Assessment of a Trick Horse- Addressing the "holes"

As part of my duties here on the ranch in Texas, I have been asked to evaluate different horses… One horse in particular recently came up as an interesting “case and point” to my continually trying to show people just how many “holes” are present in most horse’s education. 

This particular horse was a half draft and half Quarter Horse, and for any little girl with romantic ideas of a horse galloping across the pasture with the wind blowing through its mane and tail, this was that horse, with her blond 2’ long mane and flowing tail…

I had been told this horse was bought because she was a “trick horse,” and the gal that mostly rode her in the past used her as a turn back horse for cutting, rode her on trails, etc.  Most other folks who knew the mare rolled their eyes at the mention of her and her “issues.”

I had seen a young gal ride the mare for a few weeks and said she was a little “looky” when riding out and about in the pastures, but never did anything bad.  That was about all I knew of the horse.

The first time I rode her I treated her like the rest of the horses here, not assessing her from my standards, but more from a mainstream rider’s perspective, the difference being the latter is solely focused on what the horse does for them, rather than what they can do for their horse.

I caught her (with grain,) led her (with her hanging on the lead rope walking very, very slowly with no regard as to how fast I wanted to walk.)  She stood quietly while I groomed her (but she did dramatically swing her head away anytime I got half way up her neck with a brush or my hand,) she was quiet while I saddled her, and stood while I mounted. 

She was relatively quiet as we rode out in the front pasture, and she was okay in general for not being ridden in a few weeks. She was bit heavy clamping her jaw down on the bit, didn’t really look where she was going, but would turn, walk, jog, lope, halt, etc. without much issue.  But asking her to stand for more than ten seconds really bothered her.  In the course of my 20 minute ride she blew her nose 27 times.  No joke.

A few days later, when the weather was warm and I had time, I decided to start working with her on “my terms.”  This meant asking her to be caught (in a several acre pasture with other loose horses around) without the bribery of grain.  She had just been switched with this “new herd” that clearly had no interest in having her be a part of their herd.

Often people ask me how catching a horse in the pasture differs from how I would work to get one’s attention in the round, and there is no difference other than the cardio workout I get!  Through spatial pressure, every time the mare focused on or tried something I did not want, I created just enough pressure to get her to quit doing whatever she was doing.  So she searched and searched… At first it was all “brainless” movement, meaning she’d gallop off, then stop and stare and try and think about what happened.  She was shocked the herd wouldn’t accept her, and she was shocked at my behavior, or lack thereof.  I would create just enough pressure to influence her, but was not “busy” with lots of moving or walking around the pasture.  I wasn’t trying to “corner her” into submission to be caught, and I wasn’t trying to micromanage her every movement.  I wanted her to take responsibility to come up with the “right” answer, in this case, presenting herself to me to be caught.

Galloping off, snorting, pawing, and rolling, whinnying, passing manure twice, her emotionally charged reactions showed just how bothered this horse was.  Eventually after circling closer and closer to me, turning and facing me, creeping in behind me, blowing her nose, licking her lips and chewing and dropping her head, she finally came over and stood quietly next to me.

Instead of haltering her I just stood, not touching her, but allowing her to recognize that when she “found” what behavior I wanted, that I offered a quiet in my energy and behavior, allowing her time to “let down” and mentally process that it felt good to “be with me.”

Still without touching her I walked a few steps to my right and would pause, she’d turn and face and then creep a few steps following, though not convinced being with me was really going to be “okay” for her.  A few steps to the left… same thing.  Lots of pausing, and still not touching or haltering her to avoid me creating any physical pressure towards her. 

At this point something spooked the rest of the herd and off they bolted a mere 20’ from where we were.  The mare just stood calmly and watched, showing now desire to go flee with the herd.

Eventually I haltered her.  Then we just stood.  She breathed.  She licked.  She sighed.  She sighed again.  Blew her nose.  Then cocked a rear foot and dropped her head. 

Using the lead rope I asked her to look to her right, she looked shocked and confused.  I asked her to yield to the pressure of the rope when I drew her forward towards me or to step back.  She responded with a brace and locking up her entire body.  I asked her to drop her head by drawing the lead rope down towards the ground, she responded by trying to pop her head straight up in the air.  Hmm, some major basics in her initial education had been clearly missed.

Having no idea how she had been “trained” to do tricks, I thought I’d experiment for the moment and tapped her front left leg above her knee, with no response from her other than the whites of her eyes showing.  Then I picked up her same front leg, as if I were to clean her hoof, and as soon as I did I felt her relax, so I turned with my body facing her shoulder, and then held her cannon bone in my right hand, and used barely any pressure with the fingertips of my left hand to touch her left shoulder, and like putty, she quietly and quickly melted to the ground, folding her head between her front legs and gave me a deep bow dropping her left shoulder until it touched the ground.  She quietly waited until I released my hands and then stood up.  She blew her nose, and then looked at me with this expression that seemed to say “Finally you figured it out human!”

I removed her halter and she just stood there.  So I scratched at her withers until her muzzle wiggled showing her pleasure.  Then I walked off a few steps, and she followed.  We just stood for a while, and eventually I walked off and left her. 

The next day because weather and time permitted, I went out to the pasture, where she met me standing at the gate.  I caught her and headed over to the round pen, where I let her go, and as I had done on the previous day, offered her the opportunity to decide to be with me, even with the distraction of other turned out horses running around, tractors working nearby and dogs chasing one another.

She quickly sorted through her options and was happy to turn and face me, but closing the four foot “gap” between us, was a whole other issue.  Every time she stopped, she’d always have an “escape option”- meaning if I created too much pressure, she could whip around and leave.  So even though it looked like she was “with me,” she was still tolerating addressing me, rather than offering to be with me.  As the session progressed I communicated using basic spatial pressure, without a lot of running around by the mare, and she mentally and emotionally realized she had a choice to be with me.  She gradually offered more of herself, creeping in closer and closer.  Finally she offered to follow me all over the pen and stand quietly.

I knew touching her created a bit of anticipation and stress, just by barely touching her shoulder and watching her skin twitch and her entire body tense up.  So through physical pressure of my hand touching her a few seconds than removing it, then me walking off, I allowed her to make the choice to continue to be with me.  We continued this and I was able to touch more and more of her with more confidence from her that “it” would be okay.

Eventually I haltered her and we worked on looking left and right, yielding to the pressure of the lead rope as I drew her forward, backwards, or asked her head to come down.  Each response she offered had a softer and more thoughtful action. 

By the end of the session the wrinkles that had been above her eyes were gone, her head was low, and she was finally breathing at a normal rate.  She seemed totally shocked that the session ended when it did.

The funny part was there were two other horses I’d started working with in the past few weeks, and they were in a turnout next to us.  As my session progressed, the two loose horses kept coming over and leaving and coming over and leaving after watching for a few minutes.  By the last quarter of the session the loose horses stood at full attention quietly watching what I was doing with the mare in the round pen…  I wonder what they were thinking.

My approach when working with horses irreverent of their age or experience, is to offer the horse a clean slate no matter how much they have “done” or been trained because in my experience behavioral issues arise due to a lack of solid foundation and communication.  I am always amazed at “how much” stress horses experience on a regular basis caused by people who demand things of the animal all the while having a complete disregard towards what the horse is thinking or feeling.

At some point, the horse reaches their “breaking point” and although he may have tolerated doing a task that was asked of him, once he is pushed beyond his comfort zone, the dramatic responses appear, from an unwillingness to be caught, to a lack of ability to stand still, to spookiness, to dangerous behaviors.  There are only so many ways a horse can tell a person he is having a problem, and often the initial “quiet” ways the horse tries to convey his concern, fear or worry is ignored, and so he has to magnify his behavior until he can no longer be ignored.

So in the case of the mare I was working with, obviously a human had their own “agenda” without considering the horse or what she needed from the human to “feel better.”  Why did she “yield” and do the tricks?  I don’t know.  I still don’t understand why as many horses put up with people hammering away on them as they do.  But the real point here is to assess as I work with this horse and decipher what she needs from me, in order help her get mentally and emotionally quiet, so that she can physically relax when being worked with.

One last point that you may ask is, if she is so jumpy and tense, why would she get so quiet when she bowed?  My thought is that she probably discovered the only time she was “left alone” was when she complied by doing a trick.  So her willingness to do them is probably her way of finding an “okay” moment when near a human.