Helping The Abused Horse
By Frank Bell
Very sadly every year thousands of horses are abused by humans. Sometimes this is intentional and sometimes it's simply the handler's ignorance; the result is the same: a horse that is fearful of the human and desperately in need of help. The good news is that this condition is very fixable and begins by simply loving on the horse.
This past winter I conducted a clinic in Costa Rica where there seemed to be no lack of abused horses. The very first hour of the first day I was presented with a very attractive twelve-year-old bay gelding who had severe head shyness and ear-handling issues. The horse had a worried look in his eye and was just plain nervous and hyped. He was not a mean horse, but seemed to be screaming out, "I just don't know when the next bomb will explode." Most of those observing knew Negro well and figured I'd met my match.
I eased into Negro with a soft eye and stature and made first contact on his neck with a long stroke and soothing voice. "Eeeeeeeeeasy big fella. It's all going to be just fine. I'm here to help you, Negro," I cooed over and over while staying on that neck and kneading his withers. But the trust just wasn't there. His head remained sky-high and his eyes showed too much white. Facing forward I slipped my right hand under his neck to contain his head and eased my left hand onto is face above his muzzle and then begin "search touching."
The Power of Touch
My philosophy has always been to begin by simply giving to the animal, hence the first step in my 7-Step Safety System that I call bonding. If I can quickly find "the spot," the secret place that can melt the horse, then I'm light-years ahead and levels of trust instantly explode to the good. The common denominators in this search touching game are predictable. The eyes are my favorite melting zone, then the mouth and tongue, followed by the ears, the V under the jaw, and the withers, just to mention a few.
The trick is to find it quickly and indulge the horse momentarily. It's the timing of the quitting, the stopping, that is of utmost importance. Think of yourself receiving a shoulder neck massage after a fatiguing day. Just as you melt into that glorious relaxed letdown zone, the phone rings and the massage abruptly ends. In your mind you are saying, "I'll do anything if you don't stop. Don't answer that phone." Well it's exactly the same with the horse. Quitting while it's working has the horse begging for more. I typically walk away from that abused horse and within seconds that same horse is right there begging for more. If that is the case. If you can accomplish that, you've already cleared the biggest hurdle because the horse's trust level has skyrocketed.
I am asked to work with rank, aggressive, abused, man-hating animals all the time and in most cases can turn them around in seconds by simply giving to them.
Back to Negro. Facing forward, as my right hand contained his head, my left began a circular stroking motion that slowly yet firmly moved up his face until just below his eye. With a tad more pressure with my right hand to support his head, I moved my palm firmly over his eye. His head jerked up and I lost my contact and had to begin again, not untypical as he just didn't understand my intention. Beginning anew I assumed the exact position again and this time was better prepared for his reaction. As his head shot up I was able to continue rubbing his left eye with some vigor and suddenly he found it and stopped resisting and instead began actually leaning into that same hand that he had feared only thirty seconds earlier. "Found it," I announced confidently as the Spanish/English interpreter explained what had taken place. "Now watch very closely," I instructed as my left hand left Negro's eye and quickly drifted up his head and right over his left ear. He did raise his head, but it was too late. It was over. Negro had experienced an extremely pleasurable physical sensation that was quite likely unrivalled in his twelve years on this earth. While he was busy reveling in that sensation his greatest fear was quickly addressed and almost instantly over with. And there had been no pain, only pleasure, extreme pleasure. Within another minute I was firmly stroking those same ears that hadn't been touched in years as he completely melted into my attentions!
Turning Lemons into Lemonade
I believe I have a little different twist in my philosophy on dealing with sticky horse issues. If I can take the very thing that the horse hates, abhors, fears the most and somehow help him not only tolerate it, but also actually enjoy it, what have I accomplished?
Take a moment and put your own fears to test. If you can turn the very thing that drives you up the wall into a positive, how do you feel? Do you walk taller? Are you ready to face the next challenge? Do you actually welcome and invite that new phobia while in your mind say, "Bring it on?" Horses are no different from people except for the fact that they are a lot less complex and much, much easier to bring to the other side. Turning that negative into a positive can be completely life altering. Most impressively, this can all take place in seconds. A horse's completely irrational fear and behavior can be turned into your ally in a matter of a few moments.
Oh I would love to tell you that this is a special gift that only I have, but then I'd be lying and thousands of horses wouldn't benefit from my discovery. No, my objective is to help as many horses and people as I can, AND ANYONE CAN DO THIS!
Soaring Fast n Easy's Lemons to Lemonade Adventure
Years ago a gangly and very troubled 2-year old Arabian filly was brought to me. As we were introduced I was informed that it had taken two and a half hours to load her into the trailer. Where do you think I started with her?
The next day her breakfast was about two hours later than the rest of the horses and it just happened to be inside a big stock trailer. She wasn't too excited about going in, but with some patience and persistence, she found her way in and just happened to find not only her breakfast of hay and sweet-feed, but her absolute favorite treat in the whole wide world, carrots. I allowed Easy to take a couple bites, then backed her out and walked completely around the trailer before leading her back to the entrance. She almost knocked me down getting back in there. Every day for the next week she found her breakfast and sometimes even those wonderful carrots in a whole variety of trailers until by the end of the week she was just flying into a tiny dark two horse unit that no horse would choose to ride in.
She also learned that trailers were a very nice place to just hang out since again, every day she'd spend longer and longer periods enjoying the shade and tranquility of a host of trailers long after her breakfast had been consumed.
By the time she went home she thought trailers were the greatest place to be in the whole wide world. She went on to finish as the top 3-year old Arabian racing filly that next year; thank you very much.
Patience and Empathy
Chris Irwin wrote a wonderful book some years ago called "Horses Don't Lie." The two words he instilled in me were patience and empathy. Patience is fairly obvious to all of us. And along with patience comes something I call "working half speed." They go hand in hand. Slowing down is very, very important. In our hurried western lives we are innately overly demanding and expectant. Take off your watch when working with horses, especially the abused ones.
But empathy is the real challenge. Empathy is feeling what the horse feels, reading the horse. This is definitely something that can be acquired and improved upon. It is also something that some of us are simply either born with or introduced to at a young age and has become ingrained solidly into our psyches. You can't buy it for any amount of money. I believe with abused animals it is the single most important human quality in helping these horses through their fears.
As a very young child out of shear need I learned to read dogs. At age six I suddenly went from a normal childhood to a radically different one. My Mother died. I went from normal touching and nurturing to none. I craved it desperately and found it in our Cocker Spaniel. Missy gave me what I was missing. When I'd mastered her moods and could read her like a book, I began taking on dogs, all dogs. Then it became difficult dogs. By age ten I was gleefully ruining junkyard dogs by befriending them. It became a personal challenge to take on the meanest snarling frothing dogs I could find. I simply wouldn't leave until I had the dogs, all of them, licking my hand.
Somewhere deep inside I knew someday it would be horses. I distinctly remember saying to myself at a very young age, "One day I'll have a horse. He'll be like my dog except he'll carry me places. That's it. I'll have this incredible relationship with this animal that can take me wherever I want to go." To this day my biggest thrill is riding my best friend into the wilds. Sometimes we spend weeks riding and camping as only best friends can. It's magical and a dream come true that I envisioned decades ago.
7-Steps to Helping the Abused Horse
||Using a gentle non-threatening approach, soft eyes, and a soothing voice, begin by simply giving to the animal. Find the secret spots and indulge the horse. But quit while it's working and don't wear it out; then allow it to sink in. Give the horse ample time to digest that you are there to help. Friend not foe. If necessary use a pole to rub the horse all over. Read my article "Fishing for Mustangs" to learn this highly effective technique for gentling the untouchables.
||After locating the specific fear/phobia, break it down to the smallest step and put a plan together. After indulging/melting the horse, drift into that touchy area just for a second. This could range from quick movement to loud sounds that send the horse over the top. The point is: in the least threatening manner expose the horse to that challenge. But it must be over very quickly.
||Try to maintain constant touching. This isn't slapping the horse on the neck. This is stroking the horse lovingly on the neck/withers area as you work through an issue. Your hand is the horse's security blanket. Use it. You have two.
||Gradually build up the tempo until the horse shows fear, and then back off. Push the horse up to just this side of trouble, and then stop. Each time you will be able to go a little higher. Think of a V. The bottom is thought. The top is extreme physical pressure. Start at the bottom of the V and gradually build to rattling that gate or stroking those ears with gusto as the horse happily either tolerates or really enjoys it.
||Don't run it into the ground. When you've accomplished a clear hurdle, move onto something else. Keep it interesting. Remember the bad teachers in school who couldn't make class interesting? Be a good teacher by keeping it interesting.
||Return to bonding as necessary. You would never quit nurturing your child. When the horse shows fear or you've pushed too hard too fast, back off and regroup. Go back to those eyes, the comer of the mouth, feathering the tongue, under the jaw. Get the horse to drop that head with downward pressure on the lead. A low head is a relaxed horse. A high head is an uptight horse.
||Never leave that sticky issue alone. All horses backslide so don't think because you've accomplished your goal in a couple sessions that it's over. It took a long time to get that bad. You'll have to keep reinforcing that confidence. Always end on a good note. Leave the horse in a great place where his confidence is just blossoming. Most importantly, learn Frank Bell's 7-Step Safety System. It will change the way you and your horses relate forever . . . my promise!
||A racehorse is fearful of quick movements. He's been whacked on the rump when he wins and loses so when he sees your hand in the air he is certain of the impending sting. Standing in front of him with your reassuring hand on his face or neck, begin by swinging a rope (lead rope is quite handy) waaaaay out in front of him. Very gradually the rope slips through your hands and gets longer and longer until it's actually swinging right over his head. From the saddle with his head tilted a bit into you, slowly begin showing him your arm in the air as it comes in and strokes his neck. Gradually show him more and faster rotations as your hand comes from overhead and strokes his neck. This may take a hundred repetitions for him to accept it and relax and genuinely not fear moving objects around and over his head.
||A horse is fearful of sudden noises. Standing in front of him, begin barely shaking a gate that gets progressively louder and louder until your ears hurt. Your touching his face or neck will speed up his acceptance dramatically. Don't go too far too fast. If he gets noticeably nervous, back off, relax him and begin anew. With empathy and patience you'll be able to violently and intermittently be able to shake the gate at an annoying level and he'll simply accept it. Hang plastic bags nearby and hope the wind blows. Hang a piece of plywood or metal roofing off a fence and pray for wind. Ultimately have his feeding area surrounded by noisy objects and he won't even notice. It's just part of life.
||A horse that is eating must be reasonably relaxed. Use food to your advantage. Take that horse that cannot handle movement without becoming white-eyed. Bring him to a field of green grass or a flake of good hay. Allow him to begin eating, then slowly turn up the heat. With decent timing you'd be able to slap the saddle with the lead as he eats or rattle a gate without him needing to raise his head.
Abused horses are just crying out for help. You have the power to help any horse overcome his greatest fears by turning that problem into your ally and raising his confidence dramatically. Relax and take a deep breath knowing the long way is the short way.
Frank Bell and his accredited instructors have been helping horses with their people problems for several decades. He writes interesting and educational stories about these horses and their challenges. He also helps people better understand how to communicate with these magnificent creatures by answering their vexing questions on his website. Frank has designed a logical set of exercises that immediately places both parties on higher ground . . . without the need for a round pen. Suddenly both parties are riding in confidence instead of fear. Frank Bell's 7-Step Safety System has been featured in horse magazines and ezines throughout the world including a three-part series in Western Horseman magazine. Frank's video "Discover the Horse You Never Knew" fully outlines "the system" and is available in the audio/video library that includes twelve works. Join Frank Bell's Gentle Solution Revolution and breakthrough your training barriers now!