Mr P’s Pace Halo
star and small hind sock
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Mason was surrendered to SAFE by his owners who were no longer able to care for him. He is a sweet and friendly Thoroughbred gelding, big bodied and tall. As we got to know Mason better, we discovered that he has some deep anxieties, particularly around being ridden. Although we were told that he had a lot of training, Mason made it clear that whatever he experienced in the past was traumatic for him. For that reason, we are offering Mason for adoption as a companion horse. Mason is fulfilling those duties at SAFE as the companion to our blind mare, Stormy. Mason and Stormy are true friends, and spend every day together in the pasture.
The following is an article written by Elsa Sinclair, the San Juan Island native who pioneered Freedom Based Training™ in her movie Taming Wild. Elsa visited Safe Harbor last week to spend some time with Mason. Elsa has been working with several horses to explore the foundations of FBT, to discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language. She writes about a few other recent sessions she’s done on her blog, but this was her first time working with Mason:
Last week I made the effort to train and hone my skills with a rescue horse I had never met before. This was an effort to pour considerable time into a relationship with a horse I did not know, and I might not meet again. I wasn’t there to change him or train him, I was only there to get to know him, while I developed my own skills of feel and timing.
The SAFE organization was happy for me to come and spend a day with Mason, a beautiful red bay Thoroughbred, out in his paddock and they were happy to tell me as much or as little as I wanted to know about this blind date we were setting up. It was a relatively kind situation for me to walk into because, while Mason showed a body full of scars that spoke to a hard life in his past, his future was bright. He was a horse who seemed to resist training with difficult explosions of flight when he got overwhelmed, and yet he was one of the lucky ones who had found a person who wanted him in their life regardless of his difficulties. Mason was currently living at the rescue, but would be soon moving to a new home.
I was there to learn from Mason, and I had the calming knowledge that he had a person who cared greatly about him and would be there for him, even when I walked away at the end of our blind date.
In this particular situation I had seven hours to spend with this horse before he went into the stalls for dinner, where guests were not invited to linger. My normal training challenge this past month had been eight hours spent with one horse in one day, but there was no particularly good reason for this time frame, it was just an arbitrary number. Seven hours was going to teach me a significant amount also.
It was important to me that I listen to the horse in the current moment more than I tried to understand any of his past. I didn’t mind that I was told he was explosive in flight when too much pressure was put on him, but I didn’t need to know why. I could see he was covered in scars, but I didn’t need to know the stories behind the scars. I simply needed to be present with this horse, asking nothing of him, while I listened to him deeply and made choices around him, so I could hone my personal understanding of feel and timing to a sharper point of accuracy.
Now at first I started by harmonizing with Mason from a medium distance while he grazed, perhaps a horse length away from him or a little more. This is my most comfortable distance and it is where I feel I have the best rhythm in my movements as I respond to the thinking twitches of ears and subtle shifts in mental awareness as the horse looks from one thing to a different thing.
Mason seemed reasonably comfortable, sometimes getting close to a fence and letting me know I had stayed on that side for a bit too long by forcing me to choose a different place. Other times edging closer and closer to me as we stepped our way into a touching distance. He for the most part ate grass and seemed to accept my presence, only occasionally giving me any attention at all.
His pasture mate on the other hand almost seemed to be in competition with me (I have no idea if that assessment has any place in reality, I am only relating what I felt as I observed). I would match Mason’s feet positions and steps from where I stood about a horse length away, and repeatedly Mason’s pasture mate would step neatly between us matching his feet to Mason’s as well, while making sure my only next choices could be farther away not closer to his friend.
I noticed more often than not they matched each other in mirror image, opposite hooves moving in harmony like kids running a three-legged race instead of the left foot – left foot, right foot – right foot I feel like I usually see in horse partners. I] don’t know what significance this holds if any, but I made a mental note to keep my eyes open for these kinds of situations that seemed to bring out one way of partnership versus another.
A few hours into the project, Mason was moved from the grazing pasture to the dirt lot with hay to eat and a larger group of horses to interact with. In the new space I spent an hour or so partnering at my most comfortable distance and then I decided it was time for me to experiment with my distance partnership.
Distance is not usually something I practice, because I love being close to horses, and most of my horses love being close to me. However, I know the new stallions for this next movie are not going to start out that way, and I need to hone my distance partnership skills!
Mason ended up being the best teacher I have ever had in this distance partnership. As soon as I was on the far side of the paddock it was like his brain unlocked. His ears started gently and easily changing focus all the time, his eyes started seeing things and changing focus categories with effortless ease. All of a sudden Mason was a million times more involved in being part of life around him. I had thought he was perfectly happy with me at the medium and close distances, but only when I stepped out to the farther distances did I see him really come alive and dynamically enjoy the world in a different way.
Now, on this particular day it was interesting to note, it wasn’t just me, it was the other horses also. When they were close, Mason shut down a little. He did not seem unhappy, simply less involved in living. When Mason had space, it was like his brain woke up and he could fully enjoy everything he saw and heard around him. He liked his friends, he just changed who he was a little and seemed to become smaller and less involved when his friends were close.
I have never seen anything quite like this in any of the horses I have spent time partnering, and for me it was the perfect experience to hone my skills in the area Mason seemed to most enjoy my company.
In hour number five, I am often most tired, so when Mason stepped under the apple tree to take a deep nap, I let myself step in close and work at my happiest distance, almost touching. For about an hour I stood or crouched next to Mason while he slept, watching for nonexistent danger so he could feel safe, and changing position around him to assess the safety from a different place each time he flicked an ear.
Then Mason woke up and I saw that the slight freeze habits of the morning were greatly minimized after his long freeze of napping and rest.
In this optimal state of rested awareness, Mason and I were joined by the people at the rescue who love him and care for him, and I was able to share the things I had seen and learned throughout the day.
I continued to work my partnership from the far side of the medium distance, while his other human friends played with partnering him from various places of closeness and we talked about his responses.
You could see how stepping in close led to an instant freeze and his eyes and his ears slowed in their responsiveness to everything, as if his brain was working through peanut butter.
For the rest of the day I talked theory with the humans who came to join Mason and I, and I think I was able to shed some light on perhaps why he explodes into flight when he feels the pressure of training, but it seems his brain is stuck in slow motion. If you can’t think your way to a solution in training, the only option that seems left to relieve pressure is to run like hell or fight back. Luckily for everyone Mason wasn’t a natural fighter, he was more likely to run like hell. He wanted to be with people, he seemed to like people, his brain just moved really slowly when they were close to him and that caused him problems trying to learn the kinds of things people expected him to learn.
I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Was Mason born like this which led to people abusing him? Or did people create this by causing Mason so much stress every time they were close that he developed a habit of freeze that then led to him getting abused more. I don’t know, and I am not sure I need to know. I simply know that we can help.
With good feel and timing Mason can learn to think as clearly in close partnerships as he does in distance partnerships.
This process of Freedom Based Training® where we help horses be the best version of themselves voluntarily is slow to develop, but it often works where other types of training have failed.
I know I learned a huge amount from my blind date with Mason, and hopefully I left a little light and understanding in the hands of the humans who work with him every day.
Now, I just need to find my partners for the Evolution project so I can put all I learned from Mason into practice in a long term experiment for the world to share with me. I want to show how Freedom Based Training® can be effective in rebuilding broken trust or building trust to begin with. Domestic or wild, untouched or abused, the concepts apply equally regardless of the horse or their history. I want to show how good feel and timing and a deep well of patience can be applied to create the kind of relationship with horses we all want: collaborative, voluntary, deep, and rewarding.
Here is a glowing report from Lori on her work with Mason in the recent clinic at SAFE:
On November 18th I took Mason into the groundwork portion of the Joel Conner clinic. Mason did such a great job. His reactiveness has improved so much. Joel even came over and took him from me. He tossed the rope at him and moved him around. Told me that Mason is doing so much better since the last time he saw him. Joel said that is was making it hard for him not to ride Mason since he is doing so well. So proud of this boy. Love him!
Lori has been working with Mason since his arrival at SAFE last year. She continues to chip away at his issues, hoping that he may still become a safe riding partner. For now, all this groundwork is helping him to trust people and be more comfortable in his body. Here is what Lori had to share about him in the clinic last weekend:
Today was the second day of this weekend’s Joel Conner clinic. I attended the Morning groundwork portions of the clinic with Mason. One of my goals was to gain some specific tools to help me with the bracing and anxiety that Mason has stored up from his past life of abuse. This poor boy has been let down by the man time and time again. He is so loving and wants to try hard but has had such a hard time letting go of his fears and stressors. This is my second clinic with Mason and I feel he came out of this one with some really big changes.
With Joel’s help, Mason started freeing up his feet, relaxing and bending and even letting his head lower to the ground at times. I really saw a change in him. By the end of the clinic he was more relaxed than I have ever seen him. He was yielding his hindquarters and forequarters more fluidly. I could toss the rope at his lumbar area most of the time without him squirting out and locking up his neck and whole body for that matter. I was so proud of him and I am very excited to see what we accomplish in the next few weeks. Thanks to Joel for helping me understand our sweet Mason more and giving me the tools to help reach past his fears.
Barn Manager Lori McMasters has a huge place in her heart for Mason, and spends lots of time working with him on the ground in preparation for returning to saddle work when he is ready. (And only when he is ready — he will tell us when it’s time!) Lori built this bridge from pallets for SAFE’s work-in-progress trails course, and she demonstrates just one of the ways that the bridge can be used to gain Mason’s trust and boost his confidence! Mason does a great job here listening to Lori as she asks him to move his feet. It’s no wonder she loves this horse!!
Ian took Mason into our last clinic with Joel Conner. Here is what he had to say about the experience:
Mason – Joel Conner Clinic – Groundwork – Day 1 – 6/10
Mason and I have slowly been building trust together since he first appeared at SAFE with both sides “mysteriously” scarred and deep fear that would surface if I held a rake or broom near his right side. Lori has done an amazing job slowly coaxing out more and more trust from him, and I am so grateful to her for letting me play with this amazing horse. The clinic environment was a little challenging for Mason at first, but he was relatively quiet for most of the morning. His spookiness subsided as I worked the flag over both sides, but it remained consistently present with each fresh approach. He began to loosen up a little more when flexing to the halter, but he had a really hard time circling me at a pace slower than a trot. Joel took some time with him to work the flag over him more, with a more intense feel. This, predictably, drove Mason crazy at first, but with each new attempt he grew quieter and quieter. When I took over, his reactions would still surface, but to a much lesser extent, and I got to be more and more assertive with the flag around him. Despite all the tension and fear he carries, Mason was able to bring his energy down after every session and meet the next attempt with fresh try. He is such a sweet horse, and he learns everything so quickly. I know it’s just a matter of time and consistency for his nerves to settle.
Mason – Joel Conner Clinic – Groundwork – Day 2 – 6/11
In the second day of the clinic, Mason was even more calm than when he started the first day. He had only one major freakout, and that was about being approached by the flag when passing between me and another object – in this case, the arena wall. With Joel’s help, after some more repetition in that space, Mason calmed down to the point that he would move through that gap at a walk, with the flag either approaching his rear, resting on his back, or tickling his cinch area. After all our desensitizing, he finally gave me a gentle walk, and was unperturbed by anything the flag would do around him. Finally, at the end of the second day, when we were sharing parting thoughts with Joel, Mason gave me a giant, long-necked yawn – the only one of the whole clinic weekend. Leading him back to his pasture, he felt like a different horse. He was so much more relaxed after that work, I can’t wait to see how he does as his work continues.
Mason and I attended the Joel Conner clinic on March 18th and 19th. I entered Mason in the groundwork portion of the clinic. Mason did a wonderful job of moving out of my way while doing the groundwork. We worked on yielding the hindquarters and the forequarters. We worked on the basics of leading and moving on the lead with no resistance. Mason partnered up with me and really paid attention to what was asked of him. I was quite happy with his progress in this. Mason needs a lot of desensitizing and building trust with his human. Mason is a sensitive boy.. He engages well and try’s really hard to do what is asked of him but there is an insecurity that lies close to the surface. He wants to trust but needs that one person who he can place his trust in and is willing to meet him where he is at. We will continue to work on these skills to help Mason be more confident. He is a sweet soul and just needs that special partner.
Mason has had a bit of a tender hoof lately. To help him feel better, he got a circulation taping on his right hoof to help increase blood flow and promote healing. SAFE Barn Manager Lori, who has been working on both training and bodywork with Mason, said that the tape can help him not only heal faster but provide him with some extra comfort. She is also treating the soles of his hooves with Venice Turpentine to help harden them. We’ll see if this helps before we resort to putting shoes and pads on him. Mason has such nice large, strong hooves, it would be great if we could keep him barefoot. This is all part of the rehabilitation process, one day at a time to help heal and strengthen the horses.
Our new buddy Mason came to us with trouble in his eyes and scars all over his body. He radiated tension and fear. Our initial evaluation was that he might never be able to be safely ridden. Barn manager Lori M took this horse under her wing and has already spent many hours with him, working him on the ground and helping him gain confidence. The transformation in this horse is already profound.
Mason is a 15 year old Thoroughbred gelding who has come to SAFE because his owners could no longer care for him. He’s a nice fellow who is very friendly and willing, but whether he can be safely ridden is yet to be determined. As we start to piece together his past, we are discovering that life has not been easy for Mason.
We know he’s been ridden in the past, because unfortunately he has spur marks and scarring to prove it. Eight years ago, he was sold as a riding horse “for an experienced rider”. The person who bought him got bucked off, and then apparently turned him out to pasture for the next seven years. He was then given away to a couple who put him into full time training until the point that they could no longer afford to pay his board & training bills. We’ve been given conflicting reports on how successful his year of training was, so we have no choice but to approach Mason as a horse that has not been ridden in at least eight years. First and foremost, we have to keep our people safe.
As luck would have it, trainer Joel Conner arrives tomorrow for a clinic at SAFE so he will undoubtedly have the opportunity to work with Mason and assess him.
Mason is in good weight, but he has a very high worm load, so his belly appears distended. He’s up to date on shots and teeth, and it appears he’s been getting his feet trimmed on a regular basis but is overdue. His body is covered with scratches and scrapes and scars, which is very puzzling as no one at his barn knew how he’d gotten so banged up. (He’s got a stall and a run here at SHS and he hasn’t exhibited any weird behavior in his stall so far, so it remains a mystery.) There is also something wrong with his left eye. He’s overly sensitive on that side, and overreacts to any attempt to touch his face on that side. The eye itself does appear swollen, and his vet records reveal that it has been examined and flushed after excess discharge was seen. We learned a lot about eye problems thanks to Anakin, so we will likely have Mason’s eye pressure tested to see if uveitis is present. There is no cloudiness in the eye that we can see, but something is definitely bothering him.
Mason is supposedly a registered Thoroughbred, but he does not appear to have been raced because he doesn’t have a lip tattoo. His registered name is Mr P’s Pace Halo, but we haven’t been able to confirm that through official channels, just Thoroughbred Pedigree Query, which is not always correct.
Here are the photos taken as he arrived at Safe Harbor:
1. Cheryl C.
2. Margaret C.
3. Jane M.
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