In this week’s blog, Brio continues her journey with her owner. As I worked with this very complex multi-layered horse/human combo, I used mostly my intuition and powers of observation combined with my ever willingness to “think out side the round pen” It is my experience that the only hope of working with these types of cases is to let the horse and owner guide the journey, you have to be willing to change with every moment to adapt to the situation in front of you and have only one agenda. Helping these two beings come to a harmonious agreement. It is the quintessential peeling the layers. Each week I received a new piece of the puzzle and we slowly steadily made progress. Brio’s owner write’s:
“I knew she was the wrong horse for you after seeing her two or three times. That day you brought her home and she pinned her ears at Santana when she was walking down the aisle was a sign of aggression.” On the way back from Farah’s open house this past fall, I stopped to visit my friend, a Warmbloodbreeder, and share news of my progress with Brio. That was her response to my query about when she suspected I had made a mistake. Although she hadnever offered this insight until I questioned her that afternoon, others were not as reserved about baby Brio. A sage older woman with a keen eye sharpenedby a lifetime of teaching, training and competing counseled me in a crone-like tone of thinly-disguised forboding: “She’s exceptionally smart. You have your hands very, very full.” A dentist with a mental gallery of hundreds of equine faces was not nearly as tactful. The minute he saw the prominent backwards question mark running nearly to her nose, he bluntly warned me: “You’ll never be able to trust her.” I did not disregard these two comments, but filed them far from the immediate moment, opting to hold fast to the compliment my farrier gushed at every visit:“She has the nicest eye…open and loving.” He was right; it was an eye that drew you into goodness.This goodness was apparent within the first week of her interaction with her two pasture mates. One morning, Santana charged over to Brio’s paddock and tried to repeatedly bite her on the neck. I suspected she was venting vicious jealousy on her rival, who had enjoyed a luxurious bath and tail- washing the previous evening by me and two friends. Instead of retaliating, Brio simply avoided Santana’s attacks. “She’s a lover, not a fighter,” I commented to my husband that night as I described the incident. Her goodness was evident again when she unwittingly trespassed onto Cocoa private lookout, a loam pile that the Sicilian donkey had staked out as her ‘mountain.’ Cocoa lunged at Brio’s neck and I saw skin stretched taut at the end of small but effective donkey teeth. Instead of defending herself, Brio simply stood there with the expression of a kid on a playground who was surprised and hurt that he’d been assaulted, even if he was at fault. In counterpoint to this goodness, Brio began to exhibit behavior in August –four months after coming home — that surprised and intimidated me. One afternoon during a trailering session to my friend’s indoor in preparation for a breed show, she refused to load for the return trip. The now-infamous cow kick—violent, stubborn, powerful — made its initial appearance. The following morning, while perched on a muck bucket braiding her mane for the show, I slipped and fell under Brio’s belly! As if to compensate for the previous day’s bad behavior, she didn’t move a hoof as I gathered myself up. My friend who was helping me incredulously pronounced her “golden.” She began to nip at me, undeterred by the bristle brush or squirt of lemon juice intended to deter her attack. In contrast to this offensive behavior, she delighted in nestling her head against my chest, eyes closed, while I scratched her ears. I kept a mental ledger of bad and good behavior, and instead of fretting that the latter did not outnumber the former, I was relieved that they were more or less in balance, at least some of the time! I was immune to disappointment or disillusionment about my Perfect Partner because I believed the biting and kicking would diminish with age. A friend with years of experience at the track called her “Baby Cranky Pants,” and my trainer who had helped me select her predicted: “One day you’ll wake up and all this bad behavior will be gone.” My vet, attributing her naughtiness to the onset of hormones (she had just turned two), was fairly confident it would level out with age.One evening, she stationed her substantial hind end in the doorway of her stall, barring my entry. When my trainer arrived that weekend to address this latest display of The Terrible Twos, she addressed this behavior with a dressage whip and witnessed her hind legs soar toward the ceiling. Within several minutes,Brio was dutifully walking circling around her in her stall. She was more successful at disciplining Brio with a whip than I. My attempts to correct her invoked indignant retaliation with bared teeth and flying hooves. In an effort to avoid disciplining her, I used a variation of clicker-training to prevent the offensive behavior from rearing its ugly head. At the slightest hint of a pinned ear, wrinkled nostril or raised leg, I began to make the clicking noise that Brio had come to associate with a treat. She immediately became calm and focused. Before I began my work with Farah, this tactic enabled me to teach her to cross tie and break her habit of refusing to stand still for mounting. I also taught her to pee on command in a muck bucket. It allowed me to feel safe blanketing her, picking out her feet, picking out her stall with her in it, cleaning her teats, and tacking her up. It also enabled me to keep others safe. When a vet tech rightly expressed reticence at picking up her hind legs for flexion tests, I relied on this trick to get the job done. When a needle accidentally remained lodged in her hind end during spring shots, I quickly quelled her bucking and rearing with the familiar, comforting clicks and she stood quietly for the needle’s removal. Aware of her penchant for mercurial bucking when spooked, I realized I needed a tool that would cut through fear and lack of focus to immediately redirect her attention to me. I ceremoniously dropped a carrot into her feed tub each night and recited “CARROT” with the same intonation. Uttered under saddle during incidents like the passing of an angry tractor growling its way down the road or the neighbor’s lesson on how to fire (repeatedly) a beebee gun, this mantra had the power to magically halt a spook or buck in mid-air! Armed with these tools, I was confident I could weather the rebellious outbursts, displays of dominance and temper tantrums of a “Baby Cranky Pants” who had yet to grow up.
More to come soon!