Question: ?Clinton, because my mare has been abused, she has these little fits from time to time, and she’s probably not going to be able to do what all the other horses can do.?
The woman speaking, Emily, was at one of my clinics. She?d asked to chat with me before we got started, to negotiate special treatment for her mare.
?She’s probably going to need some adjustments to these exercises,? she went on. ?You might even want to change what we do at this clinic a little bit to allow for her needs.?
I looked at Emily and said, ?I’m so sorry your horse was abused. She looks to be in good health now. Is she still being abused??
The woman?s eyes widened in shock. ?Oh, no! I?d never hurt my horse!?
I smiled and replied, ?Good. Then here’s what I want you to do.?
She moved a step closer so as not to miss a word of the special instructions I was about to give her.
?I want you to act as if you just bought this horse from me this morning,? I said. ?You don’t know where she came from, you don’t know how old she is, you don’t know how much she’s been ridden. You have zero history on her.?
Emily took a step back. Her shock had turned into confusion. ?Why would I do that??
?To make some progress,? I replied. ?What you’re doing is carrying around all these big bags of excuses for why your horse acts the way she does?and as long as you keep doing that, your horse is never going to get any better.?
I could tell she still didn’t get it.
?Think of it this way,? I suggested. ?If your horse had been starved and beaten every day for a year, then we took her out of that environment and put her in a new pasture with 10 new horses?horses she?d never met before?would those horses treat your mare any differently from how they?d treat any new horse? Would they say, ?OK, listen up. Nobody eats until this new horse has had all she wants. Just look at how skinny she is! No, no, no?she gets the shelter?she’s been homeless! Stop it! Everybody just leave this horse alone. She needs our love.??
I looked at Emily. ?Would the other horses do that??
?Well, no,? she admitted, laughing sheepishly. ?I guess they wouldn?t.?
?Right!? I said. ?They wouldn?t treat her any differently. They?d still kick her, bite her, chase her around. Then again, maybe she?d chase them around, if she were dominant. My point is, whether or not she?d been abused would have no bearing on the matter.
?So,? I continued, ?I want you to pretend you just bought this horse from me today, and I just won her in a poker game last night, so neither of us knows a single thing about her background.?
?OK,? Emily replied. ?But what do I do when she acts up??
?Just respond as you would for any other horse,? I told her. ?Don?t make any excuses for her?remember, you don’t know anything about her.?
It was tough, but Emily was able to pull it off. And, over the next three days, I watched her amazement grow as her horse responded to her efforts and soon began behaving just like all the other horses.
By now you know the moral of this story: The more you treat an abused or rescued horse like any other horse, the more he begins to act accordingly. In other words, he turns into a broke, respectful animal.
But the more you protect a horse like this, the sillier and sillier he gets. I know it doesn’t seem to make sense, but with horses, the more you try to scare them?in a planned, intelligent way, of course?the quicker they stop overreacting and start getting quiet.
Obviously, I’m not talking about physically hurting your rescued horse. I’m talking about keeping the ?scary? pressure on until he relaxes, then removing it, so he can begin to learn he has nothing to fear from it.
How ?Scary? Can Be Good
To accomplish this, ?frighten? your rescued horse with things that are never going to hurt him?noises, plastic bags, a rope thrown at him. Also desensitize him by slapping your training stick or whip on the ground all around him, as I?ve described on these pages many times before.
Just as other horses will in the pasture, you must establish the same rules, set the same boundaries, instill the same behaviors, and maintain the same pecking order?with you as the dominant one.
Obviously, when you first get an abused or rescued horse, he might need an individualized feeding regimen and other kinds of specialized care to be brought back to full health; your veterinarian can guide you here.
Then, once he’s ready for training, don’t make any special accommodations. Now, does that mean you shouldn?t change anything in his training program? Well, you might want to do your training exercises in a different order than you would for a normal horse. Plus some exercises could take a little longer to master than others, and you might have to spend more time on them.
But, when you think of it, isn?t that the same as you?d do for any horse? Shouldn?t you tailor training according to what a horse needs and how he progresses?
Of course you should. And if you treat your rescued horse this same way, you’ll be amazed at the progress, just as Emily was.
This series is adapted with permission from Clinton?s latest book, Lessons Well Learned: Why My Method Works for Any Horse. For more information on the book, or to learn about Clinton?s clinics, appearances, educational materials, training gear, and horses for sale, go to DownunderHorsemanship.com. Catch his ?Downunder Horsemanship? program (filmed at his ranch in Stephenville, Texas) on RFD-TV.