Well, 2015 certainly zipped by. I have now had ‘U’ for a bit over a year. Many people would not have been happy taking this amount of time to get to where we are in our relationship, but I have both the luxury, and experience to be able to do feel confident in this decision. And ‘U’ has certainly proved it to be the correct decision.
‘U’, when he first arrived, did not want anything to do with humans. He would stand with his head in the far corner of his stall, not wanting any interaction at all. He was an angry and depressed fellow. Never was he mean or nasty but definitely not a fan of interacting.
I introduced him to novel behaviour that would have no negative associations with them and made sure is was told he was right and wonderful for doing these simple behaviours like targeting and standing on a mat. Training using positive reinforcement (click and treat) is by far the best way I’ve found to help convince a horse like this that life does not have to be as bad as it has been.
‘U’ took to these behaviours quickly and would offer to stand on his mat readily after only a short time. He also started to watch for when a human was in the barn in case they wanted to play these new fun games. The ladies in my barn would click and treat him for showing interest in their presence. Well it wasn’t long ‘before grumpy hide in the corner guy’ became’ hey you want to play guy’.
But it was so very interesting to see him revert back to his shut down state if a more ‘normal’ behaviour was asked for. So we negotiated and mixed things up. Could you target your halter? Yes, halters are good too because then we get to go and play those other fun games! Or I guess you can walk on my left side if I get to go to a mat. Tiny steps, negotiations, with him leading the dance a lot of the time, being allowed to feel in control, that he had a voice and could choose was huge for his self-confidence and his happiness.
Did I ask too much sometimes? Yes I did get a bit greedy at times as I could see the potential peeking through but by then I had enough deposits into the ‘trust’ account from all the other highly reinforced behaviours that I could easily get the account back into the black again.
‘U’ started to enjoy being able to be outside and be a horse. At first he was afraid of the other horses. It was almost comical, seeing this big Spanish recently gelded gelding afraid, but in reality it was sad to see him not be able to relate to another gelding who just wanted to be friends. So we gave him his own place and he could visit over the fence.
Everyone who walked through his pen would stop and chat and give him a scratch. You could see the resentment and anger start to fade from his face but he was still not what I would call a happy horse. More engaged for sure and willing to play but there was still something holding him back from enjoying life.
As his confidence grew he got a mare in with him and he was good with the company and even started to get a bit bossy with her! He started to relax and lie in the sun and enjoy just being.
This summer we tested the waters so to speak by having him help out in a clinic that was here. He was a star, and everyone loved him and gushed over him and told him he was fabulous. (And he was but there was still this air of resignation).
After the clinic I started to do some of the classical in-hand work with him. I didn’t know if he had ever had any of this work done before but he loved it (and started to let his happy show through). I know he knew this work under saddle, but many times horses are only schooled in these movements from the saddle. I, of course, told him he was a star and had him on a high rate of reinforcement and kept the sessions short with lots of mats and knee lifts(his favorite) to keep things fun.
I was impressed by how he worked with the ladies at my summer intensive and over Christmas had a chance again to see how he would be in a lesson with a student. It is always heartwarming to see a horse who has had issues in the past open up and be willing to trust again. ‘U’ certainly did that this time.
He started out a bit hesitant with the young lady as he didn’t know her, but she has a lovely light and sunny energy about her and soon you could see him thinking that this just might be fun. His facial expression changed, there was no more scowl, and in its place was a happy face. At the end he offered her his head to hug. It was indeed a teary moment for us all.
May you all find your happy place in 2016!