The Chronicle of Lucky Star’s Rehabilitation
I never assume that a horse I will be working with has any idea of anything at all. We go directly to the round pen on the very first day and try a few tests of his skills and personality by asking him to move around the pen. If he is unschooled and just confused and/or scared, we will go through the lessons detailed in the discussion of Joining Up.
Horses are herd animals. They WANT to take a leader. When “joined” with you, your horse has decided to give his power to you. In natural surroundings, the leader is usually a dominant mare in the pasture. That same mare can present a problem to her human companions.
This is a chronicle of the rehabilitation of the most problematic mare I have ever handled when it came to respect issues. She was ultimately handled by several different trainers, but the sequence of events is as recorded here.
If you have a particularly dominant horse, you may run into a charging horse when you ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Stallions, late (proud) gelded geldings, head mares take longer to come down to a partnership because they are used to being a pasture leader. Horses who have led a life of pushy behavior, generally bullying their owners, can have some very nasty – dangerous – behaviors. When it comes to “Fight or Flight” they choose fight.
I recently was surprised by a Missouri Foxtrotter mare that I was led to believe was a nice riding horse. She had been abandoned by her owner at the boarding stables, and the stable owners wanted to evaluate her for either keeping as a lease horse or selling her.
She allowed us to halter her in the paddock and followed us to the round pen – a little jumpy, but she didn’t know us and hadn’t been handled for about 6 months, so we expected a little bit of tension.
Now you and I know that a 10 yr old, broke, gaited, Missouri Foxtrotter who is trained to ride has probably had some round pen and lunging experience. I was prepared for her to be unfamiliar with and misunderstand my exact signals. I was prepared for her to be a little up tight. What we didn’t expect was that she would totally freak out the first time I asked her (gently) to start moving around the outside edge of the pen.
She twirled toward me, did a purposeful half rear with ears flat and first struck out at me with her front feet than came lunging and bounding head-down in a bid to totally dominate me. She intended to make mince meat of me so that I didn’t bother her ever again.
I have to admit I was caught off guard. I didn’t even have my stick because we had seen her ridden and NEVER contemplated this. Knowing she probably wasn’t experienced with a stick, I had decided to leave it outside the ring so that I didn’t pressure her too much the first time. Luckily, she backed away when I got big and swung my rope and ran at her. It could have been much more disastrous. Lesson learned. Keep my stick with me when handling a new horse whether I need it or not.
Maybe this is a good time to say that an inexperienced handler should not tackle a charging horse. Even I was shocked at her speed and committed intent.
The Charging Horse – What to Do: When working through the Joining Up exercises, a horse begins to “Check in” and slowly ask to have a horse-to-horse “conversation” with you. That is very different from a horse who is looking right at you, head high, ears back, and coming in fast. Such a horse is contemplating or full-fledged charging you in a bid for dominance. This is a very good time to have a “handy-stick” to show her how unpleasant it can be to try such a maneuver. The 4 foot pole keeps her out of your space. You might have to actually hit her with it quickly and meaningfully to intimidate her. MAKE her retreat to the outside edge of pen NOW! Make her trot or canter for a prolonged time before she is allowed to stop. This is one trick you want to nip in the bud.
Well, that changed the tenor of the whole session. My energy level had been low and easy when I requested politely the first time. Now I raised my energy to match hers. I got the stick and sent the tip and string forcefully at her rear – no longer a request – now a demand – that she start moving around the edge of the pen at the fence.
She IMMEDIATELY did the same maneuver. Twirl toward me, rear up, pin the ears, snake the head and bounce toward me, striking with her front feet. I wasn’t intimidated this time. I was prepared. She got the nasty end of the stick. She got whacked on the cheek/neck, and then the whip caught her fanny as she whirled away. (If you have to use this maneuver, be wary of her back feet as well. A horse who charges will almost always also kick.)
She kicked up and double-barrelled at me with her back feet as she was run off. She was going to have the last word, even when moving away.
I forced her to move quickly around the pen. I cut her off and made her change direction several times. The fact that she turned INTO the fence was of no consequence at this time. I just wanted her to know that she WOULD TURN if I demanded it whether she liked it or not. There was a lot of pressure here. Be sure that the round pen is tall enough in case you get a jumper. Pop the stick at her. Run ahead of her and pop the stick to make her turn. Do it several times in a row. Turn. Turn. Turn. “Get the point. You WILL move your feet in the direction I tell you to move.”
The first round-penning with the mare took 1 hour and 15 minutes. She made EVERY turn INTO the fence with her rear to me. She charged several more times. She kicked, bucked and tried to take control for the first 45 minutes. She did not so much as look at me without aggressive intent – sizing me up for a meal as it were.
By 45 minutes, she was tiring. I don’t usually work a horse this long in the Joining Up sessions. It isn’t usually necessary. And my intent is not to wear her out (although that helped immensely). I merely wanted to show her that I am her leader using some push-back of my own.
I tried lowering my energy a little. I watched very carefully for her to look at me as she trotted around. At the very glance toward me that wasn’t aggressive, I backed up. If she actually stopped, I backed up and she rested.
You have to find a starting point no matter how small. In about 5 minutes, she was stopping parallel to the fence and watching me. I let her rest every time she was stopped and watching me. She was starting to catch on? Slow down and look at me, and I will relieve the pressure. She was occasionally chewing as she trotted more easily around. At the SLIGHTEST sign of her previous dominance behavior, she was pressured to trot fast around the pen again.
After two or three stops, I started to use the joining up formula on her. While she was stopped and looking at me, I circled toward her rear, keeping her attention on me. That required that she turn her head with me even though her body stayed still. When I was able to get completely behind her (never in the kick zone) she had her neck and head completely arced backward to make sure she did not lose sight of me.
If she lost attention on me, I made her move off and trot around the pen again.
When she stopped, she was too close to the fence and stopped on her front each time, so there was little opportunity to pressure her rear away or to get her to bring her front end around toward me as I walked toward her rear. She wouldn’t “peel” off of the fence. I just hoped I would get a slightly crooked stop a time or two so that I could walk far enough around her that it was uncomfortable to watch me without moving her front foot toward me or her rear a little away. However, there was precious little opportunity for that, so I changed the plan. I didn’t ask for her to make the 180 degree turn moving. We would accept a baby step: just stand still, watch me, MAYBE take a step in my direction – but at least remain calm and attentive.
I allowed her to stop, watch me move to her rear, and then I meandered back to the front again in a fairly casual manner. We did this several times until she seemed comfortable with my moving back and forth and her head came with me. I moved cautiously but not timidly closer to her head. Stopped. Allowed her to keep resting near me if she paid attention to me.
At 1 hour, she gently (with head sagging) turned and took a step toward me when I got to her front, then turned with me as I quietly walked back to the rear. YAY! She made the first 180 degree turn. We stopped and she got to rest – still fairly near me. We repeated this success about 5 times in a much quieter way for another 15 minutes. The turning with me turned into following me placidly. Then we ended the session. She quietly allowed me to snap the lead rope back onto her halter, and she walked calmly back to her paddock as if no bad blood had ever been spilled between us. She was sweaty, tired, and joined – at least on one side of her brain.
I chose to end the first session here on a successful note.
See signs of submission on the Discussions of Joining Up.
The goal of the 2nd session was to build on the success we had the day before. (Antonio took over the hard work of this and many following sessions)
Do I need to say that she tried all of the same maneuvers again? She gave vent to her usual, habitual dominance moves at the beginning of the session. This time it only took 30 minute to get the Join Up with Antonio. She remembered that life is more pleasant and less hard work if she lowers her energy and follows her handler as her leader.
She joined up in 5 minutes. She came in slowly, lowered her head, and stood. She was then invited to come closer and enjoy a face rub and some quality resting time. We were all relieved.
After about 5 minutes of companionship time, we tested her reaction to the up-close rope and the stick.
She seemed comfortable with the lead rope all over her body, tossing and twirling as long as we were 45 degrees to her shoulder and/or near her, asking for nothing more. We rubbed her down with it between tosses.
We reached out with the stick to scratch her withers, her rump, and rubbed her between her eyes with the rubber tip. She didn’t show any real fear of the tools or the handler in the up-close tests.
30 minutes of low pressure work and we let her rest for the day.
Warm up to Join Up in 5 minutes. A little rope tossing and rubbing.
Is it time to start a little line lunging? Could we skip a step and take her into lunging on line to get the real turn-into-us maneuver she wasn’t comprehending during the round penning?
Chelsea gave the line-lunge a quick try. BIG MISTAKE. She COULD get her to lunge IN SOME MANNER. However, being anywhere close to her while pressuring her to MOVE was dangerous. She simply wasn’t going to tolerate being pushed around.
Whether she was fighting out of dominance or fighting out of fear of up-close pressure, she needed IMMEDIATE training to keep her rear away from us at all times. It was still a finely tuned weapon if she was asked to do anything that involved moving. So we nixed the line-lunging and started the back-up and rear-disengagement exercises. It just doesn’t pay to skip a step.
If you have an aggressive horse, backing her up makes you vulnerable to her strike and her teeth, but it is one of the best exercises to cure forward behavior. Chelsea chose not to use a stick, but, depending on your abilities, it is usually best to use a handy stick during this training.
A dominant horse makes other horses move away and stay out of their space. We had to get it across to her that she had lost her head-horse position. Using a combination of the lead-snap and the marching chest-slap routine (with our body posture and rope), we forced her to back up, repeating the exercise for 15 minutes straight. She got the point and began to move backwards with energy by the end of the session. Now we had a tool to use when she objected to other up-close exercises. If she got pushy, we could force her to back up.
Next: Rear-Disengagement. A SURPRISE! A normal horse would never swing his rear end TOWARD you when you aggress his fanny. When we moved in to pressure her rear away from us with a firm tap on the butt, she moved TOWARD us with all intentions of kicking – swift and hard. Her rear was a truly formidable weapon. That is where she keeps all of her power, and she is experienced at using it.
To get close enough for the popper end of the rope to have an effect, her handler was too close to her front. The horse tried striking. Then she tried teeth-clicking, nasty biting at her handler’s shoulder. Her experienced handler corrected both with swift, well-timed popper slaps to her nose and fanny. (All of this would have been more safely done with the handy stick.)
The popper end of the rope on her fanny finally made an impression, and she swung her butt away. The handler immediately stopped pressure and praised her. Then the exercise was repeated. She took some very forceful slaps to the butt, and her handler meant business. She HAD to stop even thinking of kicking! It’s the type of force that we rarely use. This horse was an amazingly committed fighter!
As I write this, I am aware that I may get hate mail. We are being very forceful with this horse: as easy as possible but as forceful as necessary to get the job done safely for all concerned. Without all of this training, she is on her way to the slaughter house. It is: learn to be polite or die.
Started with our usual warm up round-penning. She joined up in 2 minutes. We tried much lower level pressure for the rear disengage. It worked. She had to be threatened twice to get more energy in the disengage, but all-in-all, a night’s sleep had done her good. Although her tail was swishing to beat the band, her ears were not pinned and her attitude was still attentive, not nearly as hostile. Backing up was also much lighter without all the drama.
She understands what we want, and life just got easier for all of us. It seems to be soaking into both sides of her stubborn brain.
We worked 30 minutes on de-sensitizing to rope, stick and string.
Line-lunging still seemed to be too confusing for her, and as her anxiety raised so did her temper. While she understood to move away from the pressure on the right and start her circle lunge, the left side presented problems with which she thought she could cope by some more threats to charge or strike. We did not back down. But, instead of getting more forceful with her (she was trying so hard 5 minutes ago), the stick was lowered. We started tapping it rhythmically on the ground to her left while pointing to the right with our rope hand instead of waiving the stick at her shoulder. Perhaps she could be more thoughtful with less intimidation. With the lowered pressure, she was still white-eyed, but no longer panicking. She was actually thinking her way out of the situation.
This is a good example where lowering pressure sometimes works better than raising it. But you should still be prepared to protect yourself if your lowered pressure invites her to think of bullying you again.
She finally moved off and began to spiral out to the end of the lead. She walked calmly- not panicking. Mission accomplished. Each try got easier. At the end of another 30 minutes, she was lunging with a lowered head, disengaging on the “Whoa”.
We have high hopes that she will be a wonderful companion horse when she is rehabilitated. This is only her 5th lesson toward a life-time of attitude change. Each time she is taken to the round pen, she tries a couple of old, habitual dominance threats, but they get shorter and milder every day.
It’s been less than a week, and she now seeks out the sweet spot near her handler. When up close, she has learned to be relaxed and affectionate already. I suspect there will be much less drama from this point on. The trick is to get this to stick as a life-long attitude. If she has been this bad for 5 years, she will need a considerable amount of time and attention to live as Dr. Jeckyl and completely dismantle Mr. Hyde.
We’ve been working for nearly a week. She is much easier to handle when she arrives at the round pen and is asked to circle the edge. I hope she will perform all of the “old” maneuvers with ease – no real pressure. A reward day for all of us.
She does a good job of disengaging her rear. She does a good job of backing up. She still hesitates to move off to lunge – confused about whether to leave, stand still like during the de-sensitizing exercise, or disengage again. This is understandable. She is new to all three. With a little consistent pressure at her shoulder, she finally moves away and goes to the end of the lead to walk around the circle. Her enthusiasm is lacking, but she complies. We have not put any stick pressure on her, but now we picked up the stick and swung the string at her shoulder pretty forcefully. She picked up the pace and settled in. So far so good.
She seemed to be more cooperative, so we decided to try to teach her to disengage her front with some up-close direct pressure. This is nothing she would not be asked to do occasionally during tacking or other ground activities. She has been tacked and ridden many times, but the last person to ride her (last week) reported that she got “mare-ish” during the tacking procedure.
If we thought she was going to just roll over and move over, we were sadly mistaken. When we stood at her side to pressure her shoulder over, she pinned her ears and actually swung her rear TOWARD us for a good cow kick! At the same time, she whipped her head around to bite the hand that was pressuring. As we jerked the lead to get her attention, she started backing up, head high and twirling. She was getting into a tizzy, and we were too close for safety. We picked the stick back up.
We started again, pressuring with the end of the stick instead of our hand. She threw herself backward and then came forward to strike. That got her a really solid whack on the foreleg – perfectly timed and very uncomfortable. I don’t think she will do that again for a long time, but I have been wrong before.
It is more and more apparent that anything new causes an extreme reaction. She INSTANTLY goes into “fight” mode. There is no flight in this gal. Everything comes down to whether you can MAKE her do it. It is going to take some time to change her first reaction from “fight” to “think”. That is the challenge.
Back to basics. Does she really know what our raised, pointing hand means when we ask her to lunge, or is the stick intimidation the only thing that matters. We did some intense round penning again, really exaggerating our hand-point. When we were satisfied that she understood to move in the direction of the point with no sass, we put the lead rope on her. Then we did the same exaggeration with our hand and stick to move her in the circle on lead. Just a LITTLE wag of the stick after a BIG POINT reinforced the hand cue. Soon the hand cue was the only cue. She made the connection.
There was NO direct aggression from her today – not even a pinned ear. There WAS a little “passive aggression”. While she complied with the directional lunge on line, she moved away slowly and without energy. You would have thought she was half dead. But that was corrected with one sharp popper to her shoulder, and she moved away quickly and with enthusiasm for the rest of the session. The stick stayed on the ground. Today’s work was milder, easier, and more successful than any day so far.
Another day perfecting what she knows so far. She is getting so good at it that there is little effort and much less adrenaline.
Antonio (our Rock) has been her principle handler for the last 4-5 sessions. Chelsea introduced the rear disengagement and backing up. Antonio introduced round penning and line-lunging. Then he shaped and perfected all four of her new lessons. Now that the exercises and signals are “old hat”, I went back in with her to generalize the signals across more handlers. She needs to know that ALL humans must be shown the same level of respect accorded to Antonio and Chelsea.
Being much older, weaker, and less agile than her previous trainers, I had to buck up and stay authoritative. She gave two small tests: she pinned her ears on the first circle of the round penning (direct warning), and she tried to line-lunge at a snail’s pace (passive objection). I quickly corrected both (one time) and she settled quickly.
Because the day was so nice and calm, we took her to the middle of the round pen and worked her through some pleasant grooming. We chose the round pen to groom her instead of a cross tie or hitching post because the round pen is a place in which she has learned to be respectful and thoughtful. She could also be sent lunging quickly if she presented any problems.
BUT, wonder of wonders, she was actually quite good. We curried, brushed, and petted. Then we saddled her – all in a calm manner. Then she repeated her exercises wearing her saddle before we ended the session on a really nice note.
Due to Spring’s relentless rains and lots of muddy ranch work, she has had a week’s vacation from her exercises. Now it is dry and sunny, so it is off to the round pen to see what she has retained.
A gentle liberty lunge in both directions shows that she remembers everything. She stops every 50 feet for a mouthful of grass growing at the edge of the pen, and gets a little higher pressure to refocus her attention and respect. She also gives me an opportunity to discipline her for pinning her ears at the playful dog who runs around the pen in the opposite direction she is lunging. But all-in-all, she is nearly perfect.
It’s time to up the ante. This is the third day of relaxed work over lessons she now understands well. We have generalized her respect issues with 4 different handlers. She should be understanding that ALL humans (and even the dog) must be respected – at least in the round pen. Now it is time to generalize her respect in different geographical areas.
How about some lunging in the grass where no fence gives her clues? Perfect there too. The day is beautiful and warm, and she is very relaxed as we practice. 15 minutes is enough. Now it’s on to a bath, which she passes with flying colors. Cross ties present no problems. Water – even on her face – is a cinch. She cooperates with her feet. Who could ask for more?
Mr. Hyde is vanquished. The Beast is gone.
30 minutes of companionship time only. She approached me in the paddock for attention and allowed me to put her halter on like a Lady. We walked around the ranch, stopping to get a few mouths-full of good winter rye grass and to talk to some of the horses in the other paddocks. I asked for a couple of rear disengages just to re-establish my authority. She complied with a bit of attitude. But she complied none-the-less and swung her butt away from me.
I can see that this particular charging horse’s story might begin to get boring. I’ve had a great time – even with all of the ups and downs – and hate to end the story here. But you will only read about her again if the Beast rears its ugly head again.
She will be tested and taught every day for the next month or so. Every outing will begin with leaving her paddock in a controlled manner: when invited. She will be asked to disengage her rear when she enters the paddock and her halter is taken off. She will do a couple of quick “back-ups” and a line-lunge or two on the way to the grooming area. All of this will be so routine that she will be able to do it in her sleep.
She still needs to learn to move her shoulder over and do a good lateral flex. I expect some resistance and possible ear-pinning (a naughty thought), but I doubt we will have nearly the battle we had in her first 6 days. She has cheated the meat auction. The dogs will go hungry tonight.
A New Life for Star – 30 days later
The stable has decided to keep Star. She has gone on several trail rides with no issues except a couple of irritated ear-pinnings and squeals at another close-by horse (for which she was disciplined by her rider). Since her rehabilitation on the ground, she is now easy to handle, AND her riding skills have been improved to the point that she could be called almost “dead broke”. She is so reliable under saddle that an inexperienced rider can enjoy her on the trails. She is still a very dominant mare in the pasture with the other horses, but she is totally manageable when her human companions approach. She is easy to catch and affectionate during grooming and tacking.
How about a “High Five” for Star?
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Here are 3 great videos about how to handle some of these problems. Star was not as bad a Jack, but she could have gotten there witha more years of incompetent handling.