Sahib's Waltzes Through His Trauma
I had heard Sahib's tragic story long before meeting him last week. A year earlier as a yearling he had spooked and run through not one, two, or three fences, but four and two of them barbed wire. His whole body had been slashed up and it was questionable whether he would survive. Hundreds of stitches and thousands of dollars later, he had not only survived, but to even a discerning eye, healed up remarkably well. But the mental scars were far too deep for his owner, Kathy Raider to deal with. The sight of a lead rope would send him flying into the walls of his stall in terror. Kathy had wanted to bring him to my clinic the previous weekend, but of course he couldn't be loaded, nor would it have been the right venue to help him.
I arrived at al-Zarka Arabian Horse Farm in the middle of a beautiful windless afternoon on the first day of November. Kathy Raider raised high-end Arabians of rare Egyptian bloodlines. Her attractive adobe house fronted the property that sat high on the plains above Colorado Springs. The majestic Rocky Mountains with Pike's Peak at the center framed her views to the west. The 12-stall barn, white fenced arena, and round pen sat a good distance behind the house and were well positioned to function as breeding and training facility. It was truly a show place with very fancy horses to match it.
Kathy greeted me as
I drove up to the barn. The serious demeanor mirrored her concern for
her traumatized horse and hesitancy to trust anyone to handle him. There
had been other attempts, all unsuccessful. There had also been discussions
about tranquilizing the horse to begin his training. Even her vet was
at wit's end.
He had an intelligent, but fearful look with too much white in his eyes. He was beyond alert and suspicious and made me a hair nervous or should I say raised my level of caution. Stallions of this age are so full of hormones and unbridled energy; sometimes they are dangerous to themselves and their handlers. And here was a horse that hadn't been handled in a year. He shot around the stall like a rocket and stopped abruptly in the corner next to his older brother who seemed to calm him. "I believe I'll leave my glasses and hat with you Kathy," I mentioned and handed them to her. I'd been bumped too many times in the head to consider anything sharp or breakable anywhere nearby. Caution. Extreme caution with this horse.
Kathy opened the stall door and we both walked in. We left the door slightly open for a hasty exit if needed. Surprisingly she walked right up to him and stroked his neck, then introduced me. His head shot up in the air as he surveyed me with wide eyes and a very high head. "Eeeeeeeasy boy. Eeeeeeasy boy," I cooed softly and reached out to touch his forehead. He accepted me hesitantly. "Well I'm amazed he is even this trusting Kathy. You've done a nice job of bringing him back," I complimented her. "You would not believe how long this has taken. He couldn't be touched at all after the accident," she added. The three of us stood together for a few minutes as we all tried to relax a bit. Then I asked Kathy to leave me with him. "Be very careful Frank. He is lightning fast. He'll throw himself right into the wall or try to climb out when he freaks," she added. There was a distinct nervousness in her soft voice and I sensed she was more worried about me than the horse.
A Previous Trauma Situation
I thought back to another trauma situation I'd dealt with several years earlier. Often times my previous experiences help me with the current challenge. I had been called to work with a horse of almost the same age, color, and proportions about fifty miles to the north in the town of Castlerock. But this horse had been a quarter horse of racing lines and extremely high-stung. The sound of the stall door sliding open sent him climbing the walls of his stall on two feet in shear terror. The walls were covered with hoof marks and the floor had deep holes where the poor horse had been pawing madly. As I recalled, I'd been able to finesse a couple pieces of twine over his neck. I'd allowed him to drag it around the stall for a half-hour or so, then let him into his run, but not before positioning the owners on two sides of the run and my helper on the third side. I instructed them to block him from running through the fencing by waving arms, yelling, and doing absolutely anything needed to keep him from trying to go over the top or through the wire fencing. The horse raced out toward the far end with the twine chasing behind him. His eyes were white with fear, but when he reached the end of the run and met waving hands and voices, he turned and circled back. Success! He circled for awhile longer, then eventually settled down. I was able to then get a hold of the twine and begin the process of bringing him back. Today he is one of the fastest horses on the quarter horse circuit.
"Bring me a couple pieces of twine, " I instructed Kathy. She left and Sahib and I got acquainted. I positioned myself off to the side a bit leaving him plenty of room to move if he so needed. I explored his head and face, search touching for his secret spots. He enjoyed the attention, but remained extremely alert. I rubbed his eyes firmly and scratched his forehead with my fingernails. The V in the underside of his jaw was deep and clogged with matted hair. My fingers found their way up inside and suddenly his head quivered with delight. I indulged him for about fifteen seconds, then suddenly quit and walked to the diagonal corner. He lowered his head and licked his lips, then looked at me and his eyes softened. The white in his eyes lessened a bit. After a few moments he deliberately walked over to me and asked me to work that V under his jaw again. By now Kathy was back with the twine. She handed me three pieces of orange plastic bailing twine. I tied two together with a square knot and put a three-inch loop in each end. I then coiled up the twine into my right hand and turned around to find Sahib standing back in the corner with his buddy. He knew something was up. This was a very alert horse with the senses of a wild animal. I eased over to him and again worked on his face and neck and talked assuringly. He saw the twine and backed abruptly into the corner crashing into the plastic feed bin, then shot forward right by me all the way around each corner of the stall banging hard into each wall then back into his secure corner. I had moved to the middle of the 12 x 12 area to allow him to settle and told Kathy to have the sliding door open about 6" and be ready to open it for me if it all got too wild. My heart was beating fast and hard as I gave us both some time to settle before pressing on.
I coiled the twine into a tighter ball and concealed it in my hand again then eased back to Sahib who had stopped in the corner. He watched me very closely as I approached. Again I left him plenty of room to leave as I began indulging him with my touch. He relaxed to my hand and I was able to get both arms around his neck and reassure him. I then opened my right hand and allowed half the twine to drop over each side of his neck. I moved back quickly as he became aware of the feel of the twine and shot past me. "Let me out," I instructed. The door slid open as I darted out and turned to see Sahib do another round banging loudly into each corner and slam hard into the corner right next to the gate. Kathy and I looked at each other. "Don't worry. He'll settle. He has to work through this and find that the twine is nothing and that he can handle it," I reassured her. My prediction was spot-on. After moving around the stall another half dozen trips he was planted back in his favorite corner. The twine now hanging off his withers was touching his back leg on the off side. I entered the stall again and walked over to him. I stroked his neck and his secret spots to settled him down. I guided his head to the side and into me. I worked the corners of his mouth with the knuckle of my index finger, then got inside and feathered his tongue. He was breathing hard and sweat was beading up on his chest, but he was trusting me and seemed to understand I was here to help him. I gathered the twine on the near side and then reached under his neck and pulled the slack up from the floor. With a loop around his neck, I backed away and began a very light sawing motion with the twine up and down his neck, gradually increasing the pressure until he yielded to it. He took a tiny step in my direction and I released immediately and praised him. I turned to Kathy and smiled. "The worst is over. He's really beginning to trust again and understand the basics of take and give." I heard a sigh behind me as Sahib let out a deep breath. Kathy and I did the same. I allowed him to digest our success for a long minute, then moved in and praised him lavishly. "You are the best thing that ever happened," I complimented him as I stroked his face, eyes, and ears. He licked his lips and dropped his head in a sign of relaxation.
Let the Twine Games Begin
From this point forward it was a matter of playing the take and give game and building Sahib's confidence by asking him to handle more and more. I slid the twine up his neck and positioned myself about thirty degrees off to his left side, pulled, and waited. I could see his little mind working through this as his alert eyes and ears worked back and forth in deep concentration. Each time he yielded to the pressure in a shorter time and with more confidence and understanding. Before long he was following me around the stall like a champ bursting with pride and budding confidence. Now it was time to turn up the heat a bit and challenge him at a little higher level, but not before loving him up and reinforcing the first three steps of my 7 Step Safety System-
I moved into him and gave him a thorough session of bonding. Confidently and almost aggressively I was now able to work on his face. I scratched his forehead hard with my fingernails, rubbed his eyes, and got into his mouth and nose and all around and inside his lips. I worked his ears with gusto. He loved the attention and didn't show any signs of resistance until we moved to the second step, take and give. I positioned the twine over his poll, just behind his ears and pulled downward firmly. Not only did he not understand this, he resisted and raised his head high in the air trying to find relief. I stayed right with it and held tight for almost a full minute. His head went higher and off to each side, but I held tight. Suddenly he gave me a quarter inch. I released immediately and praised him lavishly telling him he was absolutely the most brilliant student I'd ever had. He bought it, lowered his head and licked his lips with pride. I winked at Kathy while this all sunk in to his highly impressionable brain. "He's really coming along now Kathy. This is so important, the lowering of the head. He's understanding pressure and release which is the basis for all training. Equally important, he is lowering his head in a sign of relaxation. Think about it. Head up is an uptight horse. Head down is relaxed. This is great," I explained enthusiastically. I then started again. This time he figured it out in a couple of seconds and lowered his head immediately. Within a few more minutes his head was hanging almost to the ground signifying a relaxed attitude and extreme trust in me.
Now it was time to ask for his head to each side, lateral flexion. I allowed the twine to hang off his neck and gently guided his head to the near side using the convenient nose-handle just above his nostrils. He yielded his head with delight right into his girth area and found me there waiting for him. We exchanged air for a bit as I breathed into his nose, then my right hand drifted back to his flanks with a firm stoking motion, then up to the dock of his tail. I scratched the dock and top of his tail as he raised it with pleasure and anticipation. I then indulged him by stroking the silky underside of his tail with my fingernails. He could not have lifted his tail any higher! Sahib was just the right size and I was able to easily perform this the third step in my program- intimacy. I was breathing in his nose while stroking the underside of his tail! He was wrapped around me like a pretzel. This was a huge step for this particular horse, signifying big league trust. Let the twine games continue.
Since ropes, leads, and lines of any sort were Sahib's nemesis, it was time to help him handle this disturbing issue. His demeanor and progress told me he was ready to deal with desensitizing, the fourth step in my program. I moved away from him and began swinging the twine like playing jump rope. He handled the swinging pretty well curiously paying close attention, but not needing to move. But when I flipped it up high and did a complete loop, his head shot up in the air with concern. He had suddenly seen the loop of twine with both eyes instead of just the left eye. But I stayed with it and continued doing big circles until he accepted it and relaxed a bit. Then, while I had the twine really swinging back and forth, I flipped it up over his head. It landed over one of his ears. This was just too much for him. His head shot high into the air, white filled his eyes, and he exploded off around the stall carrying the twine with him. I let go completely and bolted out of the stall. Kathy and I watched as he slammed into each corner racing around the stall irrationally three or four times. "It's tough putting him through this, but he has to get over it," I explained to her and squeezed her shoulder assuringly. Her concerned look relaxed a bit when he stepped on the twine and it moved back behind his ear, then down his neck. The twine was doing a great job of finding all his sensitive spots while I stood back and watched and allowed this to unfold. Gradually he realized this line dragging around his legs, over his head and neck, and really all over his entire body was nothing to fear. I went back in. Again I loved him up and praised him. He really was progressing fabulously considering where we had started. I then started all over with the jump-rope program. This time he calmly stood and accepted it everywhere on his body. I stopped, walked over to the far corner and kneeled down. He watched my every move closely, then lowered his head in my direction and took a step, then another and then was there sniffing me all over. His soft whiskers tickled my face and neck as his warm breathing mingled with my own. He suddenly lifted his head high and looked down as if to say, "Hey. That all you got?"
The Dance Begins.
The fourth step in my system is where I begin to direct movement. It is a driving procedure that is quite practical when needing to send a horse out in front, like into a trailer, stall, or paddock. Having mastered the earlier tasks, which heightened his confidence, Sahib was clearly ready for this. I began an overhand swinging motion that culminated in tapping him lightly on the sides with the end of the twine then gradually progressed back to his rump. I watched closely for forward movement. He stood perfectly still but did flinch noticeably each time the twine made contact. When the twine found it's way to his hind end he leaned forward to get away from it. I quit and let it sink in for a bit. I was after forward movement as well as his acceptance of the intermittent touching as the twine fell lightly on his body. I started again right from the very beginning. I showed him the twine, began swinging it in the air, made contact in his shoulder area, and then worked back to his point of hip. He moved forward. I encouraged with my body language, hand, and a clucking sound. Before long he was moving around me in complete understanding. The Dance had now started. After a half dozen trips around the stall I eased into him, made contact on his side with my hand, and took the slack out of the twine. With the twine guiding his neck to the side, we found our way down to a stop. His head came around to greet me. We had just performed a one-rein stop on the ground! In another year or so with the right handling this would transfer right into the saddle, which is the whole point of my system. Get it on the ground first, then in the saddle. And we're both a lot safer for it. . . I then threaded the twine under his neck, over his rump, and behind his hocks around his offside. I pushed his head away from me and helped him unwind away from this pressure. He akwardly moved off then kicked out at the twine touching his back legs. I encouraged forward movement and he immediately found complete relief from the twine. He lowered his head in understanding as I wound him down to a stop,back to the safe loving place we'd created earlier. One more time I asked him to move off away from the twine on his right. This time he confidently worked right through and didn't even consider kicking out.
This particular exercise
is one of the best I've ever found because it accomplishes so much. When
a horse can confidently unwind away from the lead on the opposite side,
he is working through a number of issues including:
I discovered this exercise years earlier quite by accident when working with Argentine polo horses in South Carolina in the late 80's. I'd broken a collarbone after being slammed into the side of a solid wooden round pen coming off the second horse I'd ever started. I now had some time to think and plot a course. As I healed over that month and a half I made a promise to myself that I would NEVER mount another horse without a ground system fully established that would promote my safety as well as the horse's. When I could use my left arm again, I started experimenting with a variety of horses and exercises. When I stumbled onto this unwinding procedure, it seemed to really settle the horses. It forced their minds to fully engage. It challenged them and prepared them for life and a whole plethora of tasks. To this day, I have yet to discover a ground exercise that is more encompassing than this one, as it truly does emulate a dance when performed with grace and precision.
Finally . . . Time For the Halter
With Sahib doing so well with the twine, I felt the time had come for my custom halter/lead, which is the handiest tool I own and fits nearly all horses. Kathy had warned me about even the sight of a halter, but by now he was almost begging for it. I draped the lead over my arm and arranged the soft rope halter in preparation for an easy and efficient haltering. I gave Sahib a good stroking on his neck and face and got my arms completely around his neck and pulled him into me. He readily complied. I gently slipped the soft nosepiece up and over his muzzle, then passed the long end of the halter to myself and secured the knot. Voila! With my halter/lead securely on, we were ready to conquer the world.
I drove Sahib around the stall several more times and then had him unwind away from the thick yacht rope lead. When satisfied, Kathy opened the top of his stall door and we allowed him to look out into his run. I did not want him abruptly flying out the door, but wanted to prepare him for this next stage. When his mind seemed right, we opened the bottom. I stepped out in front and asked him to stay back in the stall with my hands in the air blocking him. I waited until he seemed calm, then asked him to join me. He very hesitantly stepped to the edge, placed one foot out, then the other. Before he could pick up momentum, I immediately circled him down and reassured him that what went on inside would also continue out here in the run. We started with small circles, then progressed to larger ones. He pranced around me with glee. When he approached irrational exuberance, I wound him down, quieted him, and started over. Sensing it was time to introduce the final step in my ground program, we waltzed right into ballet on the ground. Within a few minutes he was performing astonishing turns on the forehand followed by a weight shift as he rocked back and executed his turns on the haunches with grace and agility. This superb athlete was now truly using himself and showing off just a bit. He'd been cooped up for so long without any direction and now had a chance to strut his stuff and perform just as his magnificent appearance and stature so yearned to do. My eyes welled up as I delighted in our progress. I was astonished as I glanced at my watch. This entire transformation had taken exactly one hour!
I left Kathy with specific exercises, homework of sorts along with several videos, and my pocket card to review the first six steps of my system with Sahib. She ordered one of my custom halter/lead combos as well to help her perform the exercises as their education continued. As for Sahib? This is a horse I'll keep track of for years to come. I hope one day to be one his back. If the mind and athletic ability of this horse progress as they should, he'll be a delight to ride and a sire to horses for generations to come.
I thank each horse for teaching me and Sahib was no exception. We had thoroughly worked the first six steps of my 7 Step Safety System- bonding, take and give, intimacy, the dance begins, desensitizing, and ballet on the ground. But especially with the trauma Sahib had suffered, it was of vital importance to move very slowly especially in the early stages. Baby steps and patience are the operative words here. Allow each success to sink in fully while giving the horse adequate time to digest mini-bits of information. Beginning with the twine in a stall was a great start with Sahib as it is with all young horses. Most importantly, it is safe. They are not intimidated by it, nor does it require haltering or slipping anything over the head, a common hurdle for young horses. Once the understanding of pressure and release is fully intact, it's time for the halter. As Tom Dorrance espoused at one of his clinics years earlier, "If you are really tuned into the horse, it could all be accomplished with two pieces of thread, one on the horse and one for the round pen." Thanks Tom!
Dancing With Horses Using Gentle Solutions
Frank Bell was a horsewhisperer long before the term existed in this country. His ability to cure the most difficult horses has captured the rapt attention of the media throughout the world. His company Dances With Horses offers a variety of clinics and products to help horsemen and women better communicate with their animals. Frank's 7-Step-Safety-System is now being embraced throughout both hemispheres as horse and humans truly cooperate and ride in confidence and safety. The videos most applicable to the above story are Frank's foundation video "Discover the Horse You Never Knew" which outlines his Safety System and "Working With Young Horses" in which weanlings, yearling, and a spoiled two-year stallion are featured. These are all horses Frank had never worked with prior to the very day of producing this fine work. This is invaluable information for anyone working with younger horses. All products may be ordered off Frank Bell's website at: www.horsewhisperer.com or by calling 800-871-7635 in the U.S.A. and 303-681-3723 in Colorado.
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Updated: October 2005.