If there’s one training tool that’s more effective than any other in the horse world, I think it would have to be ‘time’. So many people are looking for quick fixes, and in some cases this is necessary (for example where the horse is dangerous, or where the horse has to be loaded to get to the vets). But in most cases, it seems to me that the investment in time is actually why we have horses in our lives in the first place.
I guess the difficulty is that the time needs to be spent in the right way, or at least not in the wrong way. Often people need to see that the results can be achieved before they’re willing to invest the time, and potentially the learning that they themselves will need to undergo in order to achieve the results they are looking for.
The horse who has prompted this post is a cob mare, Pixi. She stands about 14.2hh, dark chestnut, and she’s a young mare (I can’t remember exactly how old, I think 5 or 6). Her owner Mel called me initially to help with picking her feet up. I think its fair to say that Mel was a bit sceptical about what help I could offer, £70 was a lot of money to spend on a training session that potentially could give no results at all. But luckily I had been recommended to Mel by Dori’s owner (those of you who read my newsletter may remember Dori’s story, and I’ll post it up as a blog sometime soon). Dori had been an exceptionally difficult case, and maybe Mel thought that if I’d been able to help her then there was a chance I could help Pixi.
Pixi was rescued by Mel, I believe because she was too much for her owners to handle. She was actually booked in for slaughter when Mel came across her and fell in love with her.
I asked Mel the usual questions, especially in relation to feet handling, and she showed me Pixi’s reaction to Mel asking her to pick up her foot. Mel couldn’t get her hand much lower than Pixi’s elbow before Pixi snatched her foot away and darted to the other side of the stable, as far away as she could get. It turned out that Pixi had never, as far as Mel knew, let anyone pick her feet up without sedation. Mel had owned her for 9 months and had not been able to get any further forward.
I worked with Pixi for nearly 2hrs that first session, and at the end she was willingly and relatively calmly giving me her left fore. I didn’t even start working on any if the other feet. At the time I was quite heavily pregnant, so you can imagine I was exhausted! Because of the pregnancy, I had to tell Mel that I wouldn’t be able to do any more sessions myself, and there were no other Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associates locally. So Mel got to work learning from what she had seen, and she put in the time and the understanding that was needed. A couple of weeks later I got a message to say that now she could pick up both front feet – what an achievement on both their parts, and what a relief for Mel, and probably for Pixi as well!
Over a much longer period of time Mel worked with the back feet as well, and eventually came the day when she messaged me to say that the farrier had been able to trim all Pixi’s feet 🙂
On from there, and Mel sent Pixi to a local yard for a few weeks for starting. When she came home, Mel was able to long line her comfortably around the yard, and she was pleased with how her pony had come on. She’d seen her ridden while she was away at the yard for schooling, but when Mel tried to get on Pixi at home things did not go at all smoothly. Pixi seemed petrified, and took off like a rocket before the rider could get in the saddle. This happened more than once, and Mel knew she was stuck again. She called me for more help.
It was great to see Pixi again, and to see how far she’d come with her feet. Mel was happy for me to do some physio checks so that I could ascertain to the best of my knowledge that there was no physical reason why Pixi should bolt off as soon as she felt the weight of the rider on her back. Although Pixi holds a lot of tension, I am as confident as I can be that this does not affect her in relation to carrying the weight of a rider. Most of her tension is through her poll, which although it will probably contribute to her general spooky demeanour and could potentially be affected by the bridle or by the riders hands contacting the mouth through the reins for example, it is unlikely to be affected by the weight of the rider on her back. The tension does need to be relieved, as I believe that it is related to her extremely heightened flight response, and each time she gets frightened or takes flight the tension in her poll will increase. So the tension triggers the flight response, and vice versa. In my opinion this is best approached by dealing with the behavioural symptoms alongside the physical symptoms, as one is not easily resolved without the other. Mel allowed me to do some Physio treatment, and I gave her some exercises to be continuing with long term.
In relation to the mounting issue though, in my opinion Pixi was nowhere near ready to accept a rider. If you walked up to her a little too fast, or moved a little too sharply, she was away from you as fast and as far as she could go.
I explained this to Mel, and again showed her how to help Pixi through this, then left her to it. I warned her that I expected the work to take months rather than weeks because of the severity of Pixi’s reactions, and Mel accepted this and got to work. I called in a month or so later just to see how they were doing, and was pleased to see some improvement already, but there was a long way to go.
Four months later, Monty Roberts was doing a demonstration not far from where Pixi is stabled, and Mel decided to give the Intelligent Horsemanship team a call to ask if they thought Pixi was suitable for the demo. Ultimately the answer was yes, and Monty worked hard to help Pixi overcome her flight response and accept a human being on her back. The demonstration was so powerful that it’ll be on Monty’s Online University for everyone to be able to learn from. At the end of the 45 minute session, Pixi stood, with no one holding her, while Jake vaulted onto her back, then tentatively walked a few steps.
Going back to the theme of this blog, I’m not sure any of the audience that day quite understood how much time doing the right thing Mel had spent with Pixi for her to be at the stage she was at the beginning of the demo. Monty proved in a short space of time that the desired results can be achieved, but he made sure Mel understood this wasn’t a ‘quick fix’. She still has a lot more work to do, and I think Pixi is very lucky to have found an owner who is willing to put in the time it takes.