Old Horse, New Owner
Two months ago we rescued a 22-yr. old TB gelding…we don’t know much
about him as we got him from a private source instead of a rescue site.
Anyway, he was extremely underweight but we now have his weight within 200
lbs. of what it should be…1000 lbs. according to the vet. We heard through
rumors that he’s a ex barrel racer, which is neither here nor there to us
because we bought him for ($200.00) for the simple fact that he was starving
to death. We de-flead him, de-loused him, de-fungused him, de-mited him,
wormed him, floated his teeth, got his shots and we’re treating him for a
fungus of the feet at the vet’s instructions. When we first got him we
became first time horse owners but this is something I’ve wanted for many
many years. We have learned by reading, asking, trial and error. I don’t
expect much from this old guy but respect, love, and an occasional Sunday
afternoon stroll through the woods. I’m finding that this is easier said
than done. I was told by a rescue center to go on and ride him because it
gives the old ones something to live for. Therefore, I bought the saddle,
pad, bridle, bit, etc… and dressed him up one Sunday afternoon and we had a
lovely stroll. He was a real gentleman and I was so proud of us. The next
day after arriving home from work I anticipated another leisurely stroll.
Was I ever wrong! He acted like a gentleman while I put his gear on him, he
tried to move a little while I mounted but he responded to whoa quite well.
I headed him out our lane, got twenty feet, he turned around and went back
to where I had just geared him and stood there. I backed him up, turned him
and we got about twenty feet again and it was the same thing. So I thought
we’d head toward the back of the property and we did get further but when he
had enough he just turned around to head back to where we started. I
tried to turn him back to go the opposite direction but we only went in
circles either right or left while he was in back up motion. He would
respond to whoa but the minute I tried to rein him one direction or the
other we ended in circles/backing. As I headed back toward the barn, he was
a perfect gentleman. When we got to where we originally started I decided I
wasn’t giving up that easily so I just sat there. He started pulling on the
reins harder and harder and eventually they burned right out of my hands. I
was frustrated by now so I dismounted, picked up the reins and figured well
old boy you’re going to take a walk. I took him out of the lane and we walked
up and down the dirt road until I was pooped out but he was really nice
about it. I got back on him and we nicely rode into the yard where I
dismounted, tied him up and let him stand a bit with his stuff on and he
could care less. I took his gear off, put his halter on him and led him back
to the barn. He went so nicely. I was heart broken because I really wanted to
ride him. A couple of days later we decided to try him again. My hubby and I
brought him out by halter and lead and put his gear on. My hubby got on him
and it took a lot from me to get him to stand still. I led him from the yard
with my hubby on him and he went nicely. When my hubby took the reins it was
the same scenario. So I ended up leading him up and down the dirt rode with
hubby on his back. Hubby got tired of this routine and dismounted and I
mounted the horse. Same scenario. Hubby led him and led him and I said this
is ridiculous. Give me the reins and the horse started the circles and
backing into stuff. Hubby went and got gumdrops, which is the horse’s favorite
yummy and bribed him along. Again this is ridiculous, as we have now started
negative reinforcement with this horse. So I told hubby no more gumdrops as
the horse lost interest in them anyway. Again we go in circles while horse
is backing up into whatever he can back into. I figure he’s trying to dump
me so I’m paying close attention to what he’s doing. Then horse stops dead
still, refuses to move and no begging will help. I get off of horse and he
nicely leads into the yard. Ok, I don’t know if this guy’s in pain while
he’s being ridden (his back) or if he has developed bad habits from previous
ownerships and we have just helped reinforce those bad habits. I get told so
many different tactics from so many trying to be helpful that I don’t even
know where to begin. I believe I should treat him like he’s never been
ridden before and start from ground zero. I’ve been told to use a crop,
whip, lunge line, hire a trainer…on and on. I just believe he needs to be
lowered from the Alpha…the vet says he probably needs reconditioned.
He’s never tried to bite or kick. He’s actually quite nice and loving except
for the riding aspect. Now the other day he decided to try something new. We
have quit feeding him in the barn because he would stand in there all day
waiting on the next feeding. We moved his feed container to the end of his
pasture and there’s a gate at that end that I enter to pour his feed into
his feeder. He has an open access stall meaning he can go from the pasture
right into his stall and reverse to come out so he can actually meet me at
the feeder by the time I leave the barn with his feed and get to the gate.
So he met with head hanging over gate and trying to rush his head into the
bucket. He’s trying to help me get into the gate but since he’s on the other
side he’s pushing against me. I’m trying to get into the gate and he’s
trying to get into the bucket so I don’t really feel safe this time going
into the pasture to feed him. I head back toward the barn with him trotting
alongside the fence and he is in the stall waiting to be fed. We live out in
the middle of nowhere in Southern Ohio and hiring a trainer would entail
shipping one in. Also, we each work two jobs and are not both home at the
same time. Everything I read says to work with the horse daily but because
of schedules. I only hope that working 2-3 times a week would offer the same
results but in a longer period. Do you have any opinions, information,
suggestions you’d like to pass along? I am considering investing in the
materials for clicker training the horse but I’m wondering if I’m wasting my
time at this point?
First it is important for your own happiness to remember why you have wanted a horse for so long. If you search deeply into your heart you will realize/remember that you wish to share your love with such a magnificent creature as the horse. Horses are very connected with humans spiritually – more so than many other species. It is this connection that you are seeking, a connection that has no parameters. You can love this horse unconditionally without reservation or regard for an outer structure that imposes certain requirements before we allow ourselves to give love. Human perspective tells us that we need to receive love; Spirit knows that we live to give love to fulfil our soul’s purpose and live joyously. This is why you have chosen a rescue horse, a horse that is deeply in need of loving care, one that will receive what your soul longs to offer. To some extent your reading and listening to others has caused you to forget your soul’s intent. Thus you have imposed certain requirements on this horse, for example, that he give you some “respect, love, and an occasional Sunday afternoon stroll through the woods.” This is human consciousness telling you what you should be entitled to receive for all you’re giving. However, horses don’t keep score as we do. Your fellow doesn’t equate the de-bugging, feeding, and all the other gifts you have given him with loving and respecting you. Nor would he enumerate his requirements of you if he were to give you the restful stroll you desire. His experiences have been such that just his being willing and primarily polite is testimony to his character. You have a very fine horse there!
You understand how important food has become to him. Starving animals begin to loose interest in food as their situation worsens. Now that you have lovingly removed him from that plight, you can expect him to become more anxious about food for a long time. This is a good thing. You have given him the opportunity to feel alive again, to have the energy to engage in the goal of staying alive and enjoying some of the good things life has to offer. You have given him back the gift of wanting to live, and that’s a wondrous thing. You don’t need to fear him when he’s overzealous about eating. Truly his desire is to get that wondrous food into his mouth, not to hurt you. Eating abundantly again is akin to a miracle for him.
He does feel discomfort from your first lovely stroll. It’s been a long time since he was used. Most of his previous under-saddle experiences were not restful, joyful, or inviting. Your one enjoyable stroll adds to the positive side of budding relationship, but it isn’t enough to remove all of the stored impressions. He has come to you with a lot of pre-programming, or baggage. It will help you and your hubby if you give yourselves more time to succeed with your new friend, seeing this not as your failure, or your horse’s, but as your commitment to get to know him and establish a relationship that is rewarding for all three of you, knowing that this can be a very long process but one that is well worth the commitment.
Your instinct to begin again with him is genuine, not because he is unrideable, but because it establishes a sense, or tone, of patience; a feeling of a process, an open-ended, flowing, ongoing feeling. The rescue operation folks were speaking in a general sense from their experience regarding giving the older horse something to live for. While that’s true of the horses, particularly whose experiences have been primarily positive, your particular fellow doesn’t feel that way. He feels retired, and the “something to live for” in his case is the living itself, having good food and loving care.
From a riding perspective, remember to sit back when he backs up – not with shoulders behind the vertical but will your seat firmly in the saddle, with a driving forward sense, so that you “close the door” through which he is backing up and invite him to go forward. At the same time remember to release forward with the reins so that he has an open door in front.
You don’t need a trainer for this loving project. What is needed above all is patience with him and you, and to release you from judgments of success or failure. Rather than import a trainer, could you import a friend with a quiet, non-competitive horse (I’m seeing a small mare) to go out with you, inspiring your horse to willingness? Make these rides as much fun as possible for him, praise abundantly, tell him how much you love and appreciate him. Even a tiny stroke of your fingers on his withers will say, “You’re great. This is fun!” much the way you would touch the arm of a friend.
What he doesn’t need is for you to become “alpha”. He isn’t in the state of commandeering the role of boss. Deprivation, pain, sorrow cause one to shrink inside ones self. Focus becomes inner. Just as people in distress become very introverted and unwilling or unable to focus on the needs of others, so do animals. Your horse is still inner-focused, trying to preserve and protect himself. You know that is no longer necessary, but he doesn’t. He’s not actually seeing you and your husband in the sense that he has no attention to give to other’s needs and desires – yet. This is perfectly natural, and only time will give him the luxury of outer focus. When he feels sated emotionally and physically, he will have the ability to take your desires into consideration.
You can use food to motivate him. As silly as it sounds, ten feet beyond where he turns to go back to the barn, have a wide, flat bucket (to prevent snagging his bit) with a few mouthfuls full of grain. When he starts to spin, have your hubby lead him to the grain. Then let him walk peacefully home. When he’s habituated to going the extra ten feet, move the bucket further out and repeat. He’s not unlike us in that he is willing to work for a “paycheck”. Eventually he will work for the love of the doing, but he isn’t aware of that aspect yet. Clicker training can be used in a similar way.
Working with him 2-3 times a week or whenever you’re able is fine. Since he’s not an untrained horse, and since he feels “retired”, your schedule suits him.
Remember that you chose this particular horse for a reason. However, there is no judgment if you choose not to pursue this relationship. If you choose to replace him with a less challenging individual, you can feel good that you rescued him and gave him your loving care. And you can put love into helping him to find a suitable home.
On the other hand, if you give yourself permission to enjoy his gentlemanly ways on the ground, enjoy being the kind soul who provides the food and care, enjoy grooming him and just “having a horse”, you will reach your goals with him. As in all things, when we let go and allow, we give the Universe the opportunity to help us to realize our dreams.