I was called to a ranch here in Central Oregon to take a look at an eighteen year old Polish Arab gelding named Kheldar; aka Legend. His story, or at least what the new owner of two and a half years had been told, was pretty standard in many ways. The owner communicated to me that Legend, in his eighteen years of life, had three or four owners prior to her and that Legend had been a dressage horse, an endurance horse and a three-day eventing horse and the story goes that he'd been quite good at everything he turned his hand or rather his hoof to. The owner now wanted him as a trail horse but she'd had a few experiences that led her to be concerned about his confidence on the trail and his predictability and safety; that's why I was called. I'd seen this horse here and there on the ranch as I was working other horses but I'd never really had reason to check him out up close and personal; I'd heard that Legend was an older horse and that he'd been around (meaning he'd accomplished a lot) and I personally respect and admire that; its kind of like meeting an old cowboy whose been through the ropes of life. In my opinion a person's just gotta have respect for that life experience.
The owner brought Legend into the indoor arena where I was waiting and I asked that she simply turn him loose. I know the horse saw me because I was pretty much standing right in front of him plus I was the only other object in the entire arena outside of him but he didn't even look at me. He trotted to the opposite end of the arena and completely ignored me, as though I didn't even exist. He was not shy about beginning to tell me about himself.I waited a few moments to see what he was going to do and all I got from him was more of what he offered in the first place. He stayed at the other end of the arena as though I was the least important hunk of chopped liver in the universe. Some might say he was not communicating at all but to me he was screaming volumes to me.
It's interesting how once we learn to read horses, how they cannot not tell us who they are. Once enough horses have been observed and once we understand that horses say exactly what they mean, then we realize they're incredibly easy to figure-out especially when we stop making it into rocket science. And in the case of our boy Legend, he thought he was being so very cool to show me that in his world I didn't even warrant a glance from him. But he was supplying me with all I needed to know to make my evaluation as to how to proceed.
So, it was clear that Legend, in his eighteen years of dealing with two-legged's, had come out with very darn little if any respect at all, at least that's how it appeared initially. I figured he'd learned to shut people out and get away with it unless, that is, he was forced to perform and then he was smart enough to understand his predicament of being a prisoner and so he'd do the job at hand and then he could be done with people for a while. That was my initial take on him, my gut feeling. I began to feel sad for him as he ignored me. I had so much I wanted to share with him and so much I wanted to do with him and yet he simply stood there like an abused orphan who just didn't want to talk. Possibly, I thought, when he was a young horse maybe he had hopes that he could become friends with the two-leggeds or develop respect for them but as time went on I felt he'd been let down and disappointed time after time until he just gave up to a great extent; gave up being genuinely curious and interested that is. Horses are so very smart and are lightening fast at figuring things out, especially people.
He was on his fourth owner at this point in his life and although his present owner loves him and wants him to remain in the family it seemed obvious that Legend hadn't understood this until now; nobody had made him understand it. To him it seemed to be just another temporary stop-over and no reason to expect anything different. Somehow I felt that Legend and I had a lot in common. Even though at that moment it was clear that Legend couldn't have cared less about me, I liked this horse and I found myself thinking very hard as to how to get to him and make him interested once more.
I prefer to work with horses and owners as I have mentioned before in some of my previous Blog posts. As I'm evaluating a horse for an owner I always offer lots of commentary because this way the horse owner gets a moment by moment glimpse at what I'm seeing when I'm with the horse and this places the owner right in the middle of the training loop; otherwise there's a disconnect and my working with the horse won't mean anything if the owner's not along on the journey. I really enjoy to work this way and I hesitate to work with a horse if the owner can't or won't be present for much of the training.
Until now Legend didn't even seem to look out of the corner of his eye at me. Usually horses in such a situation will sneak a peek here and there, especially if you're a stranger, but this horse had me totally tuned-out. I'd never had a horse ignore me to such an extent. I sat on a mounting block in the middle of the arena just observing him. He continued to ignore me. After a few moments I decided to make my presence known to him so I began to move him around the arena; just to let him know that I can determine and control his movement and his direction and that I'm, therefore, the boss or lead horse in our herd of two. In his Arab manner he trotted right past me, head held high and looking in a forty-five degree angle away from me he again acted as if I didn't matter at all. Somewhere, somehow in his travels through life he'd learned this attitude of ignoring people and tuning people out. But I'd learned in my travels that this type of behavior really meant that this horse was dying for discipline and someone he could respect. This horse didn't want treats or affection; he wanted genuine discipline.
The arena was too large. I'd move him a bit and then he'd get stuck at the end of the arena. I'd go move him out of the corner and he'd just find another corner. I decided to take him into the round-pen. Even in the round pen he ignored me; always with his head stuck over the top rail of the panels and moving yet not even glancing at me. I put a halter on him and snapped a long line on and moved him once again. This time I could hold his head off the rail and even tip his nose towards me in the center. It seemed to work. Then when I wanted him to stop I'd give a voice command, step in front of his shoulder and ask him with the long line to take a few steps towards me in the middle. He seemed to catch-on quickly. Almost immediately, with just a slight request with the long-line, he'd walk to me in the center. I'd unsnap the long line and ask him to come with me but that was asking too much; he'd just walk away leaving me there alone.
The short training session was now over and I felt we'd ended on a positive note. I was supposed to work with Legend again two days later but that session was canceled and now we're scheduled to work once again tomorrow, April 27th. It will have been a week since I last worked with him and I'm very interested to see Legend's response in this second session. I'll add to this post after our session tomorrow. Hope to see you back here then!
April 29th: I am constantly amazed at how quick horses are ready to step forward and embrace change. And I'm also amazed at how some people, horse owners, can get it and understand what an animal needs at a particular time. Maybe some people are just naturals because I work with a lot of horse people and those that are truly teachable are rare and when found are an absolute pleasure to work with.
The second session I had with Michelle and Legend was, without exaggeration, phenomenal. Somehow Legend just got it that two people were trying to help him adapt to his new life, a life of breaking out of his old mold of showmanship and arenas and stepping out into a new world of trails and trees and no pressure. During the first training or evaluation session, one could clearly see that Legend was worried and that he had a lot on his mind but almost overnight, within a matter of only a few days, he seemed to simply grasp and understand. I'm not really sure what happened in his head but let's just say that he had an epiphany of sorts. My experience is that horses are generally way ahead of people in understanding many things so we could simply attribute his sudden resignation and seeming adaptation to that; he's just one smart and clever horse. I'm not going to try to figure it out but I will say that Legend on the first training day and Legend on the second training day were like two completely different horses. Like someone sneeked another horse entirely into his skin.
An old Native American once said that horses can read a person's heart and I feel that Legend tapped into his owner's heart and most likely into my heart also and saw that we were genuinely interested in his well-being. Now he stands by his owner and me as we chat before the session when before he'd have been at the other end of the arena playing I don't need anybody so just stay away from me. His eye is now soft and inviting whereas previously it was almost impossible for this horse to even register ones existence because he was so interested in everything else but you.
I am happy with where we are now with his new training program and I am happy because Legend took that courageous step forward and said "I will". Good going Legend, I look forward to continuing our work together and hats off to you Michelle it's fun to work with you. Horses and people often just make my day.