Yesterday I got up very early to get to the barn to get horses exercised and turned out before my client, L, arrived for her lesson. Some of you will know L as the owner of Sophie, the super sweet Tennessee Walker I’ve been working with for several months. She lives a couple hours away from the barn and comes every other Sunday for an intensive two- or three-hour lesson.
Because she has the drive, I wasn’t too concerned when our scheduled start time came and went. But 20 minutes later I was on my phone retrieving not one but three successive messages telling the beginning of the story that was to derail both our days.
In the first message she was sobbing as she apologized for being late because she was sitting alongside I-10 with an injured dog in her lap. Seems she was driving innocently along on the freeway north of Tucson when she spotted a dog sitting in the median. As an animal owner, she found that behavior quite strange. And as an animal lover, she couldn’t just drive by without stopping to investigate. The dog, which she said looked like a boxer or Ridgeback cross, had clearly been hit and injured in at least one hind leg. She was waiting for police to come help her get the dog off the road and safely to a vet. Too emotional to do a lesson, even if I could accommodate a late start.
The second message was more coherent and she had been able, with the help of another Good Samaritan, to get the dog in her car and was on the way to the nearest emergency vet clinic. If she could drop the dog off and be sure he would get care, she could still come for a shortened lesson if possible. Message three she sensibly remembered that I might be accessing her message remotely and she left her phone number so I could get back to her, which I did to find out that she was at the clinic, where the vet proposed to stabilize the dog, splint his obviously broken leg and then send him to the county shelter. We both knew that meant if his owners weren’t found quickly the only option for the dog would be euthanasia.
If you’re like me, when you have picked up strays along the road, you start to feel protective of them, responsible for their well-being whether or not you can re-unite them with their owners. L decided to have the dog X-rayed to find out the extent of his injuries and at least get an estimate of the cost of treatment. (Yes, on a Sunday and a holiday weekend.)
I offered to help with the anticipated bill and started making a mental list of all the dog people I knew who might donate a bit, who might be able to find a foster situation in case the dog couldn’t travel for a few days, who had contacts to re-home him if that became necessary. A pretty long list. I let her know she wasn’t alone and if the vet determined the dog could recover from his injuries that she wouldn’t get left footing the bill alone. That’s when we started talking about putting up a Facebook page to tell the story and give people we knew the opportunity to donate a bit toward what will certainly be a big vet bill.
The very busy clinic staff eventually got him X-rayed to find the extent of the damage – fractures in both hind legs and a cracked hip socket/dislocated hip. That all took a couple hours. (If you’ve ever worked emergency on a holiday weekend, you know how slammed the clinic can get.) In between all these calls, I was productively getting all my horses out and doing a bunch of the kinds of barn chores I don’t have time for on busy lesson days – cleaning and raking and such. And L drove the rest of the way across town to kiss her horse on the nose and drop off supplements in lieu of the lesson we’d planned.
Then she headed back to pick up the lucky dog, with legs splinted and pain meds on board, to take him to her own local emergency vet clinic. Sadly, after further diagnostics it was determined the dog also had suffered a spinal injury. Based on the vet’s recommendation and her own knowledge as a physical therapist, L decided that was just too much to overcome and the dog was euthanized. Not the outcome anyone wished for, but I for one am so thankful that sweet animal was saved from what could have been an awful slow death alongside the road in the summer heat.
If he had been mine, I would be so grateful that a complete stranger cared enough to give him a chance at life and a humane death. L is hoping to be able to locate the owners via listings on the county shelter site and other sources so she can pass along the dog’s collar and a clay imprint of his paw made by the vet clinic. I hope she finds them, just so they know.
What are we doing when we repeatedly turn to violence and brutality to coerce our horses to do what we want or to force them not to do what we don’t want? Twice in one week recently I witnessed fellow professional horse “trainers” making that classic mistake: confusing aggression with communication and fear with learning.
Both incidents happened while I was involved in teaching lessons and both were egregious enough to draw my attention away from my students and their horses.
First was a Western trainer on a very young-looking little sorrel horse, repeatedly jerking the horse in the mouth, spurring it and hitting it with the reins over and over throughout the entire hour-plus I was on the property.
In this case, it was not obvious even to two educated, experienced horsewomen what exactly the trainer was trying to accomplish. The horse would spurt forward and the guy would grab with his spurs and jerk it to a stop. Then he’d grab it with the spurs again and hit it on the hindquarters with the reins, over and under, and the horse would spurt forward again. Rinse and repeat over and over and over.
Sure looked to me like a good way to teach a horse either to grab the bit and run off or to flip over backward. I found out later the latter was what the trainer was trying to undo, “fix” the horse in one session to stop rearing with its owner. Right. I expect that was not terribly successful.
I saw similar “training” techniques employed by this trainer over several months until, finally, my client couldn’t take it anymore and moved her horse out of the facility. Then found out later that the same professional seriously injured another client’s former horse ramming the animal into a fence to “teach her to stop.”
I generally find the only to entice a horse (or human) to give up on a habit is to replace the undesirable behavior with something else. To do that, it’s often necessary to explore the cause of the habit and to remove that cause. For example, removing an ill-fitting saddle as prelude to teaching a horse that bucking isn’t the only way to behave under a rider. Even in those instances when the source of the bad behavior isn’t discernible, you still need to find some way to connect with the horse’s brain, to physically prepare him to learn instead of just reacting to gross stimuli.
A horse in full-on flight response – or in fight mode, for that matter – is in no fit state to learn anything. He shuts down all his brain but the primitive part that is trying to save him from danger. When trainer = danger, the horse will never learn anything useful.
The second horse I saw being hit instead of helped by his trainer was punished during a jumping lesson for refusing to jump a small oxer off a right-bend corner. I don’t know how long the lesson had been going on when I noticed him, but my gaze was drawn to the horse refusing the jump by trying to duck out the right side.
I watched the rider circle again and set the horse up to refuse all over again – no right bend, no outside rein support and the horse so far on the forehand the rider had no horse in front of her leg at all. The horse kept ducking right, though really he was just continuing to fall over his right shoulder as he had done through the entire turn. (Not unlike the horse in the video who just kept falling to the left out of a poorly executed bending line.)
The fix for this is pretty straightforward: have the rider actually bend the horse, rock him back on his hindquarters and balance him up under her seatbones supported by the left rein. After a few stops maybe the horse needed the incentive of a small voice correction or a tap with a jumping bat on the right shoulder about three strides out. This was a horse I had seen in the past to be honest and willing when ridden properly, so even that might not have been necessary.
Instead of coaching the rider to correctly set the horse up to jump, the trainer appeared to blame the horse. The next time he ducked out, the rider leapt off, the trainer mounted and faced the horse toward the middle of the fence and proceeded to whale on him with the bat. Because, of course, it makes perfect sense to a horse that if he makes a mistake induced by Rider A, then Rider B will get on and hit him and he’ll know the next time what to do for Rider A. Or Rider B. Or anyone at all. Also, it will become perfectly clear while he’s being held at a standstill and hit with a bat that he must jump the fence the next time he’s cantered to it. (Just like the horse in the video clearly understood that dumping his rider and having a crop chucked at him were connected.)
After the beating, the trainer bent the horse right on a circle and rode him very strongly to the fence with plenty of rein and leg support and then hit the him repeatedly as he was approaching and jumping without a sign of ducking out. This happened over and over until my lesson was finished and, thankfully, I left.
So, unsupported by a rider the horse runs by the fence and gets hit. And, supported by a rider the horse jumps the fence and gets hit. As far as I can tell, neither the horse nor the student, Rider A, learned a darn thing here except how not to jump an oxer on a right bend.
I did not see whether the student ever remounted to attempt the jump. I did, however, hear all about the big welts all over the horse afterward from a fellow boarder who was rightly upset and appalled.
What, exactly, did these professionals think they were accomplishing? Teaching the horse a skill? No. Creating new positive associations to encourage specific behaviors in the future? No. What they were doing had nothing to do with training or teaching or anything else productive.
Training a horse to be a safe and solid partner while allowing him to express his personality and preferences is a challenging process that requires trust, respect and plenty of creativity.
I don’t want my horses so programmed to a narrow set of responses that they lose all their individuality and seem more like machines than sentient beings. I want to see a horse’s expression change as he considers his options and makes a choice that will earn him praise and comfort.
The question I have asked dozens of times of people practicing various versions of “natural horsemanship” is: after you’ve spent time desensitizing your horse to all manner of stimuli, when do you than selectively sensitize him to the things you want him to “hear” well and clearly? So far, I have gotten no substantive answer.
I’ve tried a number of times to organize my thoughts and write about the differences between exercises that desensitize and those that sensitize a horse, but I haven’t managed to finish anything that said all that I wanted to. It seems British horsewoman Susan Rainbird has had no such problem. She recently wrote her thoughts on the subject; coincidentally, so of mine as well.
Here’s an excerpt from her blog post on the topic:
During the desensitisation are we also numbing the horses’ natural ability to process information and replace their basic instincts with learned responses. Horses throughout their lives process every external stimuli as either something to ignore or something to fear, it is important for their survival for them to do this, if they ran from every perceived danger using their basic instinct of flight they would never eat, drink or rest.
For our safety and enjoyment we need our horse to not react adversely to certain objects and situations, like cars, plastic bags, loud noises, etc, etc, so we put training in place to expose them to these things and then continue to expose them until they learn to ignore them.
There are some flaws in this procedure. By continuously ‘dulling down’ the horses’ senses we are at risk of removing their ability to deal emotionally with new stimuli.
We often talk about us taking on the position of leader when we are interacting with our horse, it is important to establish a lead role but it does not mean that your horse has no role in the relationship. You need to work together as a partnership; your horse needs to remain an important and interested party in the activities you are undertaking. You want them to look to you for direction and to trust your judgement, but you also want them to be confident and emotionally strong enough to investigate and develop positive learned responses to new experiences for themselves.
The danger of de-sensitising horses too much is that they become switched off and unresponsive. They can be emotionally unreachable. This state of psychological apathy can sometimes present us with an unpredictable horse, one that is normally docile and compliant, but has episodes of seemingly uncharacteristic and irrational behaviour.
Oh, yeah. Thanks to a total stranger for putting on paper what I try to convey to my students every day.
I was walking laps through rain puddles with the big mare this evening under a rising full moon and thinking wistfully of the few exceptional resident barn owners/managers I’ve been able to count on over the years to go out of their way to ensure my horses and all the others trusted to their care were safe and healthy.
I mean someone I could tell that one of my horses somehow “wasn’t quite right” at some point in the day and she’d assure me she’d be certain to have a good look at that animal often in the course of her day and, especially, when she did her evening barn walk-through.
The kind of caring, conscientious person who could be trusted to:
- Actually do a late-evening check of all the horses in her barn as a matter of course, and
- Know enough about horses in general – and those in her care in particular – to spot when one wasn’t quite normal, and
- Call me if something was wrong and even, sometimes, just to assure me all was well.
So thank-you again to Patty and Cheryl and Lisa for all the peace of mind you brought me and the rest of your clients. And gratitude to all the unsung horsewomen and -men the world over who quietly look after other people’s horses with caring competence.
And now I’m off into the moonlit chill to make sure the big mare is back to being the chow-hound I know her to be instead of standing demurely next to her gate watching her neighbor eat.
Yes, horsegirls are everywhere; in this case, Eastern Europe’s Dinaric Alps. Check out the YouTube channel of Sučana, a Croatian teenager who puts together lovely videos of herself riding her obviously very-much-loved bay mare Dora in all seasons. Nice music, too
Reminds me a bit of myself at that age, riding miles and miles bareback on my beloved bay gelding. Ah, the carefree hours, just me and my horse.
May the new year be filled with wonder …
Find more horse sculptures here.
There are all kinds of websites giving novice horse owners advice on how to choose professionals such as a trainer, a vet, a shoer or a boarding stable. Aspiring horse owners can even get tips on how to choose the right horse.
Well, experienced horsemen know the prettiest horse isn’t always the soundest, sanest or most suitable for your discipline and experience level. Likewise, the fanciest barn may not be the best run or the vet with the newest clinic the most dedicated to horse health. Behind an expensive façade, the barn might be full of filthy stalls and the vet clinic focused more on fees than sound horses.
For me, the bottom line for me when choosing a practitioner, whether vet or trainer, farrier or barn manager is quite simple – the person must above all else care about the horse. The professionals I support must be people for whom horses’ health, safety and well-being always come first.
Yes, a vet or a bodyworker or a farrier must have acquired knowledge and skill and experience. But if he doesn’t have heart, if he’s just a technician working on a machine, I don’t want him. Because if, for example, it comes to a life-or-death decision for my horse, I don’t want a vet who will do what is easiest for him or what is most lucrative. I want a vet who will do what the horse needs. Without question or hesitation. Every time. That’s my bottom line.
How do you know which type of professional you’ve got? Unfortunately, sometimes you only find out after there’s a problem. Case(s) in point, true tales of two equine professionals, each of whom made a mistake that caused lameness in a horse.
One is a bodyworker (BW), someone with whom I was considering a professional collaboration. As a rule, I don’t recommend people, facilities or products to my clients unless I have worked with them first. So, after watching BW work on a couple of horses and having several conversations with him, I made an appointment to have him work on my two horses. One was a fit 14-year-old gelding. The other was a 28-year-old school horse for beginner students.
BW’s technique involved a lot of stretching and he went through his routine with both horses, who were fine with him and seemed to gain some freedom of movement from the work. Unfortunately, the next day the school horse was extremely lame, showing signs of extreme pain and neurological deficit. (If you’ve ever seen a horse with stringhalt, that’s pretty much what this looked like.)
I suspected an injury to his psoas complex, and that was the diagnosis of my veterinarian. I informed BW of this and he examined the horse himself about 10 days after the initial symptoms. He concurred with my assessment and promised to call a person he referred to as his mentor for advice how to help the horse back to comfort and soundness. I made it clear that I felt I needed help to bring my horse back to soundness. But I never heard from him again regarding a rehab plan for the horse. Nor, to this day, has he ever inquired about the horse’s soundness.
Professional two is a farrier (F), who trimmed one of my barefoot horses too short during the rainy season, leaving him footsore on all four feet. The horse is normally very sound and has never worn shoes, so this type of lameness was completely unprecedented for him. I contacted F to let him know that my horse was lame and to inquire whether he or his assistant had done the actual trim. F had done it himself and expressed regret that the horse was uncomfortable.
I updated him about the horse’s continuing lameness a few days later and in the intervening time he had discussed the case with his assistant and was able to tell me in detail what they recalled about the feet before the trim and why he had intentionally trimmed a bit shorter than usual. His reasoning made sense to me; it just didn’t work for this particular horse. We kept in contact regarding the horse’s progress, developed a strategy for helping him become more comfortable and adjusted the schedule for his next trims to allow him to grow out more. The horse recovered completely.
Of course, I wasn’t thrilled in either case that a routine procedure left one of my horses lame. But neither bodywork nor farriery is an exact science and mistakes happen. The real test of these two professionals came after the mistakes were made. Which one showed he had the best interest of the horse as his priority? And which one did not, even though his mistake was career-ending and potentially life-threatening for his four-legged client? (And which one do you suppose I would never, ever again allow to touch a horse in my care?)
You sometimes hear people say they want to board at a barn where the owner/manager cares for all the horses as if they were his/her own. And that’s fine as long as you take the time to ensure that person cares for his own horses in a way that matches your expectations. Just because someone owns and manages horses does not mean she is fit to care for yours. Here are some scenarios, all involving fairly inexperienced horse owners, which I have witnessed:
At Barn A, a boarder contacts owner/manager at home for advice how to care for an injury and is yelled at for bothering O/M on her day off. At Barn B, owner/manager spends several hours working with a traumatized pasture-board horse to get a bandage on a minor cut that just isn’t healing properly and only bills the absentee owner minimally for supplies used. Or Barn C, where the owner/manager calls a horse owner to say her horse might be colicking but doesn’t offer the horse owner any assistance or even check on the horse’s condition later in the day.
In all of these cases, the barn managers were treating the boarder’s horses like they would treat their own. Which of them would you want looking after your horse? I want my horses at Barn B (and was lucky enough to have that as my barn for several years.) Of course I want an experienced, conscientious person directly overseeing the daily care of my horses. But most of all I want a true horsewoman or -man, someone who puts in the time and effort to be familiar with my horse’s quirks and habits, his “normal” and the warning signs when something isn’t quite right.
For me, the bottom line is always the horse.