When we sat down to chat, Cheryl said one of the things she wanted to work towards was a very specific problem: Tia was becoming more and more difficult with the trimmer. J, her trimmer, was very patient, not at all aggressive, took the time it takes – but things weren’t getting any better. Tia had turned threatening to bite into actual biting, and her kicking with her hind legs was getting dangerous. In fact, the past visit, J had not fully trimmed all four feet as he felt it would not be safe to do so.
This was interesting – particularly as Tia was a horse who was generally very picky about who touched her where – being on her “off side” was guaranteed to get pinned ears and a grumpy face, even when it was her owner, Cheryl, who was doing it.
In many other ways Tia was just fine: her groundwork was good, her attitude was positive and she was a willing playful partner to Cheryl.
It just seemed strange that she would have such issues.
The first thing I did, was watch.
When we went out to the field, I asked Cheryl to show me how Tia was with her feet. Cheryl went round, picking up each foot in turn and picking out the hoof. I noticed that Tia was definitely not happy with Cheryl on her off side – AND that her reactions seemed to be to be “reflex” rather than deliberate attempts to hurt Cheryl. It felt to me as if she almost couldn’t help herself from swinging her head round, pulling grumpy faces – and pulling her back legs around so much that Cheryl admitted she was well above a 5 on the unconfidence scoring when even thinking of doing her feet.
Now when any horse finds it hard to tolerate touch anywhere – my first thought is – what about the Friendly game? This is the name Pat Parelli has given to the game of being able to touch your horse anywhere and get a positive reflex. If you can’t stand in certain places, or touch certain areas without a negative reaction – then the friendly game isn’t working for you.
Of course we don’t need a game to know this – but sometimes having names and games make it a lot easier for the human to understand what is going on.
Basically, what I saw in front of me, was a horse who was NOT happy being touched, having her legs handled, having people on one side – and a horse who felt it was necessary to defend herself.
At this point, most people would probably spend a lot of time analysing why this had happened, how it had developed – etc etc. However, the trimmer was due the next day, so while this might have been an interesting discussion, it wasn’t necessary: all we had to do was understand what was happening now, and change it.
Luckily, one of the things I spend a lot of time doing – is understanding humans and horses…..
So if we take the premise that she was doing these behaviours because she felt she had to – she felt the need to defend herself, she did not feel safe and so these instinctive defensive behaviours were kicking in (literally)
That meant the change we needed was to help her feel safe, so safe she didn’t NEED to defend herself.
Great – we knew the WHAT – but as for the HOW – that’s a whole different challenge!
There were several things that came into my mind:
One was that it would be useful for Tia to understand the difference between “friendly” touch and “I’m asking you to do something” touch…until she could tell that difference, we had no way of using touch to help her feel safe.
Another thing was that it would be really useful if Tia had a different way of telling us she was feeling worried – if we could give her a way of telling us that didn’t involve grumpy faces, biting or kicking out – that would be great!
For the first thing – I did a session of simply friendlying Tia’s legs: using a clearly firm touch, stroking up and down from fetlock to knee/hock until I felt she was relaxed. At first she was tense, lifting her feet – so I kept going until I could run my hands up and down her leg without her needing to move. When she relaxed I would step away. At first on her off side, she seemed to “resent” the game – but as I kept going, she relaxed into it – realising that nothing more than standing there was being asked of her.
Then it was Cheryl’s turn to do this. It is a very vulnerable position to be in – down there, rubbing from knee to fetlock – you have to be very sure about your ability to predict what your horse will do to feel safe down there – so one thing Cheryl and I still have to do is work out HOW I know I am safe when I am doing this….that might be a blog for the future….
This was already a big change in Tia – we were now able to simply rub her legs without stress, without her needing to defend herself. This was part way to feeling safe with the trimmer.
Now for the second part: could we find a way for her to communicate to us more safely than her current choices? So that is she DID feel stressed, we humans would still be safe?
The first horse I ever owned, Poppy, was a very complicated horse: she was worried, scared of many things and had a habit of gritting her teeth and appearing to tolerate things – and then suddenly and unpredictably exploding with rather serious consequences. I struggled to tell the difference between her really relaxing with something (eg movement of the whip, ropes etc) and her just tolerating it building up to an explosion.
So I didn’t really feel very confident or safe around her – an unreadable horse is an unpredictable horse – which does nothing for the human’s confidence.
I decided with Poppy, to give her a way to tell me when things were getting too much for her. To give her a way to tell me to STOP! I thought if she learned that she had control over something, and could stop it anytime she was worried – then that would help her feel a LOT safer. After all, it would do that for me.
And I had an idea how to do this: I had learned to ask Poppy to put her head down as part of my natural horsemanship lessons. Asking with pressure on the poll from my hand, and releasing (by sliding my hand back to her withers) when she lowered her head was something that worked well for us. Of course, the fact that lowering the head also automatically releases endorphins that are calming also occurred to me as something that would be useful here.
Poppy had always struggled with the Friendly game – using my carrot stick and string around her, however rhythmically, however much repetition – she always seemed tense and slightly worried….so I decided to use a combination of this friendly game and the head down work to show her how SHE could control how much pressure I put her under and communicate without NEEDING to explode.
I rested my hand on her withers and started rhythmically swinging the stick and string – she seemed ok at first, but I wasn’t totally sure how relaxed she was – so I asked her to lower her head and, as soon as she did – I stopped moving the stick and string.
I did this three times.
On the third time, she kept her head down and licked and chewed after a few minutes.
On the fourth time – I had moved the stick and string about half a dozen times and she lowered her head without my hand moving – so I stopped
We did this a few times – and it was obvious she had “got it”.
Interestingly, some people told me I was wrong to do this – making a rod for my own back in that she was bound to use this against me! They had a vision of Poppy lowering her head and stopping me from doing anything.
I found the opposite to be true – she did this very seldom, but when she did, I ALWAYS honoured it.
This paid off big time one day: I was in a field where we had been doing groundwork very well and had ridden successfully many times. I mounted her from the ground and the instant I hit the saddle, she PLUNGED her head to the ground. I practically jumped off her – as my feet hit the ground, she tore the rope reins from my hand and went across the field, broncing and bucking in the most athletic and terrifying way. When she finally stopped, quivering, we took the saddle off – and found that the saddle was damaged in a way that meant it was digging right into her back as soon as my weight hit it.
With all that stress and pain – she had communicated to me. I had listened. This really brought home to me the power of giving the horse a means of communication.
Back to Tia: I thought this could help her. We used me handling a big bouncy ball, and Cheryl lowering Tia’s head to show her that when she lowered her head, the ball would stop bouncing, or move safely away from her. She seemed to pick this up quite quickly, although we only did it until a good try then stopped, ready to let her have some dwell time and practice again in the morning.
It was a lovely sunny morning, and J the trimmer arrived early. He was very happy to find out that we had been working with Tia and agreed to spend as long as we needed – and follow my coaching with the aim of helping Tia become easier to trim.
J trimmed Bonny, Cheryl’s other horse first. While Cheryl held the lead rope, I held Tia’s rope and made a subtle but consistent job of standing at her shoulder on her off side. She moved herself a couple of times to put me on her other side, but I just put myself back in position as softly as possible, rubbing her to reassure her this was a friendly thing and she had no need to be concerned. She started relaxing while I stood there.
J was now ready for Tia. I explained that we had got her used to having her legs rubbed as a sign of friendly and to relax, and that while he was trimming and Cheryl was holding her lead rope I would be watching her closely and, if she put her head down I would ask him to give her foot back, gently place it on the ground, and rub slowly up and down from knee to fetlock.
I did not want him just dropping the foot – that would be uncomfortable for her and would not help her feel safe handing her feet over; I also did not want him just putting the foot down and walking away – that might cause her to think she could avoid any handling by her behaviour. Gently placing the foot on the ground and then friendlying her leg seemed an ideal way of saying “hey, don’t worry, you are safe — of COURSE you can have your foot back whenever you need it, and I will rub you to show you how safe you are”.
I also said that after counting to 5, he could ask her to offer her foot again. This gave her a break, while still making it clear this was something we needed to do.
J was happy to try this, so he asked for her first foot – the easiest one, her front left. He started trimming, and although she tolerated it for a while, she then very clearly started getting agitated – she pulled her leg a bit – wobbled a bit – and then , very clearly (from where I was standing) – lowered her head! I asked J to stop – and he put her foot down and rubbed her leg. We waited a bit – then when J asked, she offered her foot up with no problem. After a short while, she lowered her head again – and J stopped and rubbed. Now, instead of pulling her leg free, or leaning, or swinging her head round to bite J – she was simply lowering her head and we were listening to her. This was working.
Now it was time for the front foot on her OFF side – remember, she didn’t like people on her off side and this was a foot J had not fully trimmed on the last visit as one of his trimming positions left him VERY vulnerable to being bitten. We did the same thing: I watched closely and J followed my suggestions Very quickly, Tia realised she didn’t need to bite or move her leg – and was using her head to communicate to us. J was able to fully trim the front foot while feeling completely safe.
This was turning into a win/win – horse AND trimmer feeling safe and the job getting done!
Now it was time for the hind feet – and I decided to take advantage of J’s ability to cooperate to take this to the next level.
When J picked up her hind leg, Tia lowered her head – almost as a reflex – so I asked J to just hold the leg where it was – and rub it – not lower it, or go any further, simply stay where he was, rubbing – I was watching Tia’s eye – it was still soft, and as he rubbed her leg, Tia slowly brought her head back up – and J was able to continue working on her foot with her feeling safe.
A couple of times Tia lowered her head and I asked J to put her leg down and rub – other times I would say to him just stay there for a bit and rub – I was watching her eye, and if it stayed soft I would say to her “can you just hold on for a minute or two and see how it feels?” and she would slowly raise her head again – as if she was worried then realised it was ok. If her eye was hard, or starey – I would tell J to put the foot down, as that was a time to go “I hear you, don’t worry, we want you to feel safe…..we are listening to you….”
On the last leg – Tia lowered her head, I asked J to just stay where he was and rub her leg – and she blew out. She actually blew out and relaxed WHILE he was holding her foot. This was HUGE!!!
J finished trimming her.
He was VERY happy – he now told us that after the last visit, he had rated Tia as on the top 5 most difficult horses to trim. And today she had been TOTALLY different.
He was so impressed he took my number – he is going to suggest that some other clients of his contact me for a session or two to see if they can achieve such changes in their horses.
Cheryl has asked me to be there at the next trim in May, to make sure we consolidate the good work.
And Tia? Well, it was all much easier and less stressful for her too, and J was able to stroke her on her off side without any negativity or defensiveness after this session….
That’s a pretty good day’s work in my book
I could sit here and draw lots of principles and morals from this story – but I have written quite enough – I would rather that others add comments saying what YOU are taking away from this story…..
Yours in confidence