Doctoring the Defensive Horse

So this latest blog came to my mind as one of the young horses I have in training put a nice little puncture in his front leg half way between his knee and the point of his shoulder.  It seems to be a “rite of passage” as I can’t remember how many four year old geldings I’ve seen that seem to have the “need” to put a hole in their leg…

Anyhow, this particular horse came to me pretty defensive about most things in life and certainly when it came to anything around his legs.  His nature in general would appear to most horse folks “relaxed” or “quiet.”  What I was “translating” was that he was mentally shut down, or unavailable, and his resistance made him appear, slow and quiet, whereas I saw a horse constantly looking for “a way out” from anything associated with humans. 

I’ve mentioned in past blogs about Not Embracing the Brace, Filling the Holes in your Horsemanship, and so on… this horse is the absolute epitome of why I at times might seem a bit “over the top” in really laying down the basics and creating clear communication.  Any time something concerned, bothered, or worried him, he’d mentally check out and physically “lock up” or “blast” his body in any direction possible, including considering running over the top of me.  In scenarios away from the other horses he’d seem like he was “in your pocket,” but in reality it was the lessor of two evils- him being alone, or him being “with” a human. 

With the distraction of other horses, if he was loose, I witnessed him actually consider climbing my four foot metal gate to put himself back into the pasture to be with the other horses.  Even in the herd, he had a hard time respecting the “leader” and had quite a few marks from his “delayed response” after being warned by the herd leader. 

The first time I was working him in the round pen (he happened to be trotting) and the horses on the outside of the pen moseyed off; he literally turned and ran straight into one of the pen panels.   

When his brain “checks out” his eyes literally glaze over and he looks “empty.”  Then when he checks back in, it is as if a lightning bolt cracked him on the backside and his body will spring into multiple directions at once.  Watching him loose trying to make up his mind just as to which direction in the pen or how fast he wants to move would be stress inducing for the folks who’d want to “do it for him.” 

I honestly believe he never was asked to think before he got here.  This is not at all to nay say his owners who specifically took their time to go slow and not rush him.  The problem is their lack of experience and ability to recognize and translate his behaviors has now led to a horse whose level of anticipation about “anything” about to happen is pretty extreme.

But horses are amazing… In just a few weeks he learned he could use his brain to make decisions in a reasonable manner, participate but be respectful while being groomed, tacked up… He learned about yielding to and following pressure.  He learned that he could move backwards when asked.  He learned how to move one foot individually without a chaos.  He learned how to “wait.”  That he didn’t have to “flee” anytime anything more than a walk was asked of him.  To literally look and think to his right and left before he moved.  To increase and decrease his energy, to line up to the mounting block (loose), to be able to be “sent” through obstacles on his own without mentally checking out, to push his way through hanging tarps, to work at liberty in a 100x200 grass arena… To jump over cavalleties, etc… And to bring himself “in” to his night pasture when his name was literally called from the opposite end of the property.

But there was still a very long “list” that I wanted him to learn to be reasonable about.  On that list included movement near his legs… He’d tolerate (which did not mean I believed he was “okay” with it) ropes swing on top of his neck, back and rump, but as they slid down to any of his legs he’d either try to flee or slightly kick out at the rope.  I’d been working his front legs in being able to just dangle a rope to rub all over them, and then with each end of the rope held in either hand to gently apply pressure against his leg, releasing as soon as he “followed” the pressure I was applying.  I didn’t want to just see him physically yield his leg, but rather to feel better about the moving, touching, etc. of his legs and feet.

And then I walked out one morning and there was the swollen knee and upper leg.  It wasn’t extreme, but I realized the smooth scratch about the width of my pinky I’d seen the day before, really had a hole under it.  I’ve dealt with many wounds that turn most people’s stomachs… and this one was a pretty petite one.

So I had an already defensive and anticipative horse, who now was 100 times more on edge with the pain of the wound.  Which meant that even when I just stood on the side of the wound and patted his neck, he’d try to turn his head to block me from getting anywhere near his injured leg.

This is where revisiting the pre-established basics comes into play.  Although he was pretty much dead set that there was no way I was getting near the wound (which he communicated to me with offerings to strike out, run backwards/sideways/forwards and considered running me over, locking up his body so that any moment of touching he would go straight up in the air, bracing his neck in his “got to bail” position over his right shoulder with his left shoulder trying to “push” on my personal space to keep me at bay, etc.

Now my “scale” of extreme behavior is pretty crazy compared to what the average horse person has seen, and by no means was this horse particularly “creative” in his resistance.  What really intrigued me was the way he “held” on to his anticipation causing him to emotionally come completely unglued mentally.

Lips curled up and pursed, chest muscles twitching, tail wringing, neck so rigid you could bounce a coin off of it, the whites of his eyes showing… He just knew I was going to saw his leg off, except because of his insecurity, as his defense he tried everything he could to avoid looking at me, thinking about where I was asking him to stand, or staying mentally “tuned in” as I touched him (not on the leg.)

So each time he presented a way to “avoid” mentally addressing me, I had to get him to “let go” of what he was trying.  It was a bit like an emotional roller coaster for him which was mirrored with dramatic movement; he’d initially lock up, then try and have excessive movement, then lock up, then tune in to what I was offering, and then start to take baby mental and physical steps/movement, then would take a huge sigh or blow his nose, and instantly all of the signs of stress and anticipation would dissolve from his body language.  Then I’d go back to whatever I’d originally been asking, whether it was where I was touching him, or with how much “energy”, etc.  Keep in mind my standard for him standing quietly was that I could “work on him” with him standing ground tied (the lead rope loose on the ground.)

Although my “goal” may have appeared to doctor his leg, it really was to help this poor horse feel better about life.  He had no trust that I was going to help him relax.  He had no belief that I’d really “follow through” until he made a change, which is why I believe he hung on to his extreme mental resistance for so long.  But as soon as he “let go” of his anticipation it was like he turned to putty in my hands- literally.

Eventually on day one I got a hose (by the way I don’t think he’d ever been hosed/bathed) on him for twenty minutes while he stood with his head low and relaxed and with a hind foot cocked.  That afternoon I put a sweat on his leg which involved applying ointment with a Popsicle stick (he would have sworn it was going to be a knife), seran wrap, cotton and then vet wrap.  The irony was that he didn’t care at all about the crinkly packaging of the vet wrap and cotton rolls or the actual touching of his leg as I applied the bandaged.

The next day I applied a new bandage after he’d gone through the night without one, and the swelling was definitely going down.  I don’t work by the clock, and although initially met with the similar “the world is going to end” resistance as the previous day’s initial session, in less than a quarter of the time he completely relaxed and let me doctor him.

That evening after he came in from grazing I asked him to stand (totally loose) and I was able to approach, although for one moment he thought about fleeing the opposite way from me, and then he took a deep sigh and stood relaxed as I undid his bandage and inspected the wound.

On day three of doctoring he just about put his leg in my lap to inspect; all signs of swelling were gone as was the heat and he was totally sound.

The next day when I actually went to “work him” his entire attitude and body language from the start was much softer and more participative without me having to “do” so much to get his brain with me.  We still have quite a ways to go, but it was like he realized I was there to support him through worrisome scenarios, rather than scare him through them.

So as much as it was on my list to gently and slowly address working around/with his legs and desensitizing him to movement, pressure, etc., by having him get hurt, it fast forwarded his “learning” how to be reasonable in a situation he clearly thought was going to kill him.

Every single one of the “tools” I used in how I communicated with his brain and then body was through the over simplified points of yielding to pressure, directing his brain, influencing his energy and a clarity of when something he offered was “correct” or not the desired response. 

I could imagine many other folks attempting to “take on” a horse like him, who to a certain extent you could probably “bully” into tolerating a scenario, but I’d hate to imagine where that sort of interaction might lead in the long run.  I’ve already witnessed a few of his “light switch” dramatic moments, and in my mind, “challenging” a horse like this to “get it right” is like lighting a fuse on the end of a stick of dynamite.

Over the years I have heard quite a few stories of the “wild and crazy horse” that of course gets hurt, and in the human’s commitment to “doctor” that horse, where under other circumstances the human would never had spent so much time with the horse, that the horse and human actually built a very trusting relationship and “fixed” a lot of the horse’s initial “problems” without realizing or trying to do so.

But all too often people wind up being distracted and aren’t really “committed” themselves to mentally focusing on their horse until the moment of an emergency.  So instead of “waiting” for a scenario like that, for those who don’t have an injured horse, maybe experiment with interacting with your equine partner as if it were as important as attending to a wound.  You might be surprised by just having the thoughts in your head how the difference in your energy and intention will be perceived by your horse perhaps causing a change for the better in him.

Here’s to “TLC”,


Filling in the "holes"

I’ve had a new horse come in for training and in between this crazy ongoing rain I head outside to work with him.  He is a four-year old that has had a lot of handling, though his owner’s experience is limited, she has gone “slow” with him…