When Kimberlee Strauss was asked to participate in the Equine Comeback Challenge, a program developed by A Home For Every Horse, she wasn’t familiar with the contest.
“They had 10 trainers for the contest, then two were unable to participate,” said Strauss. “My name was given to them through one of the farm managers at Lollypop Farm (the Humane Society of Greater Rochester) as one of the rescues that was participating. I went out and visited Rico Suave, the horse that was available, to see what the prospects of having him ready for a 90-day challenge would be.”
Rico had been at the rescue for several months; one of 16 horses seized in April 2014 as part of a widely publicized animal cruelty case in Wayne County, New York. The eight-year old Thoroughbred stallion was skin and bones, with hair so matted that it was impossible to cut off without causing him pain. On the Henneke Body Condition score for horses, Rico fell into the ‘poor’ category — extremely emaciated with visible bone structure and no fatty tissue.
Shortly after Rico was moved to Lollypop Farm, he was gelded and put on a diet to help him gain weight slowly. “When I went to meet see him, he was with another buddy that had also just been gelded,” said Strauss, fully aware that Rico might be emotionally shut down. “When I called his name, he picked up his head and looked at me. I held out a water bottle to see if there was a spark there. If a horse is really shut down, you won’t get very far. I held out the bottle, and he was nudging and nosing it. I thought, this horse has been through so much and yet he’s still curious and inquisitive.”
Strauss agreed to participate in the Challenge, and started working with Rico at Renegade Wind: The Horse-Human Revolution — her training facility in Honeoye, NY. She had noticed that Rico had white hairs, indicating scarring, around the withers; most likely from an ill-fitting saddle. Later, an equine chiropractor found a calcium deposit where the back of the saddle would sit, which could be congenital or from an injury where calcium was deposited during healing. Strauss concluded the combination of the scarring, a likely calcium deposit and obvious left side weakness, particularly his left hind leg, meant that Rico had probably been injured. Although there is no way to know for certain, Strauss believes that an early training injury prevented Rico from going to the track and he was basically discarded.
Rico had another issue: he was a cribber. “When horses are kept in a solitary, stressful environment, some horses that are predisposed to this behavior experience a breakdown in their dopaminergic system,” said Strauss. “That’s the system that controls dopamine, which is the hormone that’s involved with motivation and learning. They have higher amounts of this hormone in their body telling them ‘you have to do something’ yet they’re confined and there’s nothing to do. Some will stall walk, some weave and some crib, and others will be creative and come up with other stereotypies but it’s all coming from the same root cause. Endorphins are released with cribbing. He cribs, he feels good.”
In researching cribbing, Strauss found that starchy food exacerbates the behavior. As a clicker trainer, Strauss focuses on and rewards positive behavior. However, using treats to reward Rico for positive behavior wasn’t an option. “The more treats I gave him, the more he wanted to crib,” she said. “I’ve been scratching him as a reward, and he’s cribbing a lot less.”
When Strauss acquires a horse to work with, she spends several weeks creating a bond with the horse. With Rico, she sat in the turnout and allowed him to come to her. “I didn’t ask him to do anything,” she said, adding that it takes time to cultivate a working relationship. “I just spent time and hand-grazed him.”
Strauss didn’t believe that Rico had been abused, but he was clearly a case of severe neglect. She also knew that there was a good chance Rico had a negative impression of being ridden. But when she walked him through the obstacle arena, it was clear that nothing bothered him too much. “I could see that he had a good mind, so I made sure he was always successful,” she said. “The only thing that upset him was being with other horses. He was a stallion and probably confined to a stall with little social interaction.”
When Rico was ready, Strauss introduced the saddle and a Dr. Cook bitless bridle. She added more in-hand work, ground driving, lunging and strength training. But mounting Rico while he was still gaining weight and strength was out of the question. “If a horse is going to hold a rider, we have to help them develop athletically,” she said. “The horse’s abs have to be developed so he can hold his back for the rider.”
When it came time for the Challenge completion, which was held during the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, Strauss’s goal was to walk Rico into the ring and go through the obstacles. Although some horses found new owners through the Challenge, Rico’s forever home will be with Strauss. “I really like him,” she said. “I want to finish the work I started with him. I don’t want his life to be more unsettled than it has been. There’s no rush. He hasn’t been ridden in eight years, and he isn’t going anywhere.”
Strauss has a clear goal for all of her training work: “I want to develop a ‘next generation’ of horsemen and women who have a real heart for the horse and look to science, research and equine ethology as a foundation for what they do instead of the conventional horsemanship that I was taught,” she said. “Every day I learn something from the horses. So much of their communication is so nuanced — there’s so much going on that we don’t catch it all. In an age where everyone wants to go the route of the ‘horse whisperer,’ I tell my students to be a ‘horse listener’. Pay attention to what the horse is telling you.”
Visit Renegade Wind: The Horse-Human Revolution at www.kimberleestrauss.com.