In my experience, many horse-people tend to be stubborn. Feeling ill? Do your barn chores anyway. Injured? Ride that horse anyway. Unintentionally flew off your horse super-man style and hit a cross rail? Get back on anyway. I am not sure what it is about us, but we tend to find a path and stick to it until we get to the end. The catch is that there is never a true end in the horse world. We can always better ourselves, our horses and our partnerships with them.
Where I am going with this is my own tale of stubbornness with a pony named Sleek. Sleek was a resident of a nonprofit organization that ran EAGALA programs (I will cover more on this topic in another blog post). I was volunteering as a horse handler at this organization and was told that Sleek had essentially been surrendered to them due to financial reasons and that little was known about his background. I was also told that Sleek trusted no one.
Raise your hand if you are a horse-person who has been told this line but tried to befriend the horse anyway (I imagine all of you reading this are raising hands high). These words were like a challenge to me, and I was determined to make it somewhere with Sleek.
Sleek was kept in a large paddock by himself for ease of catching when necessary. He also always wore a rope halter with attached lead rope for this reason. The hope was that if you could get close enough to Sleek you could quickly grab the end of the lead rope before he ran away. In the words of Barney Stinson, “Challenge accepted!”.
It was quite obvious that Sleek was on edge whenever a human entered his paddock. He had a stiff, high-held body posture, wide eyes and wide nostrils. Inching closer to him from any distance made him instantly run full speed to the other end of the paddock.
My first instinct was to make a dive for the lead rope to make the catching process quick. I will tell you that this worked a couple times, but I then realized how ridiculous that method really was. I imagined things from Sleek’s perspective.
Pony who already has a fear of humans for an unknown reason now sees human entering his paddock, sneaking towards him and at the last second lunging forward to snatch him and restrict his freedom.
September 13th, 2016: Something needed to change. I needed to redirect the way he associated human interaction. I began this day with entering his paddock with a handful of hay. As soon as I entered the paddock he ran away, so I followed. I kept calmly following him with my head low and posture relaxed until he would finally stop. If he stopped, I would turn around and walk away, as I figured leaving him alone was the best reward I could offer him at this point. This continued for a very long time until I was able to get a little closer, and closer, and closer. Eventually I got to a point where I could stretch out my arm to offer him the hay. If he turned his head towards me or even sniffed the hay, I would again turn around and walk away. A couple times he would take a bite. An hour and a half later, I caught Sleek.
An hour and a half.
This was a huge day for me, and a huge day for Sleek. No one was within miles of the property to witness it. It was just me, Sleek and nature finally standing side by side, lead rope in hand. I held on to that lead rope for only a few seconds feeling a wave of pride in myself but mostly in Sleek, and then I let him go.
For the next few weeks that I spent volunteering at this particular organization, I would perform the same exercise until one day, a month later, it only took 2 minutes to catch Sleek. On my last day as a volunteer, Sleek became more curious than fearful. We would walk around the property together and I would simply let him graze or give him a good groom. He began starting to approach me little by little to sniff my hat or check out the things I was holding. I would say my stubbornness paid off.
Sleek taught me to look at things from a different perspective. He taught me that he was not broken. He taught me how to listen to the language we did not share. Sleek taught me patience and reward.
Misunderstood horse? Give them a second chance anyway.
*Short clip of Sleek and I on a grazing walk in which he shows curiosity for new things.*