Milo Moves Into The Passing Lane

One of the exercises we do in my clinics involves having riders pass each other weaving in the opposite direction. When horses and riders can do this proficiently, I ask them to slap hands, first at the walk, then at the trot. This is demanding for the horses and riders. Not only does it require accurate control over the horses, but also the horses must be well desensitized to the slapping and close passing. As we ramped this challenging exercise up a notch last weekend in Sedalia, Colorado, one of the better-trained horses suddenly whirled dangerously. June stayed with Milo until he quieted down, then she came over to me and asked for help.

I had the riders in the clinic circle Milo and June at a walk while they stood still; then we moved up to a trot. Everything was fine until I asked June to push Milo into walk and face oncoming riders. Again when horses trotted toward Milo, he became all unglued, dangerously so. I climbed on him and tried to support him through the same challenges, but he whirled violently.

"I've dealt with this before June," I told her, shaking my head. "The only way I know to fix it is to lay the horse down," I informed her. "I thought that's exactly what you were going to say Frank. Several horse acquaintances suggested having you do just that. What do you think?" "Well I've been successful with this exact issue in the past, but there is no guarantee. And it's a fairly extreme measure," I gave her the hard facts. We agreed to a lay down session the next morning before the clinic.

The next day had us both thinking a bit differently. We met early and agreed that a lay-down session might be a bit much for the public to handle. We rescheduled for the next morning, Monday while it was quiet and the clinic was finished. I asked June to line up several riders who would be instrumental in helping Milo get over this very dangerous behavior.

Milo's Elk Confrontation

As it turned out, there was a lot more to the story than originally met the eye. Milo was a seven-year-old dark bay quarter horse of about fifteen hands. He was well built and very athletic with an intelligent look. But he was worried and had ulcers to prove it. Several people had owned him before June and something very disturbing had taken place. As the story unfolded it became apparent that Milo had had a run-in with a big bull elk. It was not clear whether the elk had actually hit Milo, but there had been some kind of incident, a close call, and Milo had just not been the same since the incident.

I figured something traumatic had taken place, as I'd dealt with this kind of irrationality before. The horses I'd helped with the same issue all had one common denominator; they'd had a head-on with another horse. Colliding with a wild animal presented an interesting new scenario. The troubled horses I'd helped had all been downright dangerous with serious whirls, sometimes leaving their riders on the ground or in the hospital. This was not something to be taken lightly, nor easily fixed.

Monday morning was cool with bright sun warming the crisp Colorado air. Everyone felt good, including Milo. We had a sixty foot round pen to work in with soft sand footing and a handful of spectatrors and helpers. June and I had firmly agreed to allow only those who could 'take it'. Lay-downs can be emotional as the horse struggles while facing his demons. We had four riders and as many helpers and observers.

I led Milo into the round pen and loved him up thoroughly until his head was hanging low and his tongue was lazily working in and out of his mouth in a sign of relaxation. With June's help we wrapped his legs for protection and I secured hobbles on each front foot and a surcingle around Milo's girth. He was relaxed and trusting under all the attention and high-stepped in animation as we walked off around the pen. He'd never felt wraps around his back legs and lifted them high, hesitantly with almost a sense of delicacy. Once he was moving along at a good fast walk, I lifted his front legs with a firm yank on the rope from his off side. He immediately went to his knees and looked around as if to say, "What is this all about?" June and I lowered our stature and I cautioned everyone watching to be very quiet and still. I eased in and stroked Milo's face, eyes, and ears. I got my fingers into his mouth and helped him find trust and relaxation, then backed off. He struggled for a few minutes, then very quietly laid down with a deep groan, just as horses commonly do when finding their own way down. I immediately went in and reassured him, stroking his neck and talking soothingly, then asked June to so the same. "He needs to know you're there and everything is okay," I instructed. June eased into place keeping her stature low and knelt beside him. "Be ready to roll back. He could lunge up anytime, so be careful and don't have your head hanging over him." June helped Milo relax at his head as I worked to relax his back half. His tail was soft and his leg on the high side eventually found it's way to the ground, a good sign. He was handling the process quite well. When he seemed reasonably content I had June move out away from Milo and begin walking half circles back and forth within his vision. "Talk to him June." "It's okay Milo. You're going to be alright," she cooed over and over again. But this was stressful for him. He would sit up when bothered and watch her intently as she walked by, then relax and work his mouth again as I eased him back down. Time and again we worked through this same scenario. The movement concerned him to the point of needing to bring himself up and observe exactly what was happening. Time and again I helped him lay back down and relax and learn to trust. Gradually he found it and began to handle June's meandering back and forth. "Okay. Now I need a rider to walk around the outside, way out, quietly." June's friend Cindy was on a striking sorrel paint of which she had complete control. Slowly she began riding serpentines forty feet from the edge of the pen. Suddenly Milo shot up onto his knees and lunged forward with fear in his eyes. "Move back, way back," I yelled. June rolled back away into the sand onto her side, her face planted into the soft sand. Cindy quietly walked off away from the round pen. June and I calmed Milo back down and he slowly relaxed again. I helped him find his way onto his side as he watched Cindy intensely. "Okay, now start working back this way in a winding fashion," I instructed Cindy. She followed instructions perfectly and wound her way back to the edge of the round pen as Milo kept a close eye on her. With a big sigh he let out a huge breath of air and with a little encouragement found his way back all the way down. "What a boy Milo. What a boy," I whispered over and over. Plastic wand!!

This picture story played itself out for the next half hour until Milo was able to eventually, now I mean eventually, handle horses trotting and even cantering very slowly right by his head, both laying on the ground and sitting up watching the show. It was incredible. He progressively handled more and more. As the minutes ticked by, he gained confidence and stature. At one point I had Mary and Cindy trotting fast right at him and turning at the very last minute. On the outside Sharon and Melissa were all over the outside of the round pen changing gaits and directions at will. Then I allowed each of our helpers to come in and allow the horses to just be together and sniff noses and reassure everyone that it was all just fine. At that point I knew the moment of truth was upon me

The Moment of Trust

I slowly and gently removed all his paraphernalia as he patient waited. When the hobbles and surcingle were off he sensed his moment and stood up. It's quite common to have horses lie for fifteen or twenty minutes so relaxed and quiet and glad to have found peace, but not Milo. I rubbed and loved him up on one side as June did the same on the other. He licked his lips and dropped his head as June removed is wraps. Cindy and Mary were still in the pen with us. "June, walk Milo over to the other side along the edge. Walk him out. Let him unwind a bit. You two just ride over and be with him. Let them sniff noses. Stroke him from your horses. At first Milo was kind of curious about being so close to other horses. He seemed surrounded and a bit claustrophobic, but tolerated it pretty well. Then I instructed them to ride toward him, one on each side. He kept doing his best to divert, but really couldn't, not completely. Mary would ride along the fence toward him as Cindy tried to pass by him on the inside. But he would turn and move away and do his best to not let them both come by on either side. He was a good escape artist. But he wasn't freaking, he was using his head; he was being smart about it. He was handling it.

Interestingly, he gradually moved toward being agitated by the other horses, annoyed by them. He started laying his ears back and saying, "Get away from me, jerk." This was a good sign. Instead of shying from other horses as he'd done for sometime, he was becoming proactive and asking them to leave. "This is fantastic June. Have you ever seen him like this with other horses," I questioned? "Never," quipped June with determination in her voice too. This confident attitude was boosting us all as Milo's confidence blossomed.

I walked in and took the lead that was wrapped around his neck. "June, go get your saddle and snaffle bit," I suggested. June had a good stock saddle with a reasonably deep seat and a suede finish right under my derriere. I saddled the man without fanfare and adjusted the stirrups. After a second tightening of the cinch I snapped the stirrup leather loudly and he jolted backwards. "Ohhhh. Got a little issue here do we," I asked Milo? Sure enough the slapping of reins on the saddle and snapping of stirrup leathers really bothered him. So we stayed with it for awhile. With my hand under his neck supporting him I gently helped him learn to tolerate these issues. Within ten minutes he was relaxing about it as I aggressively worked on the saddle loud and hard. "Very, very good boy. You're just fine," I kept encouraging and he believed me!

I guess he invited me to go riding because at one point it just felt right and I climbed on. He was totally relaxed. I asked for his head to each side, which he gave happily. I then walked off and did a couple of one-rein stops in each direction. He was a little behind finding the stop on the right, but we got there after a half dozen tries. With a bump on his shoulder, his front quarters reversed back over his haunches to the right. I knew we now had an interesting challenge to face. Show time. "Okay. Now you both start riding around nice and quiet. We'll come up to you very slowly, then build to speed and squeezing him." We started moving around in a very unassuming manner, not pushing too hard nor fast. Now at the walk toward each other. Doing great. Now speed it up a bit. Doing fine. Now trotting toward me and Milo begins getting kind of jumpy, right on the edge of losing it. "Easy man. Easy man." Over and over I talked and rubbed with my hands and reins on his withers in support. "A little faster now. Let's find out if he's going to make it."

There was a fine line on which to balance here, very fine. The old behavior was just so entrenched in his psyche. He wanted to flip, but with my encouragement verbal and tactile, he made it until he could handle the two trotting right at him and not flinch while moving right toward them. But it sure wasn't as solid as it needed to be for me to call him 'fixed.' "Let's head out to the arena," I announced.

I coaxed Milo over to the gate and leaned over. I rattled it lightly at first, then louder. He didn't even notice. Out the gate and over to the arena we walked as the four horsewomen followed us. We walked in and spread out. "You guys stay down at this end and just kind of walk around and make yourselves accessible. Let's not pressure him too much at first," I instructed pointedly as I slipped on my helmet. I then walked past Cindy, then Sharon at an animated walk, then turned and followed the fence as Mary came up toward me. "You take the inside and let me keep him on the rail Mary. Speed up just a bit." Mary was on a little dun mare with a pronounced stripe down her back, handy little horse. She was almost at a trot as we approached. I felt Milo hesitate and tighten and immediately took hold of him with my whole being and said, "You're ok big fella," and pushed him by. My hands with a tight hold of the thick leather reins kneaded encouragement into his withers. We turned to face Melissa on her sweet chestnut thoroughbred. As we passed we both reached out and high fived loudly. My right hand was again on Milo's withers saying, "It's just fine. This is what life is all about Milo. What a boy!" The tempo increased as Sharon on Raphael, her magnificent Peruvian whizzed by in a controlled but animated Corto. I felt Milo almost bolt. He was right on the verge when my legs, hands, body, and mind said to him, "Keep it under control. You can do it." And he did. More and more he became a different horse right before our very eyes. I did less as he did more. His confidence exploded. His entire demeanor became one of exuding supreme confidence. Back and forth. In, under, around, and through we weaved at all gaits and directions. "Yes! He's making it. This is unbelievable. I love it," I exclaimed with absolute glee! The tears were welling in my eyes. They were running down June's face as Milo made the transformation from a frightened timid animal to a confident, almost brash elegant and magnificent horse. "My whole year is made Frank," June shouted with unbridled happiness. "So is mine."

Frank Bell is a horsewhisperer. He specializes in helping lost horses and the people who have lost them. He conducts clinics and demonstrations worldwide. Most importantly Frank has created a straightforward set of exercises that is sweeping the Natural Horsemanship Movement with its practicality and sensibility. It does not take years of tests and levels to understand how to relate to horses. It takes patience and empathy.

Frank Bell is certifying selected trainers to become partners in his Gentle Solutions Movement. Learn about it. Read about it. Become a partner and join the gentle solution revolution. Information/ordering: 800-871-7635

Frank Bell has specialized for years in helping horses through their people problems. Bell is truly a horsewhisperer. He has pioneered a practical set of exercises to help the horse and the rider reach higher ground. This 7 Step Safety System is being used worldwide with predictable success. Frank's company Dances With Horses offer a variety of products including an audio/video library to help equestrians achieve their goals. Frank's safety system has been featured in major equine publications worldwide. Ordering: 800-871-7635. Join the Gentle Solution Revolution at:

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Updated: October 2005.