Yesterday at my Young Horse Day workshop I met a wonderful soul in Boronia, a young shire mare. I was asked to work with her because she wouldn’t be caught, especially in the paddock with the other horses.
She would give up in the yard as she knew she was unable to get away, and her owner saw her as a ‘problem child’, especially when she kicked out at her when the pressure was on.
I haven’t had that much to do with the larger draught breeds but when I was a youngster, I remember being in total awe of the brewery teams of Clydesdales, struck by their stoic no nonsense natures and work ethic, as well as their hugeness.
The feeling I got when I looked at Boronia was of a gentle ‘old’ soul – her beautiful eyes hid behind a long dark forelock like a shy little girl, and that’s what she turned out to be.
When I stepped into the yard with her she moved away, so I talked to the workshop group while I wandered around without looking at her directly but taking notice of her responses. Without a direct line approach or thoughts of ‘I’m going to catch you’, she didn’t feel the need to move far or fast, so with some approach and retreat I was able to almost get within touching distance – in fact I was able to stoke her shoulder at one stage but she shied away from my touch.
I had a bag of treats with me as her owner admitted to using food to try and ‘bribe’ her into being caught but Boronia became good at snatching a mouthful from the bucket and moving quickly away. I intended to use the food as a reward, so to let her know I had some I put a few pellets in my hand and encouraged her to allow my hand in her space.
She wasn’t that interested in the food – or in touching my hand, even after tolerating my hand coming in and out of her space, which alarmed her at first.
So I just kept my body turned slightly away from her and tried making myself small to see if that attracted her attention. It did and she dropped her head to my level and relaxed a bit more, content to just be close to me as long as I didn’t try to touch her.
After a while my knees got sore from squatting so I slowly stood and rested against the yard rails, explaining my methods to the people, and with the attention off her Boronia became curious. We were talking about her past where she was raised in a large herd on a big property without much attention to anything more than the basics of handling, and had come to her present owner very undernourished after a drought sale. Once she was caught she would allow you to do anything with her and I immediately got the feeling that she was ‘shutting down’ to cope with the handling she’d endured – not that it may necessarily have been harsh, but in her eyes, she was scared and shutting down became her way of coping. This made her appear to be very quiet but she showed definite signs of withdrawing when too much pressure was put on her.
I discovered that perhaps for the first time in her life, Boronia was being allowed to interact with a person on her terms – she started to sniff me, brushing her long whiskers against my shirt, then my hand.
She eyed the bale of hay in the next yard, to tell me she’d rather eat that, so I grabbed a handful and she tucked into it then followed me around the yard to get more as I moved away from her, and allowed her to ‘catch me’ – perhaps another first.
Then she got tired of the hay and was happy just standing near me as I talked some more about how we could reward horses in different ways, such as being like another horse, just hanging out or giving them a good scratch.
I reached out to her neck and chest to see if she’d like to be itched and sure enough, that was her favourite spot. When I stopped, she carefully moved her big hooves closer and asked for more, inching forward each time I stopped.
When I decided to finish the session with her, she was chewing contentedly, with a soft eye and a smile on her lovely big Shire horse lips.
I invited her owner in to experience Boronia’s acceptance of people because I knew she’d overcome a big issue – she had never been given the choice of interacting with a human – it had always been the human’s idea and forced upon her which was why she didn’t enjoy being caught.
It was very special to see her owner amazed that she could walk right up to her ‘Bronnie’ and give her a big friendly rub – she took off her halter after some encouragement and vowed to spend more time ‘making deposits into her account’ with her, to make up for all the ‘withdrawals’ of the past.
The next horse I worked with was a lovely seven year old paint broodmare who hadn’t yet been ridden. She was a bit touchy about picking up her hooves and the workshop participants were keen to see some ‘join up’ and liberty work.
After explaining that I don’t do the traditional type of ‘join up’ where you deliberately send the horse away until it asks to be allowed back in, I introduced myself to the mare and started rubbing her body to find her favourite itchy spots.
After a little while she decided eating grass was better and moved off, so I gently encouraged her to keep moving and waited for her first sign of aknowledgement which was an eye and an ear focused on me – I turned away, taking the pressure off her and she willingly came right into me.
She then stood for more scratching and I worked my way down to her front leg – but as soon as I’d lifted it a little she hurried off – she had that choice being at liberty and it’s a wonderful way to find out what a horse can truly cope with.
Again, I encouraged her to move with the soft swing of the string I carry and after one trotting circle, she decided she’d rather be with me.
After that, she didn’t try to run off again – just moved a little when things got worrying for her. I was able to pick up all four feet at liberty then taught her to yield her hindquarters from both a suggestion (looking at them) and the touch of my hand.
She had some difficulty accepting the yield from her left eye and kept wanting to turn away and put me in the other eye, but after a few goes and having the choice to move her feet whenever she was worried, she could do beautiful yields with my hand on her side, where my leg would go.
Throughout this interaction with her I used my ‘clicker’ (my tongue) and treats to reward her, as food was her favourite motivation. She’d never had any experience with ‘clicker training’ but caught on right away without being pushy. This helped her enjoy her interaction with me and see that playing at liberty can be fun and fruitful.
So I too learned something from my Young Horse Day – we all have choices and by allowing the horses theirs, they will show us what’s best for them, so the more ‘tools’ (or different ways) for doing things we have, the better.
The students learned from observing that patience can be our greatest virtue, to take small steps and to consider the horse’s point of view. There’s always more to learn….
Learning is a never-ending journey so why not let the journey be the reward – it certainly is for me, especially when I discover little gems of wisdom from the horses.
(Photos by Ruth Tanner.)