Paramount Learns To Give It Up . . . Again
By Frank Bell
My neighbor Paula Kane called last May with a definite strain in her voice. "You know my big grey thoroughbred Paramount," she asked me? "Couldnt miss him Paula. Big as a house. Sure I know the horse," I replied. "Well the last three or four shoeings have been a nightmare. And its getting worse even with tranquilizers. Its to the point of sweating and swearing. Im afraid Ill lose my farrier or hell hurt the horse. Do you think you can help me Frank," she pleaded? "Well Ive done a lot of work with foot handling problems. Ill swing by tomorrow and take a look. 9:30 okay," I asked Paula? "That would be great. I might as well mention that the shoer kind of has an attitude about horsewhispering. He doesnt believe in it," she added. "No problem. Maybe he will if I can turn this situation around. Doesnt matter to me. My goal is to help your horse. And youll have to learn how to help him as well. Ill give you some homework and exercises to do with Paramount. See you tomorrow," I finished.
Paramount was a massive twenty year old light grey, almost white, raw-boned thoroughbred. Id met him a couple of years earlier when Id first met my neighbors Jeff and Paula Kane. Hed raced as a youngster, then jumped big jumps for some years and was now relaxing in the twilight of his life. Hed seemed pretty checked out to me, not a real people horse. I was a little concerned about this foothandling issue, as I wasnt confident I could get through to him on my level, which places great importance in bonding first, then working on his issues.
The Kanes lived at a swanky ranch just down the road. Their huge house sat on top of a hill overlooking magnificent views of both the front range and the plains and foothills leading up to the eastern-most edge of the north/south wall of the Rocky Mountains. They had a small pasture in front bordering the road in which Paramount often grazed and a couple of sizeable paddocks in the back to the north. They did some fox hunting and their daughter Mariah showed on a serious level and did very well. But they were not touchy-feely people with their horses, and the horses showed it. The horses were not used to gentle touch or attention of that kind. Those kinds of situations can either work for me in a big way or against me to the same degree. I had my doubts about helping old Paramount, but went into it with plenty of optimism.
I gathered my tools of the trade, my 12 halter/lead combo and a 1" soft cotton rope of about fifteen feet, and walked over to the Kanes. Paula had the horse ready and looked a bit nervous. "Thanks for getting right on this Frank. I sure hope you can help us. Hes been such a great horse and weve never had a problem with the shoeing until recently. I just cant believe its happening. And I dont want to lose this guy. Hes really a good farrier," she informed me. "Ill see what I can do Paula."
As with all horses, I needed to gain Paramounts trust first, so started with just giving to him and searching for his secret spots. I call it bonding. I began by letting him sniff me well, then stroked his neck, then under his chin. The V under his jaw was bumpy and bitten up. I worked my fingernails into that groove and scratched. He turned his head to the side, rolled back his eyes with pleasure, and bobbed his head a bit. I quit while it was working. He lowered his head and worked his mouth. Id already made some big points so moved right to his eyes and rubbed vigorously with the palm of my hand. He leaned so hard into my hand I lost my balance and had to quit. Again the head dropped and his big tongue worked his lips as he relaxed. From there I search touched his head and neck and found he absolutely loved touch, just wasnt familiar with it or it had been a very long time. My confidence skyrocketed as I explored his body and found what he liked. This was a very neat horse that hadnt been loved on in awhile. My specialty!
I proceeded with the next two steps of my 7-Step-Safety-System, take and give and intimacy. He gave his head to the side willingly, then raised his tail with pleasure as I stroked his dock first, then the silky underside of his tail. With absolute delight he was wrapped around me like a pretzel. Fore and aft I smiled to myself. He delighted in our intimacy.
The intimacy step takes the horse back to the womb. Its my belief that all warm-blooded creatures crave the place we all started. Dogs, cats, humans all curl up when cold, insecure, or depressed into the fetal position. Couples do spoons to connect and stay warm. It feels safe, warm, and secure. When the horse allows his head to be guided to the girth area while enjoying the stroking on the underside of the tail, and finds that cocoon of warmth, weve arrived. In my mind this is big league trust. And trust is the place to start.
The Discovery Process
On to the problem. Paula had informed me that the hind legs were the issue, especially the right, which is typical. I asked for each front foot and gave Paramount a great foot massage to make the experience pleasurable. Again he melted into my attentions. I then stroked his back and sides working my way to the dock of his tail, then the underside, which again he lifted happily. A horse that readily lifts his tail will usually give his back feet as well. >From there I gently worked down his left leg stroking the whole way. By the time I got to his pastern hed unweighted his leg and lifted it just off the ground for me. I guided his leg back and cradled it into my lap and stroked his pastern and lower leg. He gave his leg hesitantly. I then tapped his hoof with the palm of my hand. He began to tense up and then sharply pulled his leg away. Id found the sticky point. His issue was the pounding of the nails. Voila!
I now had a clear focus on his issue. Being an older horse who had been worked hard, he no doubt had some tightness and arthritis. My experience told me the farrier had been lifting the foot too high when he began his nailing. So the horse associated the pounding with pain. My goal had now evolved to helping him learn to tolerate the pounding again. Id also need to convince the shoer to hold Paramounts back legs a bit lower to help him through this.
I walked over to my bag and removed my cotton rope. "Now watch closely Paula. This is something youll be doing for the next month or so. Your homework." I gently threaded the rope inside the left leg and began sawing back and forth, up and down the leg. Once Paramount was comfortable with the rope I moved behind and a bit off to the outside and applied obvious pressure asking Paramount to yield his left leg to the rear. He didnt understand, so I began a sawing motion to make my desire more obvious. Almost immediately he unweighted his foot. I released and praised him. I started again and this time he gave with a slight bit of pressure. Again, an immediate release. With this understanding fully imbedded, it was now time to turn up the heat a bit and deal with the tapping.
My goal now was to gently help Paramount tolerate very light tapping, then progress to something that would simulate nailing. With the help of the cotton rope I lifted his leg back and up. He gave willingly and once relaxed I lightly tapped his hoof with my open hand. After a few taps I quit and stroked his lower leg and praised him, then started again only more pronounced this time. I tapped progressively harder and louder until he tensed a bit, then quit and praised again. I then put his foot down and moved up to his head and loved him up, scratching that V under his jaw and rubbing his eyes vigorously while praising him as if he was the smartest and most important horse in the world. He completely melted and believed every single word I said. Then I stopped while it was working and watched him lower his head, lick his lips, and sigh heavily. He seemed to say to me, "I trust you completely. Where have you been? And what took you so long to get here?"
Again I worked my way back to his hind on-side leg, stroking his massive body the whole way. By the time I got there he had unweighted his leg and was ready to proceed. I lifted his foot and cradled it into my lap. I then again began tapping with my hand until it hurt me a bit, then removed my leatherman and started tapping lightly with that handy tool that resides on my belt. As I tapped harder and louder, again he tensed. I quit just this side of trouble and again praised him. He relaxed and we started again. This time I was able to really bang that metal tool hard over and over again and he did not react. Success. The Leatherman sounded about the same as the hammer and nails.
Now it was Paulas turn. I coached her on using the cotton rope and we found an old rasp in her tack room for simulating the pounding of nails. I left her with direct instructions to do this every day with each foot until the shoer returned. She assured me she would follow through. Her sincere desire to help Paramount overcome this hurdle left me satisfied that she would do just that.
Return of the Farrier
Paula called me about a month later. "Well Buddy is coming Thursday morning at 10:00 and Id like you to be there. Can you make it Frank?" I rearranged my schedule to accommodate her. I wouldnt miss this for the world. "No problem Paula. And lets feed him his grain after the shoes are on. Okay?" She agreed, then added, "Please be tactful with this guy. Im really worried he may just pack his tools up and leave with you there." "Dont you worry about a thing. Ill be Mr. Tact through and through," I assured her. "Also Paula, do the foot exercises before he gets there and really reassure him. Lots of praise." I added.
I showed up a few minutes before 10:00 and went through the program with Paramount. Paula had indeed done her work. He didnt even flinch as I banged hard with that old rasp on each hoof. He just hung his head contentedly and stayed completely relaxed. About fifteen minutes after the hour a very fancy truck with a shiny rear compartment appeared. I was introduced to Buddy Hawman, a short agreeable looking blonde man in his mid-forties. We conversed a bit before getting to the subject as I tried to put him at ease. I got a few smiles and he seemed to loosen up as I helped him move his tools to the concrete slab adjacent to the tack room. I suggested starting with his back legs. He looked at me askance. "Lets deal with the hard part first. The front feet will then be a piece of cake. Also, given his age and probable arthritis, try to not lift his hind legs any higher than necessary. Im just glad youre not 62" like the last shoer I worked with." Buddys smirk moved into a smile, as his size became an asset instead of an attitude.
With Paula up front holding and comforting Paramount, I stood off to the side and watched. The first shoe went on without a hitch. The horse was better than perfect. Sensing a prime opportunity to make my exit, I shook Buddys hand, left him some of my business cards, and headed to my next appointment.
Paula came over that evening with an exquisite bottle of Pinot Noir and a thank-you card. She was beaming. "The horse was perfect. I just cant believe it Frank." I sipped a bit of the red wine with satisfaction. "You know Paula, thats why I do what I do. I dont know anything more satisfying. So what did old Buddy have to say about horsewhispering?" "Oh, you didnt have anything to do with it. Somehow the horse just miraculously transformed in Buddys mind," Paula informed me as she shook her head. "Well thats the way it goes Paula. The ego sure can get in a persons way. As I said before, Im here for the horse and for you and we all came out big winners. Too bad Buddy wasnt man enough to recognize what went on. His loss."
Paramount has been an absolute gentleman for Buddy ever since. Hes never given me any credit or referrals. But I didnt expect that. I understand the male ego far too well.
Conclusion- Baby Steps
Horses can go for years performing perfectly. Then one day all that changes and what used to be easy is now very difficult. There are an abundance of reasons for such a change and sometimes it can be traced back to an incident. If horses could talk, it would be easy to understand what happened. But they cant tell us. And it really doesnt matter what did transpire. What does matter is getting the horse back on track. Just as Paramount had accepted shoeing for years, then suddenly didnt, there are numerous similar situations with horses of all ages, shapes, and sizes. The remedy involves close observation and patience. Once the issue is broken down to its finest degree, then its a matter of building that confidence back. Starting with something simple that the horse can tolerate is the answer. From there its about praise, stroking, and building to increasingly more difficult tasks in pursuit of conquering the phobia. The tendency is to push too hard, too fast. The challenge is to move at a pace that never threatens the horse, but instead helps the horse overcome his fear and build his confidence to become all he can be.
Horsemen and women throughout the world are embracing Frank Bells Gentle Solutions Approach. His highly effective 7-Step-Safety-System has been featured in Western Horseman Magazine and numerous equine publications and web sites throughout the world. Franks foundation video "Discover the Horse You Never Knew", his audio book "The Gentle Solution: 7 Steps to the Horse Youve Always Wanted", and the new "Problem Foothandling " video is all applicable to the above article. The Dances With Horses Audio and Video Library, Franks clinic schedule, and other quality products are all available online at www.gentlesolutions.com or by calling 800-871-7635. Colorado residents call: 303-681-3723.
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Updated: October 2005.