaining, and not commanding, when working with Noble. For example, during his “dark period” he became highly reactive to anything novel. Ever try to hold on to a freight train at full speed? If Noble wants to exit a scary situation, he does. So, this winter I started introducing novel and scary objects. It was a productive way to spend the rainy season, when working outside was not an option. So, I would bring ladders, power tools, umbrellas – whatever scary things I could think of – into the barn and play “How brave are you?”
Just as I did with hyperreactive Tally, I would give Noble treats for approaching, and eventually touching, the latest scary object. The funniest had to be the umbrella – we got all of the way through opening it right in his face, with him snorting buy never leaving. While it was open he sniffed it all over – then suddenly flew to the back of his stall as if stung! It took me another ten minutes to get him back to touching it and hanging out while I opened and closed it. Silly boy!
The greatest test of his change in attitude came recently, after I’d gotten to the point of leading him around the barnyard again. All had been going well, as we ventured further into a space he hasn’t seen in two years (he’s had free run of everything behind the barn in that time). On this day, as we headed back to the barn he stopped to talk to Nash. In the process of “chatting”, he stepped on some loose boards which then banged on each other, sending him bolting into the barn. In a split second I thought, “Here we go again!” – but I hung on to the rope. In that same split second, he hit the end of the rope in full acceleration – and stopped! He stood there a little shaken, softly snorting, while I praised him for stopping and gave him some carrot. This was the clearest sign of all that my boy is on his way back!
It has definitely paid off to give Noble time to grow up. The once devilish expression has been replaced with the soft eye we new from his early years. He is now typically the first in the barn to solicit my attention, and eagerly puts his head into the halter when it is his turn to “work”. Most importantly, he has clearly regained his enjoyment of learning – the critical key to making any progress. So, we will continue to give him time, as we strive to teach him more life skills; and only time will tell how far we will be able to get together. But I have regained the hope that I had put upon a back shelf – that some day my dream colt will in fact become my dream horse!
Be good to your horses!