Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day 52

I think it is true, we have turned a corner!  Little Love was doing absolutely fine today despite our walk outside on the hard ground yesterday.  In fact, I might even say she was doing better. 

We went for a walk again, this time for 20 minutes on the hard ground.  Little Love is definitely back to her old self, looking and snorting at everything.  I kept Little Love on a long line and let her choose where she wanted to walk.  Usually she walks on my right side, unless there is something scary on that side.  That's when she moves to my other side, making sure I'm between her and the scary object.  My dog Chai went with us, which was helpful for Little Love, as she likes brave dogs that don't seem to care about plastic bags that flap in the wind nor do they look at funky colored mailboxes or piles of wood on the sides of houses.

As Little Love is slowly finding her way back to her old self, I notice her energy levels rising back to normal.  It's interesting to observe my own feelings take flight simultaneously with hers.  Walking Little Love in hand outside has always been a bit of a challenge, a challenge that we have worked on conquering together for quite some time now.  Not so long ago it was absolutely impossible to even attempt a walk down the road; she would get scared of something, turn around and leave.  If you tried to stop her, she would panic (perhaps even rear) and try to leave.  If you somehow managed to hold her (this took a significant amount of pressure, backing up, waving the lead rope and all kinds of antics that I'm not exactly proud of doing), she would jog next to you and every so often attempt to run off, dragging you with her.  Scary stuff, for both horse and human. 

Nobody ever attempted to walk Little Love in hand on trails before I came along.  Heck, they couldn't even ride her on the trails, so there was no way anyone was going to attempt to do the same thing on foot.  Sheer lunacy, her old owner told me (not that riding her in the arena was much better, but that's another story)

Most people will tell you not to let your horse bolt off when they are frightened.  It is considered common knowledge that it is of utmost importance to maintain control of the horse at all times, especially when it's freaked out.  Hence the reason why all kinds of bits and auxiliary reins have been developed.  However, in Little Love's case this method did not exactly work (I believe it rarely does, as it results in either learned helplessness or total fight mode).  The more people tried to hold her, the crazier she became.  When I met her, one of her specialties was hauling her rider home at full galop, head rolled down with draw reins and flanks foaming. 

Needless to say I have taken a different approach.  I think the biggest epiphany I had while attempting to retrain Little Love to stay with me while frightened was not to hold her back.  Yes, I would actually let her leave.  Giving her this choice was monumental.  You are afraid and want to leave?  Go ahead.  Just take me with you.  Interestingly enough this lead to the fact that she suddenly was not so afraid anymore.  Because if she knew she could leave at any time, she was actually willing to stay to check out the scary object.  There is nothing like having power over your environment.

However, you can see what kind of problems this "method" can lead to while handwalking.  If we encounter something completely horrific and she wants to leave, I might not be able to keep up with her if I'm on foot.  So, usually when we walk, I have the saddle on her, just in case.  That way I can just jump on her and trot off (usually a hundred yards will do it, sometimes even less) until she feels there is enough distance between her and the scary thing.  Then I can come off and walk on the ground again. 

This process of learning to go out and not be afraid has been a long one, for both Little Love and me.  She has made amazing changes in her behavior and is actually eager to go out on walks.  She hasn't gotten uncontrollably frightened for months.  She is such a brave soul. 

Me on the other hand... I am still a work in progress. I'm doing my best not to let past experiences get in the way of the current ones.  It makes no sense to think about what happened months ago while I was hand walking, as I don't know if it will ever happen again.  It may or may not.  Anticipating something bad to happen is the worst kind of thing you can do with a horse, especially this particular one.  So, I'm trying to find some kind of zen and live in the moment, walking the horse I have there with me that very moment.  Not the one I walked last fall and who freaked out over a flock a seagulls that landed in a nearby field (I actually ended up letting her loose that time, since holding her is only detrimental to everyone - interestingly enough she ran twenty yards and stopped...)  I'm also trying not to think about the fact that at the moment I can't ride her (if she has a meltdown and needs to flee), as I don't think her feet can quite take that right now.  I actually think the saddle has sort of been my safety net and now that I don't have that option, I'm feeling insecure.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Working outside the box is always a bit unnerving. 


  1. You've got to be quick to hop on a bolting horse. I do agree that people get into a lot of issues trying to over power horses, or fitting them into textbook like definitions. Little Love is lucky to have you.

  2. haha, I used to be an international level vaulter, so yes, I can get on a horse pretty fast (even when it's moving). Also, I sort of can see when we are getting to the point that she is going to leave before she actually does it. If she was just a little smaller, I could easily get on her bareback as well. Or maybe it's not her size but the fact that I'm a bit rusty (or old? :-) and it's harder since there isn't anything solid to hold on to apart from her mane :-)

  3. I was just going to say that, but Kate got there first! I wishwishwishwish I could vault onto a horse - I was thinking of taking out a gym membership and saying to the trainer: "Make me able to vault on a horse!"

  4. My mare is like this. We've done months of hand walking her away from the herd, finding the spot where she can't take it anymore, and then turning around to go back where she's comfortable. She learned she could tell me when she was upset and I would listen. Made a huge difference.

    She actually took herself for a walk the other day. Shocked the heck out of me. I've gotten in the habit of letting her out of the pasture without a halter on because I figured she wouldn't go anywhere on her own. Guess I was wrong :)

  5. One of the many gifts our horses give us as teachers is their ability to remain in the present. It's one of the many reasons they continue to show up even when their environment is less than optimal. Horses have a wonderful sense of curiosity and given the choice will do what's best for them. Little Love is showing these wonderful elements in pure form now that she is in a very optimal environment and given the choice with you, K. it's so lovely to see you both on this journey of discovery. Beautiful.

  6. Okay, I'm laughing out loud over here. June, I wish I could teach you how to vault onto a horse, it's actually not as hard as you would think, once you get the "technique". Smazourek,
    loved your story! There is nothing like giving a choice to your horse to help her change her mind. :-)
    tmdunphy, this is such an amazing opportunity to learn from Little Love, sometimes it literally boggles my mind. Where will this all lead? Who knows...

  7. The posts in this blog, and the comments, have me thinking all the time.
    This freedom thing fascinates me, and scares me also. Because right now I think, if my horse has a choice, he will never go anywhere with me.
    He just wants to be with his herd.
    He is not bothered by humans, he has always been treated well (in the traditional sense, of course), but he isn´t one of those horses deeply interested in people (I think this is part of why I did chose him, but I did not know that then).
    But given a choice he really does not want to do anything that sounds like work or leaving his herd. And I would be really sorry about that, egoistical as I am.
    I could probably "motivate" him by offering him carrots or something - or would that be just another way of implementing my will over his?