What a horse can teach you

This is the only photo I have with me and a filly that taught me something about horses I will never forget.

Every horse I have had the privilege to work has given me a bit of education, and to be honest, I long ago lost count of the numbers. But one memorable moment with this young horse made me realize there is a depth to the animal I don’t think any of us can fully appreciate.

It happened at an early morning pick-up. This filly was two years old and headed to a race-breaker with her paddockmate of the same age. She belonged to my landlord at the time who is a passionate racehorse breeder and owner.

He ran about 24 horses on the property where we lived. The herd was scattered across paddocks, consisting of broodmares, young ones, those spelling, returned horses and family all-rounders on the property where we lived. In the morning, and after we got home, we helped to defray the cost of our rent by feeding the lot, handling youngsters, holding the horses for the farrier or vet or loading horses to go to trainers or the studs.

My husband Ross and I had been handling these fillies since they came home from the stud about 18 months beforehand. I think there were five that came home that year. At weaning time, the colts were put in with old geldings and one filly in with an older mare. These two were put in together by themselves. Ross was working ‘Gem’ and I chose this one I just called ‘Beautiful’. She was a lovely, very sensitive bay filly.

I should say, though we were in the training business, we didn’t start my landlord’s horses. That was a early discussion we had with him because we felt two years of age was far too young to start a horse, regardless of its size. However, the wheels of the racing industry are relentless and they like to get them early so he sent them off to dedicated race trainers to get the job done.

I will add I do not advocate for any form of the racing industry on many levels, but that does not mean I could not help give the horses destined for the job an easier time learning about human expectations from an early age. It is not their fault they were born to that fate.

So we did help the annual crop of four or five foals get another kind of start right from when they got home with their mothers halter-breaking, leading work, picking up their feet and getting them ready, then holding them for the farrier, trailer-loading and being okay with general handling. So these two, like the other foals that came home had been on and off the trailer a number of times.

One evening, we got a call the truck was coming in the morning, and so Ross and I went out the next day to gather the two and bring them down to the barn to load. The truck driver would back up beside the big sliding door at one end and lower the ramp into the barn, so we came in on the other end and effectively had the wide barn alley to walk up to the truck.

Beautiful was going well, and I felt like walking her up that wide shallow ramp would be pretty easy, but that morning, she was stressed. She froze, and I waited. She made it up halfway, and then backed up with urgency, causing Ross and Gem to back up, too.

None of this was uncharted territory with any horse. Different ramp, vehicle, the barn, the whole set-up really worried this filly and as usual, I took my time. After a few more false starts, she tried again, but at the last effort, she backed up, did a little panicked rear and scrambled backwards.

It was deteriorating, so I said, “Enough. She needs a break,” and Ross tried with Gem.

Same deal. Only Gem, like her mother, was a little bit of a knothead in the fact she had one good idea and stuck hard to it. A little more like a Warmblood than a Thoroughbred. It wasn’t happening. He worked at it for about five minutes with Gem going half up the ramp, then balking, and pulling backwards.

We sometimes offered a little pressure from behind but in both cases, this was only going to increase the worrying for both fillies.

Beautiful in the foreground with Gem in their paddock, 2007.
Beautiful in the foreground with Gem in their paddock, 2007.

Now, while Ross was working with Gem, I felt this thing rising in Beautiful beside me. Hard to explain and honestly, I would say I was a half-cocked, flea brain if I heard somebody say it to me, but it’s the only thing I can say to explain what I felt happening beside me.

She was studying what was going on and getting ready. She was inflating with readiness.

Even writing that makes me feel like a nut, but there you go.

I should say I am committed to the belief that a horse has emotions, can logic and reason and works out problems. I believe a horse is driven by both instinct and emotion and it is our job to sympathize with those qualities and mold our training to their propensities. I believe that is how a horse learns.

But I never have felt and still hesitate to say a horse learns by watching.

So I’ll tell you what happened. Ross is up on the ramp, waiting on Gem who was having none of it, and I said, “Let me try again. She’s ready.”

I remember Ross saying he wanted to give Gem a moment and try again, and I said, “No, this horse is ready. If she goes on, Gem will go on.”

So Ross led Gem behind us and I approached the ramp with Beautiful. I walked about a third of the way up the ramp, stood off to the side and began taking up the slack in the lead rope. All the time she was staring intensely down at that ramp. When the pressure started growing on the rope and her halter from my end, it’s like she gathered herself and did a little prop and put both front feet halfway up the ramp.

I have seen this before many times. Sometimes a horse will even do this and crumple nearly down to its knees from anxiety to offer an untried solution that is of great worry inside a horse rather that than the external pressure.

But in my experience, that action usually comes in the midst of working at the ramp, not after a break and that weird watching thing.

I released the pressure on the lead rope and let her stand there a moment. Then I began to back up toward the truck entrance and though it wasn’t too soft and calm, it was as though she put every ounce of concerted effort into it and walked up that ramp and into the truck stall.

I closed her in and she was steady. Gem smartly followed and it was over and the ramp was raised, latched and off they went, only to return six weeks later after the race-breaker. Changed and anxious.

But back to that moment.

I would say then, and I say today, that horse was getting ready on her own. It was as though she knew what had to be done, and after having time to regroup, she mentally prepared.

I have worked and ridden so many horses in a state of worry and stress and helped to get them feeling better. This was beyond what I have ever understood a horse to do in my hands. The gap of time between her first attempts fraught with anxiety, then the watching, then the no-nonsense second try in one go, with little pressure from me except to take up the slack and lead her onto that truck, it speaks volumes about what a horse’s capacity is to try if we let them.

There are too many interesting tales to tell, but there was another little horse that I often remember. Especially when I see what we humans do to these very remarkable animals.

Her name was Katie. She was, bar none, the ugliest horse I have ever seen. She looked like a Paint, except where the spots should have been wasn’t solid; it was patterned like an Appaloosa. Where the white should have been was mottled and streaky and her nose was all pink and thickly freckled and her eyes were buggy.

Her mother was a solid-color Standardbred and Katie arrived in the world after a neighbor’s solid-color Quarter Horse stallion apparently jumped the fence. So that crazy-quilt of color in Katie was kind of a mystery.

And she was hilarious.

She came to me for starting-that’s breaking to saddle for the non-horsey folks out there.

The family that owned her thought she was made of gold and that was a good thing since she was that unattractive. Not too many people would put their hands up for a mare like her. Saying that, I really took a fancy to her and would have liked her for myself, not just because of her unusual looks, but her mind was incredible.

One thing we did with a horse was to be with them, loose in a round pen and encourage the horse to search us out. Not a join-up, or driving them into oblivion until they gave up and thought we were the better of two bad deals, but make a moment of fuss when a horse is choosing to be mentally elsewhere and waiting until they thought about sometime, checking in or even coming up to us.

I often would do this with with a horse soon after they arrived because it helped me acquaint myself with many things going on inside a horse-if they were shut off to the world, scared of moving forward, how they reasoned things out, how many ideas they might try to work out a problem with very little pressure or how much pressure it took to get a horse to change a thought.

I am sure those of you with no horses but with children can appreciate what it can take to get a child to change their thought. It’s not too much different with a horse.

It can take a while and requires great patience because you are watching the mental unfolding of a horse’s mind at work. I know I’ve worked on that sometimes up to two hours, doing nothing more than standing and waiting with occasional flips of a flag or whapping a rope against my chaps every once in a while when the horse’s thoughts wander.

Katie got it pretty quickly. But to a point, and then she had what I can only describe as a tantrum.

When some horses realise that what you want them to do is to find their way up to you in the centre of that round pen, it can stir up a variety of very interesting reactions.

Some can roll in the sand or rear out of frustration. Others get the idea but it feels terrible to them, and they rush up with a hard thought which is not too good and you reject that and ask them to keep thinking. Some just peek at you out of the corner of their eye or turn their head-it is that hard to think about being with a person. Other horses turn to face you before wandering away again, or yawn, paw, swoosh a tail, rear, or canter around and around out of consternation when you are doing nothing at all.

All these things illustrate how a horse is feeling inside. How they are working out what to do next, and how to do it. All that baggage about how they feel about humans and their understanding of what is required and what happens when their ideas don’t work, can manifest itself in many ways.

Katie was like that horse who got it early and she would turn in and face me. And I did nothing. Then something curious happened.

It was as though inside she was thinking, “Right, now I have to take a step forward but I’ll be damned if I do that!”

And so would begin the display. Fist the tail, spinning and spinning like a wind-up toy. She would stamp her front feet, her back feet, crank her head and roll her eyes, sand flying here and there like a miniature tornado on the spot.

Then take a step forward and it would all be over.

The first time she did it, I was beside myself laughing with this Jackson Pollack of a horse acting out a like a toddler in a full-blown tantrum, but I got it together and walked up and gave her a pat which she seemed to graceful accept as her due. Then I retreated back to my spot and did nothing.

Again, the cranking, the spinning and stomping and another step. And it was over.

All that pent-up emotion was welling in that little splotchy mare. It was unlike anything I had seen. And when she took the step, as dramatic as the display was, how dramatic the peace when the advance was made.

How much was going on in the mind of that mare?

I say all of this because I question how an animal really learns to adapt to us, and how we handle it and what we impose on it in regards to training, housing, transport, management and food. There are greater complexities that I think any of us of can know in many animals, and it would probably be useful to keep those in consideration.

I also put out there the fact it took so little to evoke such a response. It brings into mind the concepts of pressure, and our own preconceptions of how much it takes to get a job done with an animal.

Lately, even one of my ducks taught me something the other day, and I feel a little stupid thinking I misjudged a duck.

I mean, a duck, for heaven’s sake.