I’ve just come back from 4 days in Cologne, Germany, where I worked several serious problem horses. You may or may not remember that Monty Roberts went over to Germany about 10 years ago to film some of their toughest horses doing his join-up. Monty decided to not continue with these horses. Intrigued by what the horses must have done to have been given up on, I asked to have the chance to work them also.
I’m also doing a 3 hr demonstration using problem horses at Brook Farm Training Centre, north London, 28 June from 6.30pm. We would really appreciate you passing on the details on to as many friends as you have. Click here for more info.
So I was given a mare who was of the same bloodlines as the ones that Monty tried to work and who was described to me as actually tougher. She was a super sensitive mare. Only one lady could coerce her into being caught, through food. When she was lead away from the herd she would pull away and panic, getting very stressed – and this would start at about a 50m distance. She was 15 yrs old. I was able to spend 1 1/2 hrs working her, trying to gain her trust in people so that the stable could continue working with her after I left.
Once the mare was handed over to me, my main objective was to find out the way she thought and what triggered her nervous reactions. But first, I needed to connect with her in a calm way. So, instead of trying to separate her and work her, it was much better to start her lesson and make the connection where her mind is more at peace. I guided her around the herd, getting her to gently follow me. I wanted to use the most gentle squeezes on the rope. She responded quite well by maintaining quiet focus with me and if she got a bit distracted, I could gently squeeze the rope and regain the connection. I spent the whole time guiding her, walking away from her, and making her feel calm when she was close to me. After about 20 mins she started to give me the feeling that she was wanting to centre with me, that the security I offered her when she was close made her feel good. Whenever she came close I would rub her, manipulate her a bit and make her feel calm. I opened my arms to her and took away any pressure. When she didn’t want to be with me, when she was off, looking around and getting anxious, I just stood there and let her do her thing, but as soon as she paid me attention, I let her know that I would be there for her.
After some time I felt that she was calm around me and not resistant to the pressure. Through feel, I decided to stimulate her a bit more. I walked off gently squeezing the rope and creating a bit more energy until she lightened in the rope and gained a bit more energy in her stride. As soon as she broke into a jog behind me, I felt her tension really rise. She panicked in a way that gave me the feeling that I didn’t know if she wanted to attack me or run away. I got her to calm and then suddenly she tried to run away. I stopped her and gave her space, allowing her to settle. This happened only twice.
Now I felt ready to take her away from the herd to the gate that leads away from the pasture. There was still a few horses near the gate so it wasn’t a big change, and she accepted the transition quite well. I gently led her around, constantly feeling the rope and asking her to walk at different paces, bringing her attention again and again back on me. Once she was ready we passed through the gate into a large lane way that feeds the barn.
In the lane way there was a hay feeder, some dirt and some piles of sand. We had made it through the gate, but now I had to make another connection and find calmness again – the different environment and visual obstacles scared her enormously. She elevated and became very fragile and stressed. She showed all the signs of a horse that cannot cope by herself. Without her herd she was obviously lost and extremely frightened. The whole time since I had caught her and all I was really doing was showing her how to find me and find comfort with me. If this mare didn’t understand that she could find comfort in me then there would be no way to make any connections or progress with her training. The whole time I was also trying to show her that I was here to help – not to create pressure or make her feel uncomfortable.
So this is where the real dance began. She had really lost the plot by now – I had to use 100% of my concentration. She was looking at everything, literally everything – eyes bulging out of her head – everything was a threat to her and she could not stop moving. Even though there were times that I thought I would be jumped on or run over whilst her mind was in escape-and-return-to-my-herd mode, we had done enough work previously on the lead for me to help calm her. Just the weight of the lead was enough to stop her when she got to the end of the rope. I kept showing her that as she paid me attention I would acknowledge her doing the right thing. At one point, she came right up to me, in between my outstretched arms. She was starting to look to me for support and comfort.
From this environment I look her into the arena and decided to take her off the rope. A bit of a gamble – if she chose to run and panic at this stage, all the work we had done would be forgotten and lost. She started to pace up and down the fence, now in a lather of sweat and very stressed again. All I could do was to remain absolutely calm while she processed her extreme anxiety. This time I wanted the onus for her to come to me to be a bit clearer. As she paced one way, I would pace the other and as she changed direction, so would I; crossing each other in the middle, up and down the arena. I started to be able to walk closer to her, until we were passing each other with only a small distance between her. She started to pay me little bits of attention but was still very focused on her herd. So then I started to use her favourite corner, which was the gate we came in. Every time she left the corner I would go to the corner and wait. And every time she came back to the corner to where she felt safe, I was there, waiting. When she approached, I would stand there for a moment, before walking out of it, away up the fence. Now she would follow me for a bit and pass me – locking on to the other corner simulating her previous pattern of pacing up and down. I would go back to her favourite gate corner. and wait for her. Every time she came to my corner, I offered her support – I did nothing other than gently rub her. I could see that when she was there she enjoyed my company and I could see that she was wanting my help more. Once we had had a connection, I would walk out, and soon she started to follow. If I felt that she lost me, I returned to my corner and waited again. This went on for about 30 mins, maybe more. We got to the stage where we would walk out of the corner together and as I would turn to walk back, she would also turn and follow me right back to the corner. There also moments where she followed me in other directions, not just up and down the fence. All of this was at liberty – through no applied pressure – an untrained mare that could not be caught easily.
At this stage I was happy enough and felt she was ready to wind down. I knew having the rope on her and that constant connection would calm her down more than keeping her at liberty. I put the halter back on her and lead her around the arena before taking her, through the lane way and back to her paddock. She led like a lamb, head down and soft as anything. If I stopped, she stopped. As I moved, she moved. Very switched on. Very focused. Over piles, around the machinery. All the things she was super frightened of on the way out, she passed calmly on the return. Purely because I had made her feel safe with me. She followed me as a leader and helper; a chosen leader.
I had basically broken her lessons down into sections – one in the paddock, one at her paddock gate, one in the lane way, one in the barn. I hadn’t used any complicated horsemanship methods – but I had to be extremely focused to ensure my timing on every little movement was perfect.
I was very pleased with the result. I had spent about 1.5 hrs with her. This was the first time the owner had seen her lead like this. For them, me coming – an unknown trainer – was a big risk. Other trainers had worked her and made things worse and understandably, they were nervous about another foreigner coming through to test their methods on her. The owner has since made me feel very welcome to return to her stable.
This mare is a very good example of why the join-up can’t be used on every horse. You couldn’t chase her away and expect her to submit – any process like this would cause high levels of unwarranted and unacceptable stress. I didn’t chastise her or chase her once. I was just there for her.
Being there for horses is what I hope my horsemanship will lead to. I loved spending 4 days working horses in Germany. I helped many different issues that have been very stressful to the owners and managers of the stables I went to and it is to their credit that they have been passionate about not giving up on these horses.
The owner now has something that she can go on with and hopefully this mare’s trust in people can continue to grow.