May 21, 2012

Kinda Slow Going

I was teaching quite a bit at the time we got Bryan and had a great group of sensitive and sensible teenage girls in the barn. They all loved the B and they all understood that he was…er…challenged. They had learned, or were learning, to ride well, so I let them all be involved in Bryan's day to day. They were perfectly happy to ride him at the walk and were patient with his…er…idiosyncrasies. We kept his work load light and only rode him once or twice a week, tops. We did not ask anything of him ( in the traditional Bryan Land we were drastically moving his furniture around) and we strictly followed the routine he showed us was necessary; mounting in the ring, staying in the ring, staying on the rail. 

So I started with halting and standing. He really didn’t get that. It wasn’t so bad if you halted him facing the barn (yes, The BARN! Remember, Bryan’s Holy Grail and Reason for Being was to STARE AT THE BARN) as long as you didn’t make him stand for long. But if you halted facing away from the barn he got very upset. So we started by halting, facing the barn. With any other horse I would have done a lot of treating, as in stop, stand, ‘good boy!’ and give a little peppermint or something. Naturally, this didn’t work with Bryan. He was well beyond anything so straightforward. He not only didn’t get or care that a treat was being offered, he would not bite it or chew it even when  I stuck it in the side of his mouth. After a minute or two he would realize something had apparently magically appeared and would crunch it up, absently. I didn’t have to worry about him mugging for sweets. Every event was new, and separated in his mind. Halt, stand, stick treat in mouth, stare at barn, crunch absently. Over and over. And over.

He wasn’t just not treat oriented, he was treat *unaware*. Wow.

But we perservered. It took a loooong time. He did get, through time, that he could stand without panicking in any part of the ring. It took a couple of months. We did it when we walked him around as well, with out a rider. We did it in the turnouts. It was always the same.

But he did get it. When he would reliably wait till told to go, we started with facing a quarter turn *away* from the barn. I figured a 180 would be rushing things, and I was right. But we did get him to stand facing at an angle to the barn, though it took forever to get him not to stare in that direction. When we *finally* got him to stand and put his head down for a moment we would walk on, on the buckle and with lots of praise.

We reinforced this on the ground. When I brought him in from a turnout (turnouts are a post all their own!) he had to stand, put his head down, and wait. Honestly, there were days it took 45 minutes to get this to happen. My great group of girls totally got this, and were good sports about lessons being delayed or even skipped. “Where’s Abby?!” “In the paddock with Bryan!” “Ohhhh >;->” And they would clean tack, or ride someone else. Or come watch, quietly.

And so the months went by, and Bryan learned to stand.


  1. Wow, though I hope to never have a horse this shut down I'm impressed with your approach to him. I can't wait to read more!

  2. Aw, thanks!! He really was fascinating. Working with him taught me so much and led me to certainties about the mind/body connection in horses that I had suspected but not known for sure. I am so glad you are enjoying his story!

  3. Abby, something that's worked for me over the years/decades/eons ;) is to just teach a "relax your mouth" cue, which in turn tends to take some of the tension out of the body too. Tension there is often what makes them not chew a treat or distracts them...they clench their jaws just like we do when we're nervous or unsure. So I stick a finger or two in and over the bars, manipulate and work at the tongue, etc. until the horse relaxes and licks its lips,chews, and so on. As soon as I see any movement, I say "good boy". It usually takes a couple of weeks to get a solid conditioned response to the verbal, and by then I can say "good boy" and the horse will start to lick and chew without being touched. Makes a nice "relax" cue....but yiou probably already know this anyway. :)

  4. Yes, its a wonderful way to reach the defensive/wrecked ones! Thank you for posting this. Mouths are often so misunderstood and ignored, and regaining comfort and confidence is a big part of reclaiming the projects, isnt it.