We’d like to introduce Ivy, a 2015 filly from Alberta. Ivy is a beautiful little girl with an inquisitive set of eyes with the fluffiest of coats. She arrived with almost no handling being done outside of getting her on a trailer and other minor interaction for feedings and leading. Ivy is the type of horse that will go to flight much quicker than fight which means she is less inclined to kick out or try to run you over. Her initial instinct at almost all times is to get away and put some space between anything she perceives as a threat and her.
The first order of business with any baby is to make sure they get comfortable with humans being around. While there are obviously many benefits, like simply being able to catch them, the biggest reason we work hard at this initially is to give them a better life. It can be assumed that for the remainder of a captive horse’s life, they are going to have to be around humans. To get them past their fear of humans and what they may have experienced up until now, can only improve their quality of life and reduce their stress. All you have to do is imagine living your life in a warzone and wondering when your life is going to end by bullet or bomb, and you’d have a pretty good idea of how these skittery horses live their lives. It’s unacceptable and full responsibility of the human to deal with that with compassion and care.
The first thing that needed to be done was to work on catching her. The first week of handling her was spent working on cutting off her driveline when she would go to run away. This is a very careful set of movements that allows them to find their comfort zone and yet allow you to invade it. It’s very healthy to do this in a small paddock and to never ever trap them. The more freedom they have, without making you run all around a pasture, the better it will be in the end as you can help them make it their idea to be close to you. You just put out the invitation as much as possible. I’ll cover this concept in another article as it’s very involved.
From there it will be important that she get used to having ropes and halters around her. This should never ever be forced. All ropes and halters should be introduced in the most kind and loving way you can possibly imagine. The best way to get them feeling good is to give release when you finally do get something on them. Release and reward even. In some cases this could be treats but it would be better to provide physical reward. Early on it’s important to find that one spot that they love scratched or rubbed. Every horse has at least one. Most horses love a good scratch on their chest, others on the small of their back where their ribs end, others are right on the butt. Find it and use it. So that when you do gently get a rope around their neck or something, then you get to scratching. Then let off, stand there, take a deep breath and genuinely relax. Horses pick up on everything.
Once ropes and halters are good then it will be time to lead. Up until now it’s been important to move her feet around a bit by hand pressure, but soon it should be done with just a rope. Again, this isn’t for the purposes of domination or overpowering, everything should be done carefully and slowly to invite her to do something and make the wrong thing a bit difficult to do. For example, when holding her neck and rubbing her I would sometimes bring my hand up (that is around her neck from her right to her left as I stand on her right) and I would put some pressure either on her nose or just behind the jaw.
If she doesn’t respond by moving her butt over to her left, then I apply a small vibration to my hand and rhythmic pressure. The final aid I would apply is to lightly poke her haunch to move it over. When she responds, reward with a complete and total release of pressure.
She is responding very well to this and we’re almost at a point of starting off where we left off from a previous session.
In a couple of weeks she’ll get her feet trimmed and she needs to be ready for that. All of the above items will be refined and improved and trust will be gained enough to lift all four feet off the ground without fear.
Update Nov 21st: She’s coming along really well, responding much better to being handled and accepting being handled. She no longer runs off when approached and is open to the rubs and scratches she gets. More work has been done with getting a rope around her head and neck without trouble and today was the first day she was led all around with a halter and lead line away from her other buddies. She’s been in a halter briefly before, but it wasn’t willingly just yet. At this point she is capable of just standing while a halter is put on and taken off and fiddled with. While it’s not quite comfortable yet, she wasn’t any trouble at all to lead with gentle persuasion when her feet stopped.
Update Nov 25th: Ivy now leads well, stops well and disengages her hind quarters when asked. To get her to respond well to having her back end come out of gear is absolutely imperative when working to not have her run off when shocked by something. Lots of acclimation to touching her all over, especially her back legs and hind quarters and some effort to get her to yield one way or the other if her tail is pulled. It’s subtle at the moment but she is getting it. Also, all four feet are coming off the ground when asked with the front end very willing and the back end almost there. All of this will help her for the farrier so she doesn’t have to be so worried or scared to not have all four feet on the ground. Remember, for a horse to lift a foot off the ground is almost the ultimate test of trust. Their primary response to danger is to run, so they need all of them on the ground to do so. If they trust you to hold a foot, that’s a big deal.
Update Aug 9th: We forgot to update about Ivy while busy with so many other things but work with Ivy stopped early in the year. She ended off in a really great place for what we were trying to do. Getting her used to people, picking up her feet, being led in a halter and accepting a halter are all great milestones for her. We wish her the very best in whatever she does in her future! Thanks Ivy for being a great student and teacher all in one!