If you have ever been around a horse rescue or around horses rescued from bad situations you know the damage that can be done to a horse … both physically and mentally.
I have the privilege of working with such horses and with the owners that love and care for them. Many of these horses develop behavior issues stemming from the environments they have come from and from their history with the people who have interacted with them.
This is the story of Mack and Nicole.
Mack was adopted from a local rescue and was branded a “groom only” horse because of his neurotic fear of saddle, tack and most people. He had a history at the rescue of either running away or body checking and running people up against walls … which made him quite a handful to be around let alone train.
Nicole fell in love with (and felt sympathy for) this big, black and white paint and decided she would be his forever partner. She had him boarded at a local facility where she cared for his physical needs and dealt with his emotional baggage as best she could. She eventually called me to see if I would be willing to work with the two of them to sort out some difficulties she was having with not getting run down like road kill … daily. I remembered Mack from the rescue (as I trained there for a time) and remember having to take him from people who were getting beat up just trying to walk him around, so I had some idea what we were dealing with.
We began our journey together (Mack, Nicole and myself) by beginning to help Mack relax, even for a moment, and we began enforce fundamental boundaries, like “don’t run me over”. My job as a trainer is to bring the horse’s anxiety level down as I bring the owner’s ability level up. Becoming a horse’s leader is a tall task especially if the horse has a history of poor human leadership (or abuse). Nicole began to learn and embrace the need for consistent boundaries fairly enforced and that what Mack needed from her was not always met with … thankfulness from Mack. One our biggest hurdles was getting Nicole to remove the “bubble wrap” (sympathy) and start approaching Mack’s training with empathy. Sympathy enables dysfunction … empathy is a path to true healing … but comes with a element of “tough love” that’s critical for the horse to develop trust. If you don’t “bite”, fairly and appropriately, you are not a leader in the mind of a horse. Just kindness and affection is not enough to help a horse find healing. Nicole was willing to go there … and was a wonderful example to Mack.
We got through major fear issues with the bridle, surcingle and saddle. Long lines, on the other hand, sent him completely apoplectic. We had a scary moment in one session where Mack went catatonic and became completely paralyzed from anxiety. Nicole got his attention back without an explosion … but it was tense for a minute or two. As our training continued Mack proved to us what a big heart there was under all those layers of fear and mistrust. We continually pushed him to the edge of his envelope and helped him relax and enjoy the work we were doing together. As he got “worked up” we helped him “calm down” and taught him the physiological and psychological value of bending through the girth and spine. As he learned that he could relax in the midst of the work we continued to push him farther past his fear into a place of new possibilities. Nicole continued to care for his physical needs as well as his emotional needs between session and forged a beautifully balanced relationship.
Part of Mack’s history included a very traumatic experience being ridden where he actually ran through a couple wood fences after an insensitive rider decided he was “ready to go”. He has been injured from being caught in a farm implement and a bunch of other stuff I can only guess at based on his neurotic behavior. To add to all of that, he lost the vision in his left eye from UVitis (moon blindness) … so mid training we had to change things to voice commands when on his left side. Mack still, despite all the obstacles, continued to show great heart and try. It was as if he was saying “we CAN get though this”.
As his ground work continued to improve, mounting was the next item on the training agenda. Because of the history we knew about regarding riding, we took our time with this process. We broke things down into small, bit sized chunks for Mack to manage. I was probably ten to fifteen sessions just getting somewhere near the saddle (on his blind side) with my weight. We were told by his last trainer that putting your right leg on triggered huge explosions so as I bellied the saddle I put my hand down his right side and got him used to me being there. He was an explosive, twitchy mess … but we got through it injury free … both of us.
Once the mounting process was complete and I was actually in the saddle we walked for short, issue free distances … one after another … session after session. Each walk we took was a bit longer and a bit more relaxed, although, I could feel the potential bomb under me the whole time. It was in one particular session at one moment in time that Mack made the decision that “I can do this … and I will be OK”. We rounded the corner at the top of the arena and his entire attitude and movement changed. His walk became forward and confident … and I asked if anyone watching had seen what just happened. (I had never experienced that moment so clearly before) So, because I walk that fine line between brave and stupid, I asked my daughter Briea (who was riding another green horse in training) to give me the rail as I was going for a trot. Briea mentioned something about me being out of my mind … and away we went. That trot is why I am in the business I am. It was as if most of the issues were now behind us and we could get to work training a “RIDING horse”. The “groom only” label was officially removed.
Mack became one of my favorite horses to ride and I have ridden him a lot in the sessions that came after that moment. We moved into helping him deal with his vision issues under tack and schooling him in giving and holding right and left bend while staying relaxed. We rode in a Clinic with Chris Irwin this past summer and other than the idiot rider (me) missing a diagonal right in front of Chris … Mack was a star. We are still getting the wrinkles out of loading him into a trailer … but that might be for another blog 🙂
I am extremely proud of Mack and Nicole for being willing to work through their issues and the commitment they both have to being healthy and whole. Their relationship continues to grow and Mack is one of the darlings of the barn. It is truly an honour to be a part of both of their lives.