Ellie is my 2003 off the track TB that I owned a few years ago before selling her. She's gone around a few owner's hands before ending up on the way to slaughter after auction. Thankfully she was posted on Need You Now Equine, and spotted by a former student of mine. Ellie has been recuperating at our farm and getting ready to be back into a normal life.
Ellie has been doing really well - she's gained weight and moving sound and happily. She gets along with her old friends Balius and Thetis in the paddock, as well as the other horses who have accepted her too.
A couple weeks ago Dr. Helen Tandy came to visit Ellie. She is an equine chiropractor who treated Ellie when I owned her and boarded at Bellewood Equestrian Centre few years ago. Dr. Tandy brought her old notes from when she saw Ellie a few years ago.
She gave Ellie an adjustment and full assessment and was surprised that Ellie was actually in great spinal and alignment health - no concerns. She is a bit stiff in her right SI joint (hip), but that is similar to when I owned her many years ago and isn't cause for concern. She said it looked like Ellie was healthy and would be okay to start work and riding.
With the good news, I started Ellie back to work - just with some ground games here and there to get her mind engaged. All was well.
I then decided to let Danica use Ellie in a lesson on Sunday, for Ellie's first lesson with Partridge Horse Hill. Danica is an advanced student and will be a summer instructor for camp this year. It was good experience for Danica to get working with different horses, and starting them up into a routine again. We started with ground games and Ellie did really well. We did some circles and other exercises to both establish Danica as a leader and give Ellie a chance to get some extra energy out. We did some free lunging too but she didn't seem to have an urge to run.
When it came to riding, Ellie wasn't herself. She was pretty calm at walk, but spooky at the far end of the arena, and at trot she would have random bursts of energy with head tossing - it was hard to tell if it was nerves, playfulness, or just being frisky since she hasn't done much in a while.
We wanted this to be a positive experience for Ellie so we did a lot of walking exercises including halting over poles, sideways over poles, and patterns. Then for trot I ran beside Ellie leading her while Danica rode so that I could keep Ellie calm and behaving.
Ellie finished on a much calmer note, and she accomplished many good things - but she wasn't the same easy Ellie I sold. We ended up letting Ellie hang out in the ring while the next lesson took place with her friend Thetis. Ellie got to relax in the ring with no pressure to perform, and Thetis got to have the company of a friend - it was a win win.
I then decided to take Ellie out for a training session Monday night to further explore what was going on. We did a variety of ground work which Ellie was fantastic for, the canter transitions so smooth and lovely - no friskiness at all.
So I progressed to riding - the mounting took a while. Ellie was stressed about it, so it took a while before we were calm and standing so I could politely mount. Soon after getting on Ellie was acting 'funny'. She was very spooky/anxious and just scrambling a bit with her feet.
I refer to scrambling because its something more than a startle, but less than a bolt - she'd zip forward a bit, but more in a choppy sporadic walk, trot or canter stride, but no gallop. Her legs seemed to be moving all over the place, and not rhythmically or in regular pattern… so I call it scrambling.
At first I thought I might be hurting her, but I remembered she was just checked by Dr. Tandy, given a clean bill of health, I knew the saddle was sitting comfortably and all I was doing was walk. I decided to continue walking and just explore Ellie's reactions a bit.
When we got to the far end of the ring she heard James tinkering around on the front lawn and spooked and scrambled away, very fearful, and tossing her head. I simply bent her to the side to disengage her, with her nose to my knee - it’s a calming position for horses and it refocuses them, without being mean or causing more fear.
It happened several times as we walked by the far end of the ring, or in other places too where she would get spooked, scramble, and then panic - so each time I calmly but firmly bent her head around to calm and stop her - and then I continued on.
The pattern became clearer - first Ellie would startle at something, second she would react with a slight startle, and then she would panic and get fearful of me - the tossing of the head and trying to scoot away from me (didn't work though since I was on her back).
So here comes my rant….
The only thing that could have caused Ellie to go from being a super calm and trustworthy horse to a horse very fearful and panicky is bad horsemanship. I suspect that when Ellie would spook or be unsure that she was cropped or beaten and punished. This is because Ellie was a super calm and easy horse (which I have a ton of videos and past students to prove it), and now what has been created is a horse that panics when she is scared because she is scared of both the rider and whatever else is out there.
Ellie's anxiety makes sense now - she is worried that we are going to whip and beat her too… but that will never happen at Partridge Horse Hill. A scared horse doesn't need to be beaten - they need to feel safe and trusting of their rider and handler.
As we went around the ring I would continue to disengage Ellie when she panicked simply by bending her head to the side. I never kicked her, yelled at her, or cropped her (heck I don't even carry a crop). She started to relax, lick, and chew. She became much more relaxed and we did some loose rein riding. When she would get startled and slowed down, I would praise her for her good decision, not get mad and tell her to keep going.
First we need trust and respect from our horse. Once you have that you can tell the horse to keep going if they're scared because after you have trust and respect you are just being a calm leader taking charge and keeping your partner safe…. but without trust and respect you are just an ignorant person putting the horse in danger (at least that’s how the horse sees it).
It is so very awful that this amazing horse, that only a couple years was able to take little kids on their first trail rides because of how calm and trusting she was, is now panicky and distrustful of people - what did you do to her???!!! and why???!!!! (Check out this video of Ellie on the trails or This video of Ellie when I was selling her 3 years ago)
....okay done my rant, back to the blog post...
As our ride continued, Ellie started to realize that it was okay to stop when scared (which is something she used to know). She started to realize that she wasn't going to get into trouble for being scared, and that is okay to slow down if she was scared (because it is much safer and better then taking off or scrambling).
I did some refocusing exercises like circling around different objects like barrels or jumps set up in the ring. This helped to get Ellie's focus in the ring and we were able to have a nice walk, trot, and canter to end with on a positive note.
I am really confident that Ellie will go back to being the same horse that I once sold - she just needs to believe that we are here to be her leader, her partner, and that we definitely are not here to beat her, abuse her, or get her into danger.
Our horses don't ask for much… they just want 3 things:
1) Keep them safe,
2) Treat them fairly, and
3) Take time to understand them.
I'm listening - are you?