Zebodees Feather, (or “Zeb”), was eight years old when I first saw him. A client in Alabama purchased him when I was in the Northeast for the summer, so I met him after they had him for three months. As all trainers find out, sometimes they are presented with a horse and owner to work with which, at least initially, is not a good “fit”. Often a bond has already been established between the horse and her owner. Unless I consider the situation to be unsafe, or the owner is expecting a potential in the finished horse that is highly unlikely, I always agree to work with them.
In this instance the clients I worked with consisted of the owner, a well-read and intelligent and empathetic person, her 20 year old daughter, and Anita, an experienced older horsewomen who was their friend and would help them carry out my directives. With this motivated group I felt that the “Zeb project” was a good possibility.
One of the most important facets of my job when I am presented with a new horse is to find out as much as possible about his previous history. They have marvelous memories, and their actions and reactions are based on what they have and have not experienced. Zeb was going to be a horse that would require much thought throughout the schooling process. He was eight years old, sound and healthy, but had been virtually ignored for most of his life. He had been turned out in a pasture and stalled at times, but that was it. He only knew how to lead.
I think Arabians are a highly sensitive and intelligent breed. It is especially important to determine the reason behind their behavior. The only work my clients had done with Zeb so far was getting him accustomed to being stalled and groomed. He had not even had farrier work done. Unless the animal is a range horse or a mustang, it is unusual to find a horse so untouched.
My initial impression of Zeb was that he was very uncertain, had no self confidence, and was quite fearful. One mistake that the daughter had already made was giving Zeb too many treats. She also had been doing things like kissing him on the nose. Zeb had not yet established a relationship with people. He was very volatile and not certain of what was expected of him. Nothing had been asked of him yet, and I could tell that he was misinterpreting this treatment. He was disrespectful, but it was not his fault. He had no idea how he SHOULD respond.
The first day I worked with Zeb he was responding to any stimulus with mistrust and fear. This could have quickly resulted in safety concerns such as kicking, or panicking and bumping into his handler’s “space”. At first I had him held while I did body work on him, stroking him firmly with my hands to determine where he would and would not accept physical contact. I then took a flexible dressage whip and stroked him with that. It was important to do this as if the whip was an extension of my hand and arm, and to stroke him firmly but gently to inspire confidence. The worst thing to have done would be to frighten him on purpose.
Zeb started to accept the whip and relax and develop the “soft eye” that I was seeking. I then demonstrated to the owner a leading exercise using the whip as a type of guide for Zeb. I held it well in front of me as a physical barrier, and I then would lower it and “open the door” as I asked him to walk forward. I then slowly moved it in front of him when I halted him so that he started to understand the command to walk and to stop without much use of the lead rope. The whip could also be used between Zeb’s shoulder and the handler if Zeb tried to crowd her. The owner then practiced this and Zeb started to show his awareness of her and to listen to her. This was important, as before he was not relating to us, and this can be a safety concern.
I then wanted to start Zeb free lungeing, so that he would start paying attention to the body language of people as well as verbal commands. I used an outdoor rectangular enclosure which had good footing and was the size of a large riding ring. There were three people to act as “guides” for him, so this size was ideal. Zeb would have panicked in a smaller ring or a round pen; I did not want him to become claustrophobic.
Anita, since she would be helping the owners between my visits, stayed at the far end. I had the owner in the middle and I was in the “start-up” corner near the barn. Our objectives this first time were to teach Zeb to move only to the left, to stay as close to the fence as possible, to start to relate to us concerning body language and voice, and to become relaxed.
I was pleased that Zeb did not panic when we started. Occasionally a horse will misinterpret and start galloping nervously. My intention was just to have him moving and keeping his distance while I started to teach him the kinesthetic and verbal language for “walk”, “trot”, and “whoa”.
Everyone started to learn the “dance” involved when starting a horse free lunging. He was extremely sensitive to movement. We all carried lunge whips to use as extensions of our arms, but found it necessary to hardly move them at all. He quickly started to interpret signals to stay out and stay to the left. He walked and trotted, and after about 10 minutes when I said “whoa”, and lowered my body and dropped my outside shoulder he actually stopped and after a time came up to me.
This was a huge accomplishment for Zeb. I had the owner take my place and stroke him, and then directed everyone to turn and walk away from him and go outside the ring and give him a mental break. I emphasized to everyone never to snap the whip, and to use the least amount of movement possible to accomplish our goals. It was also important that we not push him physically. Free lunging and lunging is not used to tire a horse out to make him amenable — for Zeb at this point it was to gain his trust as he started to learn to work.
After a 10-minute break we went in and again free lunged him for about 10 minutes. He showed progress and this time halted twice for the owner. I then put a lunge line on him and just led him in a small circle, using the whip passively to start to explain to Zeb to walk a distance from me-the beginning of regular lunging. This was the time to stop the session. Always end when you get a positive response from the horse. This is especially true if it is an exercise that had proved difficult for him to understand or is mentally or physically challenging.
In the next installment groundwork leading to the first mounting session will be included.