Sunday, September 23, 2012

Luke's Success Story

Luke is a nine year old approx. 17h, maybe a bit taller, dapple-brown Percheron/Thoroughbred Cross. I met him when I was called by his new owners in mid-summer of this year - 2012. The new owners, they'd only had Luke on their property for a few weeks, were concerned about the safety of this horse because basically he had bucked the daughter off in a pretty hard way and now the family, quite naturally, was hesitant to trust Luke under saddle. We set-up an appointment for me to come to Bend, Oregon to have a look at Luke to see what I thought. 

The Bovi family, Luke's new owners, are good horse people in my opinion. They have owned horses for a lot of years and most likely owned and dealt with horses even during their early childhood years. I know that Megan, the daughter (who got bucked-off), had been riding horses since she was a young girl and Donna-Lee, the mother, had also spent most of her life interacting with horses. It is always a pleasure to work with people who truly care for the well-being of their horses so I was pleased that we had agreed that I would begin to work with Luke. 

Before going further I should say that when I first met Luke he was quite honest about a few things such as: don't try to mount me and don't come close to the girth area on the on-side especially and also don't try getting close to the girth area on the off-side either. These were areas that Luke was protecting. He felt nervous if I even attempted to slip into the on-side stirrup area. He'd back up and place his head between me and his shoulder. It was pretty much the same on his off side. Before beginning to train a horse I like to make sure that nothing physical can be causing difficulty or is standing in the way of the horse being able to perform properly. I ran my fingers down Luke's back and it was obvious that Luke's back was out since one could see him cringe at a certain point just about where the saddle would sit. The Bovi's contacted a chiropractor, a session was arranged and the next time I saw Luke there was no evidence that there was any pain in his back - so it was now time to begin learning about what makes Luke tick. A horse that bucks for what appears to be no reason is a dangerous horse and my job was to get inside Luke's head to see just what was causing this behavior. Maybe Luke even had good reason for his behavior and that's what I wanted to find out.

 When I met Luke on the first day of training the Donna-Lee (the mother) and Megan (the daughter) had set-up a make-shift round pen at one end of their arena; it was constructed out of jump standards and 4"pvc pipe and basically just rounded-off one area of the arena. Luke took one look at me, got anxious and nervous and basically just pushed over a part of the pvc pipe and said "Nope, I'm not going to do this" and he was outa there. And it was obvious that he'd become fearful and agitated. So, obviously the next obvious order of business was to set-up a paneled round pen so that Luke couldn't just walk away and decide not to participate. 

Once the round pen was set up I began working with Luke; five days a week, two hours a day. He'd be in school during the week and have weekends off. I like to train this way because the training becomes a routine and the horse also gets a bit of time off so that what he's learning and thinking about from the sessions can sink in during his two days off. Then, it's right back to school on Monday again. I find this method works well. Also, as I prefer, Megan and/or Donna-Lee were often present for the sessions because in my opinion it's a family matter and if I train the horse without the owners understanding how then there is an obvious disconnect when owner faces horse when it's all said and done. So, during the training sessions we all discussed Luke's progress or lack thereof and what it meant and how to tweek the training in order to be successful.

I should say that when we began our sessions Luke would get excited in the round pen, stick his nose over the top rail, get more excited, act flustered and there was no doubt he'd had some of this round pen stuff in his life and that he just didn't want to play. My response to this behavior was to stand quite still in the middle of the round pen so that Luke could figure-out on his own that he's the only one playing his game of anxiety and fear. Monty Roberts, one of my teachers, used to say "when the horses' adrenaline is up then his ability to learn is down and when his adrenaline is down his ability to learn is up" and I never forgot that. And, with Luke it proved absolutely correct. Often trainers will join in with the horse by saying "Well, if you want to run then let's run" and then the battle begins. What I'm talking about is to go actively passive (and this is not just a physical passivity but also an inner slowing down of ones energy) so that the horse realizes, on his own, that all his running and all his anxiety is not based on anything other than himself. And, believe me, horses figure this out right away because they'd rather not be doing all that running around - especially when they realize that it's all their doing. So, when I would go passive Luke slowly decided that there was no reason to be afraid and no reason to keep running and this took only a few sessions. 

I'll write in another post about what this thing I call active passivity involves because right off the bat it could sound confusing or even contradictory but, believe me, once a person understands this a portal opens into the horses world and only here, in the horses world, do we truly begin to speak Equus. And after gaining access to this dimension of the horses world is where the sacred relationship with the horse can take place. Otherwise we are simply demanding the horse enter our world of noise, aggression, ego and exploitation and Equus is not spoken within these parameters.   

Pretty much right away I could saddle Luke. He had difficulty allowing my presence at the girth area on either side but slowly he learned that nothing bad was going to happen when I was there. Plus, I've learned that if a horse has difficulty with me being anywhere around him then that's exactly where I need to be and that's exactly where I need to spend time making him feel good. By doing this that area is intentionally changed into a "feel good area" for the horse. I should also say that once Luke allowed me at his girth areas he still moved away when I took the stirrup to mount. He obviously had had negative experiences when people were in that position. So, I continued to spend "feel good time" there and showered attention on him when I was in that problem area. Sometimes I just stood there doing nothing other than rubbing on him. The point is to change his old ideas/habits about people being in that area; make him feel good and confident when I'm there and he'll, sooner or later, give-up the fear and his tick of moving away will vanish which it quickly did.

Donna-:Lee and Luke

Megan and Luke
 I decided to go back to square one with Luke. I started all over with ground work and with sacking-out i.e. getting him to trust. I think these things had never been done properly with Luke because he would often jump or spook at either the littlest thing or nothing at all so as a sort of joke we called it Luke's "I see dead people" reaction. So, I began with ground work i.e. plastic bags, driving, umbrellas, tarps over his head and just anything I could think of in order for Luke to realize that nothing was going to hurt him. And this is a big one for a horse that has learned not to trust. It's not so much about the tarp or the umbrella or the plastic bags but it is more about the horse finally figuring-out that the person, and people in general, can be trusted. To this point of trusting is where we are bringing our horse. During these exercises Luke often let out huge sighs which showed that he was releasing stored-up tension.


I'd also had another realization pretty early on with Luke. When working him in the round pen he would often immediately join-up. He learned quickly to come to the center of the round pen and that this is where he could come in order to stop moving his feet - and - to get affection. Then, he would be in my pocket so to speak and it was even difficult to shake him loose - he'd follow me everywhere and was saying that he wants to go on. Otherwise he could just disconnect and go look the other way. So, pretty quickly into the training I saddled him and rode him in the round pen. All seemed to be going fine - until - one day he dragged my leg along the inside of the round pen. As a response to that I'd learned to turned a horses head into the panels in order that he swing his hind quarters away from the panels and thus releasing my leg. Luke didn't seem to understand this and when I continued to demand he swing his hind quarters out he bucked and dumped me into the dirt. Now I had some thinking to do. Sure I'd put pressure on him but most horses simply move off of the pressure and then everything's fine. 

At this point I decided to look into Luke's history or at least try to see what I could find out about him. I learned that before the age of four we didn't have any knowledge of his life. Except that at an auction, when he was four years old, he was doing flying lead changes in the auction yard while looking like a fire-breathing monster. The person showing what he could do was getting results but it was obvious that Luke was not happy about it. Luke's next owner let him sit in the pasture for some years and then saddled him and demanded a canter which led to her immediately being dumped.  The next owner decided to do dressage with him not long after he arrived at her ranch so he put her into the dirt also. Megan Bovi attempted to mount him shortly after he had arrived at her ranch and he dumped her also - and - now he dumped me. I was getting the clear idea by now that Luke simply had a line that people kept stepping over. We cannot simply do anything at anytime with our horses. Horses have a right to rebel and one should appreciate this fact about these creatures. Luke had become fearful of people because of his past experiences; people had consistently confirmed to him that they would violate him or that they would continuously (as in the last four or so people that had mounted him) step across the line that he held sacred. Luke wanted to get along and for this reason he'd join-up immediately in the round pen - but - he was also communicating loud and clear that to win him over one had to respect him. 

My job was to figure Luke out. My job was to, through my chosen training program, give the Bovi's back a horse that is safe, predictable and reliable. So, I adopted a strategy that if Luke acted-up then I would not reprimand him (because he'd had enough of that) but I would become even softer and more reliable and more predictable; that I had to create a safe zone where he could drop his guard and know that he was safe. At first it was difficult but slowly Luke began to change and to trust and to allow - as I learned to simply work around his little quirks and to concentrate on helping him to trust. In all honesty, there were times when I thought that his old attitude and behavior would prevail because some horses have been so hurt and violated that they will never trust again and I was very pleased to watch Luke step through and out the other side of those old attitudes.

Luke taught me a lot. Luke made me think hard about how to help him. I knew that if I did not or could not bring him back to trusting that he would continue to be misunderstood and that there would, for the rest of his life, be a disconnect with him and people - not a very good state of mind to be in.

As soon as we all realized that Luke really wanted to get along; that he simply had a line in the sand that we needed to respect and, by the way, that had never been respected we all had a meeting of the minds and Luke began to shine. Luke has become a perfect gentleman on the ground and under saddle and he seems totally willing to please me and his owners. 

This was a great success story for all involved. I am so happy to have been a part of this experience and to have had this experience with Luke, Donna-Lee and Megan. We all learned so much. And our teacher? Luke was really our teacher and it was this horse that taught us all so very much on our journey towards becoming better horsemen.

I guess the moral to this story is that softer and kinder is always a better way to train and a better way to be in life. Even if the horse acts-up there's no reason or logic, in relation to the end goal of creating a trusting horse, to start the fight. Luke taught me that softer and kinder work and he actually escorted me into a deeper and more meaningful part of myself as a trainer and as a person.

Thanks Luke. Thanks Donna-Lee. Thanks Megan. I'm grateful to have had this learning experience with you all. 

Happy Trails!