Someone once told me that in their experience the Yakima Reservation horses were like trying to tame a “wild cat”. They are flighty, jumpy and in that person’s eyes almost impossible to domesticate. For us, the jury is still out. We have seen now our fair share of them come through SAFE, and each with their own personality. We have come across those that tend more on the anxious flighty side but really can feel no different than other breeds who tend towards the “hot” temperament. These horses can be either the greatest to work with or someone’s worst nightmare, it is all in the perspective the handler takes.
What is very rewarding right off the bat with this type of horse is the “life” sitting right on the surface. They are sensitive and responsive to the slightest amount of movement and feel from you. As the handler, you better have a TON of patience and stamina to keep up with their quick bodies and minds, and you must be able to quiet your “feel” so that you don’t add to the anxiety they create on their own. The best part is that you have to do very little to create life, it is in harnessing that life that real skill comes into play.
One of the most important steps to successfully working with this type of horse is helping them change their minds from their most natural response: to run, into the most unnatural response: to stay when energy rises or they feel at all anxious or nervous about what is happening around them. It is pure survival at its greatest and there is a level of respect you have to have for what they naturally are wired to do and a huge amount of respect for those that allow us to touch them. The second piece of this is that they start to switch from a reaction-based answer to more of a response to requests. Both mean literally the same thing, but a reaction is based deeply in fear and a response is through thought.
A big change can come when the “hot” horse’s mind starts to sink with the handler. Even their hoof falls and beat changes as they match the feel of the person working with them. There is a peace in their movement and as our friend Joel Conner once said: “Their skin starts to hang differently on their bodies”. It is in these areas you start to connect with them even, before you are able to lay hands on them.
So far, the biggest challenge with Tiva has not been her sensitivity or her natural reactions to flee, but that for many months she was unable to do just that, move. When trying to halter start her in such a confined area, she bottled up all of her anxiety and her feet became stuck. Even when she was first let out of the stall her steps were full of braces and the sound her hoof made along the ground was tight and stabby. When horses are stuck, and “feel” like they can not move, they can become frustrated and in the worst cases turn to fight whatever is frustrating them.
Tiva exhibits many visual signs of frustration. She repeatedly bumps her nose towards the handler, turns in and pushes towards them to try and move them and worst of all in frustration when standing still near someone she has tried to dive in towards them with a very bad expression. It is hard to imagine what her mental state has been over the last year. First gathered off the open land she was most likely born, nursing a filly on her side, shoved into trailers and moved from place to place and finally ran into a 12x24 box stall with absolutely none of the freedoms that are basic necessities of a horse. Not sure it gets much worse than this for a sensitive mare.
We are telling you all this to help explain these are “unnatural” feelings, Tiva wasn’t born this way, most, if not all, of this was learned with every experience she has had with humans. To be 100% honest, it is a WHOLE lot easier to gentle a mare with Tiva’s temperament that has had zero experience with humans than accomplish what we are set out to do and try to undo the trouble inside Tiva now.
So we begin. Her first groundwork lessons where not an attempt to draw her in to be touched, but rather allowing her to move and find the freedom in her feet. You could see how panicked she was with even the idea of standing and being asked to be near us. First, she needed to know that she was allowed to move and could move herself freely in all directions.
In the past, she had been told to turn in and face the handler, not a bad start for most horses but given her sensitivity and being in a small confined location of the stall it built in huge braces and anxiety. So, we literally “threw out the book” and did the exact opposite of turning in to draw in and instead we asked her to change eyes by turning away from the handler. We did this for a few reasons. First, we did this because she had so much anxiety turning in, we wanted to do something with her that she had probably never been asked to do. Partly to find some part of her that was still a “clean slate” and an opportunity to gain trust but also to show her how to work through something and find peace. Building search is a great way to gain trust and captivate their curiosity and build “try”.
Changing eyes was definitely not very pretty in the beginning, a lot of gravel flying and uncertainty about this different angle presented by the handler. There are a few other added benefits the changing eyes work will help her gain include getting more comfortable when things go into her blind spot behind her, allowing her to feel free to move her shoulders both directions (which is huge for haltering), to learn different angles of the handler mean different things, especially that when they are in the front you, you can’t blow past them and finally it allowed her to find a very comfortable walk that was not “running” away from the person.
This was a huge step that we will continue to build on as we gain trust and credibility with her. From these first sessions, it is evident that she is going to take a lot of time, patience and very skilled hands if she is going to make it as a domestic horse. Luckily, at SAFE, we have all of that along with loads of love and kindness to provide her with the best chance of a successful gentling, halter starting and experiences to have a lifetime of safety.