Fred Ballets Into The Ribbons
Fred was just not a happy camper when he arrived at the ranch several winters ago. He seemed to be at war with everyone who rode him, and he usually came out the winner. He had hurt and intimidated the best riders in the area and in the process had established quite a reputation. It had gotten to the point where no one wanted to work with him. His owner had shared her frustration with her farrier who had referred her to me, thank you very much. She and I had spoken on the phone several times and I was admittedly a little nervous about working with Fred. She had done everything but talk me out of taking him on.
It was mid afternoon on a harsh winter day when I first laid eyes on this seven-year-old light bay thoroughbred of about 16-3 on a substantial frame. He reeked of power and the certain ability to make quick work of an unprepared rider. I had immediate respect for his obvious athletic prowess. But he did not possess a mean eye, which was a hopeful sign. "Be careful. He's hurt everyone. I don't want you to get hurt," Meg had warned me. She had also given me the phone number of the previous victim and encouraged me to call Rochelle Winder to hear her story.
"He's a nut case. Don't get on that horse. I can ride anything with hair on it, but he's got a screw loose," she had told me face to face. By the time I left Rochelle's place I wasn't so sure I wanted to continue with this project. She seemed like an experienced horse trainer, but a tough one who would tolerate very little from her equine students. I did have one distinct glimmer of hope. Had anyone gotten inside Fred's head to find out just what was bothering him? Had anyone ever given Fred a real chance?
I couldn't have had worse conditions to begin work with Fred. Ice and snow filled half my round pen making the footing very dangerous. We started with a great bonding session with him literally melting into my arms within fifteen or twenty minutes. He seemed to tell me he was a big confused kid who just couldn't stay out of trouble. I could empathize. I'd been the same way at his age. He did very well as we progressed through my program, one step after another until we got to step #5- desensitizing. The ropes over his head were very trying but with patience and time were finally accepted without hesitation. But the plastic bags were just too much for Fred. He really became all unglued and showed his nasty side. His eyes turned mostly white and his ears laid flat back against his head as he tried to strike and kick front and back. I smiled to myself and thanked him for letting me know.
Problems. My allay.
I always view problems as an allay, that is, assuming I can help the horse get through to the other side. When I can take the issue that most bothers a horse and turn it into a non-issue, what have I accomplished? I have boosted the horse's confidence in himself and in me dramatically. That is precisely my goal with all horses. Discover what does bother the horse, fix it, and then allow and encourage the horse to reach his full potential.
Finding the specific issue isn't always a simple process. More often it is an intense searching process that few trainers are willing or capable to explore. Knowing Fred had made quick work of one rider after another, I committed to finding his specific phobia or phobias before mounting him. I am never in a hurry to mount any horse, let alone one with a reputation like Fred's. My safety is my #1 concern, always.
We worked through the plastic bag issue to a small degree on the ground, then moved onto the sixth step in my program, 'ballet on the ground' in which he excelled. His dressage breeding allowed him to perform this maneuver like a champ. With his weight forward he would pivot and face up to me with an eager look in his eye. Then with a bit of encouragement and the right signals, rock his weight back and perform a perfect turn on the haunches as he headed off in the opposite direction. This exercise helped boost his confidence before we did some more bag therapy. He dealt with the plastic in a more respectable manner this time indicating clear progress and most importantly signaled a mind that could work through things in a rational manner.
Up on his back, Fred took to ballet in the saddle like he had been doing it forever. I knew that if I could get his mind right, he could be a high-end performer for Meg. We practiced ballet until it was second nature. He gracefully executed turns on the forehand and hunches with sheer enthusiasm, almost showing off. Once this was firmly in place I then upped the ante a notch by reintroducing the plastic bag attached to the end of my extendable wand. I rode over to the edge of the round pen, reached out and grasped my wand. Fred exploded instantly slipping on the ice, shaking, and madly circling around and around as he tried to rid himself of the plastic that continued to torment him. I stayed in the middle and somehow didn't lose my balance. At my first chance I unloaded the wand off to the side, which sent him even higher. With constant stroking and a soothing voice I circled and calmed him down enough to dismount. I was more than a bit unnerved at this blow-up. My heart raced wildly. I took hold of my knees and bent over to get blood back into my head and collect my self with some deep breathing. Shaking my head back and forth I said to myself, "That was a very close call. Careful Frank. Very careful." I'd really found his nemesis, but wasn't sure he could get through it, nor if I wanted to risk my well being in the process.
Back to Basics
He had sandbagged me a bit on the ground or I hadn't read the signals correctly with the plastic. In the saddle it became an all together different story. This was a very serious meltdown. Back to the drawing board and ballet on the ground. I needed to regress a bit and rebuild that confidence before moving back to riding with the plastic which I knew he would have to conquer to get right. Instead of fighting that quantum thoroughbred energy, I harnessed it and used it constructively to his benefit and mine. One after another we continued to perform this masterful exercise which connects the feet to the brain and forces the horse to focus. Gradually and very predictably he became more and more sensible until again ready to face the plastic. I eased him over to the fence and took hold of my wand. I immediately hid it from his sight and circled him into the security of the dance he'd come to understand so well, all the while stroking and talking in a reassuring manner. Once settled, again I let him just barely see the bag. He tensed up. White filled his eyes and he snorted loudly. But with stroking and soothing words he found his way back. Another glimpse of the bag and again his head shot up sky-high. This time he came down quicker and began working his mouth in understanding and dropped his head. I patiently and lovingly stayed with this process until he accepted it completely on the ground. One hand controlled him as I stroked and maintained reassuring contact with the lead while the other operated the wand. Round and around we circled together as I upped the ante higher and higher waving the flag with purpose. With time and patience ultimately he was able to move smoothly and confidently as the bag flew all around him and even onto his body while we moved. He was able to stay rational. Finally the moment of truth could be avoided no longer and I mounted him. Reinforcing the seventh and final step in my system, we again performed ballet in the saddle until it was second nature to Fred, then reintroduced the flag. I rode him to the side of the round pen, reached out and took hold of the wand, prepared to unload it if necessary. I hid it behind my back as we circled to the right. I had a constant feel and control with my inside rein and the wand in my left hand. I allowed Fred a quick glance at it while kneading his withers. He tensed up, but I supported him through it with leg, touch, and voice. Again I allowed him a look as I eased the flag into his view, but longer this time. He tensed less. With continued support and patience, gradually he accepted the flag more and more confidently until I was able to ride him with a slack rein while waving the flag quite aggressively. With a decided sigh he lowered his head, licked his lips, and accepted the fact that the flag was nothing to fear and I was on his back to help him. He would still tense up from time to time, but come right back down as we returned to that safe loving place he'd come to understand as his warm blanket of security, that place known as ballet in the saddle.
Within a few days Fred and I were best buddies. His self-confidence blossomed beyond belief. We toured construction sites stepping over lumber and plastic tarps. We moved at a lively trot up and down the paddock isles as I banged loudly on the metal sheds. We rode in the arena among loose horses, his mind with me the entire time. My apprentice, Jim Olson rode him out in a halter and lead rope one day when I was busy. Upon returning, he could only shake his head in disbelief at the change in Fred. He was a different horse. Could Meg continue helping Fred on his journey to becoming a fully realized being?
Fortunately Meg had great powers of concentration and a strong desire to understand my system. She paid close attention to my every word. She grasped the philosophy and applied it and now competes with Fred. Together they perform to music, he fully groomed and she dressed to the nines. The ballet he took to so well with me is now serving him in the world of high-end dressage.
Fred had lost confidence in himself and everyone who rode him. He had nowhere to turn. Fred needed a consistent handler he could trust. The first three steps in my program, bonding, take and give and intimacy are about establishing a relationship with the horse first and foremost. If he doesn't trust me, how can we move forward? Once he melted into my attentions, we could address his issues. With Fred it was a matter of taking baby-steps and watching very closely for his phobias. In his case the most identifiable phobia was the wand with the plastic bag. It was far too much for him to handle on his own, but with almost constant contact and support he was able to work through it. Stroking his neck and withers while maintaining slight rein contact pulled his attention away from the phobia and worked miracles with Fred. In situations when he did become overwhelmed, it was simply a matter of circling Fred down and regrouping. He welcomed this 'cocoon of warmth' when necessary. The one rein stop had indeed saved both of us from disaster. Repeated exposure to these and a variety of challenges built his confidence until Fred was ready to conquer the world. As Tom Dorrance instilled in my psyche long ago, 'The long way is the short way.'
Horsemen and women worldwide are successfully using Frank Bell's 7 Step Safety System to discover new dimensions within their horses. The results are predictably overwhelming. This simple set of exercises logically places the horse and rider on higher ground. Frank Bell's Company, Dances With Horses offers a complete audio and video library and a variety of products to help in the quest to become better communicators. The two videos most applicable to Fred's success are the foundation work, "Discover the Horse You Never Knew," and "Spooking and Shying." Join the gentle solution revolution at: www.gentlesolutions.com
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Updated: October 2005.