#PandemicHorseRescue: Thoughtfulness Under Pressure

Last week, Demi had a HUGE breakthrough. If you’ve been following along on Facebook, you might remember that Demi was very whip shy. I spent a couple weeks petting her with assorted whips and whip-like things, while offering treats, praise, or skritches (depending on her mood). Chris put in a lot of handling with her during the week, and it showed in Demi’s willingness to approach and investigate even when I was carrying strange items. And then, The Big Thing.

What have I been so excited about? She stepped up to the mounting block when I asked.

Doesn’t sound huge, does it? Its one of the first things I teach a horse, whether they’re a yearling or seasoned and just new-to-me. It was one of the first things I asked Demi when we started working together, and it will be absolutely critical to getting her going under saddle. For Demi, and really for many horses with questionable human histories, this one little movement is very, very stressful.

Along with being whip shy, Demi gives the mounting block a serious hairy eyeball. I general, Demi is quite relaxed and even brave. But things change when Humans Lift Things. Plastic bag on the ground, whipped around by the wind? Yawn. Rattly feed bag on the ground? Maybe it still has food! Person sitting on mounting block? They’ll scratch my ears for me!

Plastic bag in human hands? SNORT. Feed bag in human hands? I’m going to be eaten! Mounting block in human hands? *&*^%! So, along with our “whips can just be long arms” lessons, we’ve been working on standing near human moving mounting block. She definitely know which side is the “mounting side.” If it was in front, behind, or on the right side, she’d just tense. On the left, she’d try to quietly sidle away– and if that didn’t work, panic ensued. We’ve gotten past that, and even to where I could lean on her (itchy horses really are the best), but she’d always keep her hip a little away, guarding herself.

This is, of course, a very common reaction. I teach the last step up to the mounting block by tap-tap-tapping a dressage whip on the right hip, asking the horse to step “over.” At this point, they (including Demi) understand this on the ground, but the idea of moving away from pressure but towards the person can be confusing at first. Now imagine Demi– recently afraid of whips and of mounting blocks, just starting to be ok with these things, being asked for this step!

I started her on this maneuver up against the fence, rather than the mounting block. It limits the number of directions she can move in (I always leave an “out,” but it’s best if I can predict which direction that is!), and didn’t have the associations of the mounting block. I asked for this about twice a week since the second week Demi was with us, each time asking for just a tiny bit more. The first time, we just hung out, her head in my lap and her body no where near the fence. The first bit of adjustment can be done with the halter and line, which she’s very soft about and much less afraid of. The last few steps we’ve been stuck on. I’ve been accepting “step under, don’t fully panic” as a great response.

But then she did it. She started to get upset. Then she relaxed again. She thought. I asked again- soft, but insistent. And over she stepped. And then did it again at the mounting block. And the next day she stepped up with just a word and a lift of my empty hand. Over the course of the week, she’s had an English saddle on again (yawn) and a western saddle (this got the hairy eyeball), and even did some serious mounting work. I’ve swung a leg over, though not yet sat on her. And in all her work since, that moment of thoughtfullness under pressure has been there.

Want to help Demi, or other horses in need? Here are a few ways:

Get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt through Bonfire. Youth sizes and tank tops available.

Order a multi-species mystery box of goodies for your own horse or other pets.

Donate to, or adopt from, Riverside County Department of Animal Services, or your own local shelter!

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