It's been almost a year since I adopted Jack Tripper, a bay gelding of mixed Arab heritage (or so I thought, til the stocky bay Quarter Horse stepped cautiously off the trailer) and decided to try my hand at a serious rehab case. Not so much physical, that had been well handled by the foster family chosen by the Nebraska Humane Society when they removed him and several other horses from a Mexican rodeo situation. The horses were emaciated and showed signs of the hours of chasing and tripping they endured. In all fairness to the guys doing the backyard rodeo, these were all horses purchased off a slaughter truck, horses with no future, that no one cared about, anymore. It's not a sport I condone or support, whatsoever, but I understand it's their heritage, and this is not a judgement of that activity, although I'd sure like to see them give it up, but it's not for me to say.
Jack peeked out of the trailer, surveying the new world he'd arrived at, wondering, I am sure, what was in store for him now. Talking to his previous foster owners, they said he was unpredictable, damaged beyond saving, would bolt and jump fences rather than be caught. They also said someone had done work with this horse at some time in his life, when not terrified out of his wits, he was halter broke to the bone, and wouldn't take the slack out of the line . . .until something frightened him. Then, he was gone and there was no holding him.
I played with him on that cold February day, letting him see and smell me, nothing about the horse looked too looney so far. Unfortunately, I took too much for granted and against my own better judgment, tied him to a post the next day, while doing things in the barn. He spooked, pulled back and ended up beating his face against the post until he tangled in the rope and choked himself down. Well, Terri, that's a hell of a way to get started with him, I thought, as I cut through my expensive Parelli lead rope in effort to get him free before he was too far gone to save. I could just hear that phone call . . . "you know that horse you brought me on trial? Well, you won't have to worry about him, I killed him off already." Luckily for me, and for Jack, he took a deep shuddering breath and jumped to his feet. Back in his stall he went, me muttering under my breath about how I so should have known better than to tie that horse, with his history.
"He won't eat, with people around, or drink either." That's another thing I'd been told. So, I parked myself in the stall with my poor black eye'd horse. He looked like he'd gone several rounds with a much meaner fellow . . . I cracked the stall door in case he decided to chase me out of there, but he didn't then nor has he since showed an aggressive inclination or angry bone in his body. Not too long passes, and he's munching hay, a wary eye (the one he can see out of) cocked my way. I am listening to the radio, and my knees are killing me. It's COLDDDD!! Eventually, he lifts his head, takes a few swift glances at me and then over the course of the next few songs, inches his way, baby step by step til he's facing me. I am stiff frozen, thinking, well if he comes for me, he can have me, no way can I move fast now. A tentative nose extends my way. I stay still. He sniffs my jacket and then to my complete amazement, flips the flap on my pocket. Startling himself, he backs away and watches to see what I am going to do next. I still stay still, but I am smiling inside and I believe he felt that. We did that for several days. He let me put a rope on his neck and wash and clean the cuts over his right eye. I'd move him around in the stall, take him out to the round pen for exercise and that's about what we did til he healed up.
I did circle work with him, taught him to yield his hips, and he always stayed soft on the rope. (You have to wonder who took him to that sale, after all the work it would have taken getting a horse that soft, and if they had any idea what kind of fate they were assigning their horse to . . .)Haltering him took an act of God and rather than get in a fight about it, I worked on desensitizing his poor battered face, and got him to accept the stick and string swinging around his body. Smart horse, he'd figured out if he ran, he got tripped, so the hazers whipped him pretty good to get him to move out. The first time I laid that string across his back I didn't know what to expect. He'd gasp, eyes would go dull and blank, and he'd hold his breath. I'd just keep swinging that string, as soft and sweet as I could manage, petting him with it, and eventually he'd come back to himself. He would look at me with huge wide eyes, and lick and chew like he would never stop. He got to where he could manage quite a bit of activity with that thing swinging around and touching all over his body. We got a ways last year, developed a rope game where he would play with the lines figure eighted around his neck, and that was his stress relief. The day he started yawning, releasing stress til his eyes rolled back in his head, I cried my eyes out too, heck I did almost every time I worked with him. You could see how hard he struggled to be present and overcome his deep, deep fears and worries. Then, the paying training horses showed up and Jack went out to pasture.
I have noted in different posts and blogs how his education has continued, mostly in a very indirect fashion. Jack is an audience horse. The first time I mounted a horse in the round pen, with him only 30 feet away at a nearby round bale, again, I had no idea what to expect. Our fences are nothing to write home about and I only hoped he'd not get to the highway before he quit running, should he choose to head out and jump to freedom. As I stepped up on my mare, having turned her so I could watch him as I went up, his head flew up and I could see the whites of his eyes clear from where I was standing in my stirrups. Jack looks hard at the horse close to him, one of my broodmares who is not the least affected by ANYTHING that goes on as far away as the round pen, as if to say "come ON! Don't we have to run??" "You can, if you want to" says fat and lazy mare, "me, I'm gonna eat." And she does. Jack looks back at me, now riding slow circles on the green horse, and back at the chowing down mare again. He snatches hay, and puts his eyes right back on us. We are busy doing our own thing now, and he sighs, and sinks his nose into the friendly bale. He's done all kinds of things since then, which look to me like passive learning, and testing to make sure we really are safe for him.
Bringing us up to THIS year and how Jack goes to work. Feeling the need to train, this being the first year in about 15 that I don't have outside training horses lined up (well, except a few that aren't here yet), I caught him and Moonshine the other day. That endeavor was just about all day, in itself as neither of those ponies are much for volunteering for the halter. First day back at it went really well. Soft reminders of what all he used to know, and still does. Smart, smart horse. I told him last year I may never have seen a more scared horse in my life, but I sure have seen a whole ton of goofier ones.
Second day, not as good. I put him in the round pen, for the first time, and worked on teaching him to face up and hook up, instead of presenting me with a bay butt view any time I want to catch him. Best thing, I didn't send him soaring over it, though we do have a couple more bent panels from him really, really reviewing his options. Worst, could NOT get a halter on that horse to save my life or his. He spun away from me, bolted off, burnt my hands a little when I argued the point. It was the worst and most frustrating day we have had, excepting that one that I almost killed him off. I put his sweated, lathery self in the barn in a stall to chill out, and I worked some other horses (remembered why I adore my sweet and incredibly SLOOOWWWW little Donovan horse . . . heart of gold, that fellow). Finally, I slow down and figure out where we are at, rather than insisting on where I want us to be . . . no bend in the neck, no softness in him at all. All brace and refusal. I breathe down, get him to breathe down too, his head lowers, and I rub his face with the halter. I wait for him to acknowledge, and believe me, I did not want to. I wanted him to halter up, right now. It's a simple thing, says my human mind, you should NOT have a problem with this!
Acknowledging that he DID have a problem with it was probably the best thing I did for him all afternoon. It doesn't really matter what I think about where we should be at, in his training, he's the one having it done, he's the one that has to be okay with it all, if things are going to go the way I want them to . . . soft, easy and quiet. And that's how he haltered after I quit trying to get it done on my time schedule. He was going to need to try, it's not like he can just take his face away from me and I am going to say, oh well, okay, you aren't good with this, we'll do something else . . . uh NO. But, what I will do, is say, okay, what I can I do to help you understand this is okay for you, and no, you can't shove me out of the way just because you don't like what I am doing, and if you put your head way over on the other side of your body, I am going to keep asking you to bring it back til you figure out this isn't bad for you, really, at all. I released to him any time he'd soften, which wasn't much but it was enough and when he wore his halter, it was after he'd reached his nose through it when I finally got it open enough.
We still had "stuff" go on, and in light of the photos we got today, I wish I had some of that, because a person can look at these photos and say, well that horse doesn't look too tough, what the heck is she going on about?
The other days this week has been about reinforcing that face up and hook up lesson, which he did get, and he got it really well. Jack's coming halfway across the pen to find me now, and even walked all the way up when I was messing with Moonshine, and the pressure was off of him. Lots of rubbing, lots of handling that sensitive face . . . where is it okay? Where is it not? Approach and retreat. Asking him to gently bend that neck, lower that head. Trust me.
Today he stood tied again and to that same post in the barn. I did tie him a little last year, 22 foot line, with some wraps, no knots. Today it was a 14 foot line, some wraps, no knots. Was okay, I don't think he took the slack out of the line, except when I was moving his hindquarters around to help him loosen up, and he was finding his way about that. The other day, he'd pulled back some, but quickly jumped forward when I winched around a tree to keep him from running off and burning my hands again. I think he figures the last time he fought really hard, he got whacked in the eye with the side of a barn . . . Whatever he figures, there was a lot going on, horses coming in and out, being saddled, doing groundwork, rock n roll on the radio (had a guy ask me once if I only played that when they were bad . . . said, no, play it all the time :-), and he sweated himself up pretty good, eyes got big and bigger, but he never pulled and he didn't freak out. Not ever.
End of my day, hungry husband waiting for me to unsaddle, having had a FABULOUS posting ride on Moonshine, and a nice turn on the four year old Quarter Pony, Classic, I decided to get some photo ops with Jack. Didn't know, might be the katy bar the door, this one's coming thru! Or . . . they are what they are, a young horse accepting his saddle blanket, getting some love, just doing the deal. I introduced him to the barrel game today (sending through three barrels, set close together in a variety of patterns. Teaches a horse to follow a feel, handle themselves in squeezy situations, and to pay attention, as things change up.). Yeah, he goes through on finger points, didn't get worried about the narrow squeeze between the outside barrel and the barn. (Slippin, last year, spooked coming through there, kicked back and nearly relieved me of my head. She turned out all right . . .you'd think he might as well.) Wednesday, I was wondering why I'd put so much time in one bothered little grade bay gelding. Today, I have high hopes I have a horse.
3 months ago