Stories of Rehabilitation
Artwork by Marjorie Moore
Everyone is unique, but we often experience similar problems. Remember no matter what, there is always the possibility of change.
When I first met Corey I was struck by his intelligence and presence. He was a 7 year old, 15.1h dark bay Morgan gelding but he was so tense, excited and fearful that he was basically un-rideable. You could get on him and try walking around, but then he would spin and buck and hop around and prance and work himself up into a lather.
Corey was also violent around other horses in the pasture, to the point if you tried leading him by a fenceline he would lunge at the other horses. For months I worked with Corey and his owner on fixing specific problems, but after awhile it became quite apparent that we needed to start from scratch with Corey to clean out all the old baggage since our band-aid approach was only causing frustration to all involved.
Corey had been “trained” by a previous owner for saddle-seat (a type of showing that usually involves getting the horse very excited and then holding them back with the bit). Corey was very certain that we wanted him to be excited, he was also certain that people were either there to give him carrots or to cause him pain. Corey was head-shy, afraid of sudden movements, and terrified of hoses and water on the ground. He was also a firm believer that any pressure on the bit meant to go faster and prance.
When you watched Corey move out on his own, he always had his head up. He was so tense that his neck muscles formed ridges that you could feel with your hand. My first goal was to get Corey to realize that he could stretch and relax when he felt pressure. I wanted him to realize he no longer needed to fight and be defensive.
I had to teach Corey that everything we would ask of him would be simple, so he could trust us and accept our leadership. And so I began teaching Corey the “Basic Tools”.
I practiced leading him, halting and backing up until he followed my footsteps exactly. Then we practiced walking by a pasture of horses and worked until he no longer tried to lunge over the fence or even so much as look at them. If he didn’t stop when I stopped because he was trying to give the other horses evil looks, I hit him on the chest with the soft end of the leadrope and backed him up.
The moment he focused on what I was asking and submitted, I released the pressure and praised him. Then I asked him to release the tension in his poll and let his head drop down by putting very slight downward pressure on the leadrope. Corey had a very hard time accepting this request. So I massaged his gums with my fingers in the space where a bit normally sits and removed my fingers the moment he opened his mouth to lick and chew. I repeated this until he began licking and chewing the moment I put my finger in his mouth. Then I again asked him to stretch his head downward. Corey still refused. So I again put two fingers in his mouth and applied slight pressure on his gums until he dropped his head down ever so slightly. I then immediately removed my fingers and released all pressure.
As we worked on each new task, the moment Corey became tense and excited, we went back to our Basic Tools and worked until he would stretch his head down and stay in a relaxed position.
I did not ask Corey to accept the pressure of a bit until he could stretch from the slightest pressure on his halter. I also checked that I could get him to stretch at the walk as well as the halt.
When I did begin riding Corey again, I introduced each movement from the ground first working him in-hand in his bridle and then trying the same movement mounted.
Working under saddle, we spent a lot of time walking, stretching and teaching him to halt from my seat. No trot work was introduced until I could consistently get him to walk and halt in a relaxed manner. If he did lose his brain while I was riding, I simply dismounted, worked him in-hand until he was relaxed and listening again, and then remounted long enough to walk and stretch.
After a year of very careful work, Corey settled into his new life as a calm and attentive horse. In the pasture, he has even become less agressive around other horses. Corey happily participates in outings with his human family, including beach trips and pony rides.
I first started working with Bailey, a Quarter Horse gelding, when he was fifteen years old and embodied the stereotypical shut-down school horse. One look at him and you could tell his body was full of tension and pain. Bailey’s answer to bit pressure was to grab the bit, stick his nose in the air and not give an inch. His owner, Nell had started his rehabilitation by changing his environment from a busy training stable to a private barn with a large lush pasture for constant turnout. Nell’s goal for Bailey was to help him develop trust in people and learn to enjoy his work under saddle.
After Bailey had several months of relaxing in the pasture, Nell and Bailey began weekly lessons with me. Since Bailey was so suspicious of every request made under saddle from his days as a schoolhorse, we started off with groundwork. I wanted him to begin listening and working with us outside of what he was familiar with. Get him outside of his known resistances. Bailey’s issues were an equal amount of physical and mental, so we started out addressing the easier of the two-physical.
During lunging, Bailey had difficulty keeping a steady rhythm at the walk and trot (we didn’t even try canter) and he did not like to put much weight on his hind legs. His back was very tight which prevented his hind legs stepping under well.
We continued the lunge-work until we could get Bailey keep a rhythmic pace at the walk. When he finally was able to do so, he began to relax and let his head stretch down, which in turn stretched out his back muscles. Bailey discovered that from this point it was easier to step his hind legs under and his trot-work began to improve.
Bailey still had trouble balancing though, and he would often drop onto the inside shoulder and look to the outside of the circle. When he did this, a small vibration on the lunge line helped to remind him to bend to the inside, and then by pushing his shoulders out and making a larger circle, it became possible to get him balanced. In the spiral in/out, you make your lunge-circle smaller and larger and this makes your horse change his equilibrium and find his balance, if only for a moment. Frequent walk/trot transitions will also help the horse find his balance by the constant requirement of controlling his center of gravity.
When Bailey was comfortable with the lunge-work, I then had Nell begin practicing in-hand work with him. First Nell got Bailey accustomed to having her walk beside him while she held onto his bridle and kept contact with the outside rein. She then asked Bailey to listen to half-halts and stay straight while they walked a 20m circle. When Bailey was able to accomplish those requirements, I then had Nell start doing a 10m circle for every 20m circle. From the 10m circle, Bailey was asked to do a turn on the forehand to the inside of the circle. When he stepped his inside hind leg under to perform the turn on the forehand, Nell asked him to stretch down and to the inside of the turn by making small vibrations on the bit with the inside hand. The intent was to get him to stretch.
At first Bailey just wanted to turn and face Nell when she asked him to do the small circle. She was able to work through his reticence by asking him to move his shoulder away from her and move his hind end forward around the circle. Eventually, the small vibrations helped to keep him bent to the inside and the insistence on keeping a steady pace led him to stretch his head down. When Bailey began to lick and chew, Nell became very excited since she was able to see Bailey truly relax and accept contact with the bit for the first time.
The next challenge that Nell and Bailey worked through was getting a leg-yield. After many spiral outs( and of course spiral ins), and taps on the shoulder with the whip Bailey finally got the idea to step his body laterally and forward. She was able get a couple of good leg yields from the ground that first day, so at that point we stopped.
After several weeks of working on her own and in lessons, Nell was ready to try these exercises while riding Bailey. I had Nell concentrate on helping Bailey stay straight through the spine and help him balance by keeping a consistent contact with her outside rein, shifting her inside hips forward to help him step through on the inside hind, and keeping weight in her heels to maintain her own balance.
Nell found it confusing at first to give with the inside rein while containing Bailey with a firm outside rein. She thought that Bailey would then always be turning to the outside. What she didn’t take into account was that her outside leg and hip could keep hold of Bailey’s outside shoulder and make an impenetrable wall to contain the sideways movement, while her inside leg kept the hind end moving forward. Through practice, Nell was able to keep Bailey at a steady pace, with his spine straight and a soft inside bend behind his jaw.
Bailey learned to stretch his top-line muscles and find the contact with the bit. Nell was amazed that by giving up the idea of pulling Bailey into a headset, she was finally able to get him “on the bit” Bailey was learning that what we were asking of him was not painful, so he no longer needed to resist.
In order to teach Bailey that work was not a big deal, we kept our sessions short and to the point. Horses that are resistant need to be shown that what you ask of them is EASY! Remember that real learning occurs in the quiet moment after the pressure has been released.