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Guests of ELS

Look for articles and contributions from Guests of ELS soon!

October 6, 2013

Send in the Pros

Leslie: “In the previous post, Marie expressed that Nutmeg wasn’t even letting Marie catch her for basic feeding and care routines. I went out to visit with the pair, and sure enough, Nutmeg was having no part of anything.

I counseled Marie to just shadow her mare very casually and when she seemed agreeable, to scratch her and pet her and then step backwards. Soon, Nutmeg was drawing into Marie and even beginning to follow her around. Nutmeg’s desire to be scratched became more powerful than her need to not be caught! Then I instructed Marie to carry around a halter and line, and as anticipated, Nutmeg would have no part Marie or scratching. But we gently persisted and by the end of the first session, Nutmeg was agreeing to the petting and scratching sessions, and even allowing herself to be rubbed with the halter and line. She was not coming to Marie as long as she was carrying around the halter, but she wasn’t walking away from Marie when she went over to pet her.

Nutmeg’s previous trainers would have driven her around until she agreed to be haltered: “Make the right thing easy, the wrong thing difficult.” Nutmeg’s behavior is typically labeled as disrespectful. I do not see things this way. Nutmeg’s behavior is simply feedback. She is expressing concern about what may happen after she’s been haltered.

I also explained to Marie that horses make associations between their emotions and places, people and things. Nutmeg has made a strong negative association with the halter and the line. I asked Marie to consider that anything that we would do to force her or even cause her to accept haltering before she is ready, is only reinforcing her negative association. The only way that Marie and her mare can truly move past this is that Nutmeg cannot experience anything negative with the catching and haltering process, as well as what happens after she’s been haltered – tall order!

The prescription that I left with Marie was simply this: Do nothing with Nutmeg on-line until she agrees to being haltered. (Another tall order.) In the meantime, you will scratch her, pet her and love on her, and show her the halter and the line, rub her with them. When she gives you permission, you will put on the halter, pet her, scratch her and take it off. You will repeat this until she readily agrees to be haltered. If she agrees to being led around, you can do this, but it must be completely pleasant for her.

I counseled Marie that if we are really going to rebuild this relationship and create something entirely new, that Nutmeg is insisting that we start from scratch. In many ways, she was behaving like a completely unhandled horse- she was reverting back to her old BLM mustang days. Interesting! Nutmeg is asking for a complete “do over!”

Over the previous several years, Nutmeg received groundwork and riding training by several trainers. Today, Nutmeg is behaving like a horse that has never been gentled. What happened to Nutmeg?

Answer? Send in the first pro.”

Marie: “When I was a corporate American “executive,” I always consulted the experts when I knew that my knowledge and experience wasn’t enough. I knew there was no way I knew enough to train any horse, let alone a wild one, how to accept a saddle, bit; and then teach it to turn, stop, walk, trot, canter, etc. And so I brought Nutmeg to a well-respected natural horsemanship trainer to start her under saddle. I had hired this trainer in the past to help with my other horses, and I had been practicing a similar natural horsemanship method for several years and so it seemed like a good fit.

Interestingly, I had asked this trainer’s opinion before adopting Nutmeg a year prior and she spent 45 minutes on the phone with me trying to talk me out of it. She told me how dangerous wild horses were. She said that I was not firm enough to handle a wild horse – she was worried I’d get hurt by not keeping this horse far away from me and putting the horse in its place. When I called her, the first thing she said to me was: “You bought the mustang, didn’t you?”

When I brought Nutmeg to her, there was no discussion of a plan or a process, but this didn’t strike me as unusual at the time. In fact, it didn’t occur to me to have a discussion with the trainer in advance. And while I wasn’t asked to stay away, I was definitely not invited to watch any of the training sessions. However, I did ask to see Nutmeg’s first ride, and the trainer allowed me to observe this session. It was awful. Nutmeg bucked and bucked and bucked in the round pen for at least an hour. She was exhausted and drenched in sweat and then a former bronco rider, who was used by the trainer for first rides, mounted Nutmeg. She didn’t buck during this ride – I think she was exhausted and had given up the fight by that time. While I was amazed at Nutmeg’s defiance and was wondering why she fought so hard, I did not feel at the time that this approach was out of line or extreme. You see, I had already bought into the ideas.

Many weeks later, I observed her under saddle on the day I went to pick her up, and then I rode her. She was a dream. smooth gaits, soft touch, good turns, she was light and responsive. I was pleased and I took her home.

Nutmeg seemed great after I brought her home, but the honeymoon period did not last long. In just a few weeks, things began to fall apart. Specifically, she was having major problems with the saddling process, She became increasingly upset with the saddle and the saddle pad and was acting out very physically. I broke my wrist during a difficult saddling session with Nutmeg. I called the trainer and asked if I could bring her back for an evaluation. She said ‘yes.”

Next Post: From Bad to Worse

September 18, 2013

Feral Horses, Survival Artists

Marie: (Message sent just a few days ago about her mare, Nutmeg – Marie was trying to halter her to move her from a small pen into an arena for her daily bucket of grain.) “Nutmeg ran away every time I came to her with the halter. She would walk calmly towards the open gate to the arena, then she’d spin at the gate and run to the other end. We went through this exercise 5-6 times, then she finally just calmly walked out of the gate to the arena on her own.”

Leslie: “Nutmeg is not the kind of mare to just wake up one morning singing your praises, if you want her trust, you will have to earn every ounce of it.”

Marie: “The day we brought her home from the BLM adoption site, the handlers had to scare her into our trailer, and when she got in, they slammed the gate shut. She was audibly upset and really rambunctious for about the first 20 minutes of the trailer ride, then she quieted down (it was about a 45 minute ride home). When we got her home, we backed the trailer to the stall, slid open the trailer gate and she calmly walked out. She met her new herd mates over the fence and calmly ate her hay. We were amazed.”

Leslie: “There’s an image perpetuated in the American culture that mustang horses are wild and out of control and can behave very physically (and they certainly can if they feel that their life is threatened.) I have had the opportunity to work with about a dozen feral horses, and while not an expert by any means, I have observed that they share common characteristics. Mustangs are very curious and very sensible. They are observers and thinkers. I’ve noticed that mustangs show an economy of energy and effort – they move when they need to, and no more. I’ve observed that there’s an economy of survival behavior and fight or flight states – in other words, they don’t remain in an anxious state for extended periods of time. In these respects, mustangs are very interesting equines to work with.

I also had the experience a few years ago of corralling the lead breeding stallion of a large free range herd into my trailer and unloading him into an indoor barn – all brand new experiences for him. No equipment, no lines, just myself and a second person gently corralling him. He went into the trailer calmly and when we opened the trailer gate into the barn area, he wouldn’t come out. He turned around and faced the back of the trailer and just stood in the trailer quietly, looking around at the barn isle and the small crowd that had gathered to watch the “wild” stallion’s first experiences with domestic life. We waited, and then we gently encouraged him out of the trailer, at which point he stepped out carefully and allowed himself to be moved into a stall where he began to eat hay. (No one there could believe what they were seeing!) When Marie shared her amazement of how calmly Nutmeg unloaded from the trailer and settled into her new home, I was reminded of this experience with this stallion.

Are these typical feral horse behaviors? I can’t say for sure because I have also observed feral horses exhibiting very nervous behavior. But the conservation of energy I believe is typical, because it’s tied into survival. And I believe that feral horses are resilient – because they have to be. I believe this is why Nutmeg is still coming out “swinging” after years of, as Marie calls it: “training on a roller coaster.” Resilience may also be why Nutmeg has not mentally and physically shut down due to learned helplessness, which is a common result of not just harsh training methods, but inconsistent training methods. Much like the child of an alcoholic, it’s not just the “bad episodes” that are so destructive, it’s the unpredictable swings between calm and chaos that can be so devastating.”

Marie: “Nutmeg never lets me forget her rough training and it will take a long time before she will trust that I will never go back to those methods. Now that I know what I know, I cannot blame her.”

Next post: Marie gets professional help with Nutmeg

September 5, 2013

Dreams Unrealized

Marie: (This is a repeat from a previous post) “I set out to realize my second dream – training a wild horse. As a kid I used to pretend wild horses were traveling alongside the car as our family traveled for family reunions, vacations, etc. I always wanted to “tame a wild horse.”

LESLIE: Like many adult horse owners, Marie had a childhood dream about horses and horse ownership that she decided to make a reality later on in her life when she was in the position to do so.

A dream that is unrealized can be frustrating and it can be devastating. But for some horse owners, it can be pivotal. When a dream or a vision doesn’t happen the way that the horse owner was expecting, the disappointment can cause the owner to get out of horses completely. Or it can cause them to begin to make some changes… either decision, the emotions involved necessitate doing something.

From my experience working with horse owners such as Marie, personal change is brought about by emotions much more so than thinking and intellectualizing.

The process of transformation is just that, a process. It takes time and it takes a series of events. These events, the “chinks in the armor” wear down one’s “personal defenses” over time. It’s important to remember that the very first thing that Marie tells us about Nutmeg, the event that sets things up and gets this process going… is that Nutmeg was an emotional purchase. This is neither good nor bad, … but it’s important.

Marie will experience many events, both negative and positive, that led her to recent and powerful experiences that caused her to start a new path- and never look back.

MARIE- I didn’t have any clear expectation of the experience of training a horse, since I’d never done it before. I knew some natural horsemanship, I knew some groundwork, and I just wanted to put into practice as much as I could myself. I knew that I would need help training my horse… but I wanted guidance, I wanted to receive the training, so that I could in turn train my own horse- because that was my dream.

When I first started applying what I knew to my “training project,” I discovered that Nutmeg was incredibly smart. She was dominant and stubborn. She didn’t seem to care where she put her feet or body. It felt to me that I had to prove to her that every request was worth her time and had a purpose that she agreed to. At times she was the most willing and compliant horse when asked to do something, and other times hell would freeze over before she gave me a fraction of an inch.

Soon, I began to feel that Nutmeg was beyond my expertise. I began to feel that I didn’t know enough to train any horse, let alone one mostly untouched by humans! So I began to bring in the experts in what became a series of professionals from different backgrounds, different methodologies, and entirely different ideas about horses.

While I did not realize it at the time, my dream of training a wild horse mostly on my own, was not going to happen.

LESLIE: This is the first time that things didn’t go the way Marie planned… also the first time, she “allowed” herself to be taken off course. It’s not a bad decision to get professional help, as a matter of fact, it was probably appropriate for Marie at this time. But in the posts to come, you will notice how she begins to turn over her dream and her vision to others…and as time would tell, Marie would be left out of the training process, entirely.

“Chink.” And the armor takes its first hit.

Next post: FERAL HORSES: To be fair, Marie was taking on both training a horse for the first time, and taking on a “wild horse.” Next post- we’ll look at feral horses briefly and why Nutmeg’s “heritage” while initially a challenge, in the end, may have been the key to Marie’s growth.