My new horse showed he was truly kind shortly after he’d arrived. He was just off the horse trailer when my elderly neighbor, who has a leg brace, a creaky aluminum walker, and a yappy Schnauzer, wanted to meet him. He was a complete gentleman, walked up to her, dropped his enormous head down to let her pet his nose, and ate a carrot from her hand while completely disregarding the barking dog, the creaking walker, and the hobbling human. Once we were out of her sight though, he had a complete melt down and suddenly I was looking at the belly button in a broad brown belly while miles of black legs and hard hooves whizzed through the air over my head. One of the most effective means of extinguishing unwanted behavior is to ignore it. So I stood there till he was done, walked him around the yard once more, gave him another carrot and put him away with plenty of hay.
I did have to come up with some long-term strategies and quickly, as a rearing horse can be dangerous to himself as well as others. Since there was no way I could force the horse to keep all four feet on the ground, I decided to teach him to rear on command. My cue was ready-made. All I had to do was face him and raise one hand as though I were going to hit him. In order to rear and strike while I was leading him beside me, he first had to get in front of me. Once he hit the end of the lead rope, he had to spin around, and then he had to stand still long enough to get his back-end under himself before he could go up. I decided on two voice commands: WAIT and UP. If I could get his attention and give him a carrot in the phase where he was getting his back-end under him, I had the WAIT. Then with the hand gesture and UP, he was free to rear.
Because of his bowed tendon, I did not want to risk re-injuring him by working him on the longe or in a round pen. So we did a lot of work on the lead rope. But very little of it was about whether we got from point A to point B. All of it was about HOW we got there. Our arrangement was that he could move any way he wanted as long as he did not take the slack out of the lead-rope or try to run over me. If he did, then we did WAIT (meaning freeze and I’ll give you a carrot) and then UP (meaning rear and hold it) if he wanted another carrot. And then repeat. For a few weeks it was like flying a 1400 lb kite on a windy day, and going through gates was particularly traumatic. But consistent timing pays off eventually and he really did love his carrots. I made sure it was clear I was rewarding him for the WAIT then UP, not for whisking about like a kite.
So one day we reached the gate and started on the whole freeze/rear/freeze when he suddenly realized that he was doing what I wanted him to do when I wanted him to do it. It was such an outrageous and novel concept for him it made his eyes bug out of his head. He not only refused to rear on demand, he began staring into outer space pretending he couldn’t see or hear me at all. After a few minutes, he deigned to walk through the gate, I took the halter off , gave him a carrot and a pat, and turned to leave. I turned back around when I heard what I can only describe as a horsey laugh, to see him just setting his front feet down after rearing. He locked eyes with me while slowly and deliberately lifting his front legs off the ground and folding them up. Then he sat there on his haunches eyeballing me while holding one of the most perfect displays of the classical levade I have ever seen. After a brief eternity of watching each other, I burst out laughing, and he leapt into the air and rushed off squealing and bucking with accomplishment and pride.
There are a couple of grievous mistakes people make at this point. One is to punish the horse for not complying when what he is doing is figuring out his situation and what you actually want from him. The second is to demand that the horse repeat the movement endlessly once they give any indication they know what is wanted. Since my long-term goal is a willing partner, that means I have to recognize and respect my horse’s process, both physical and mental. That moment was our breakthrough. Instead of being beaten for his high spirits, he had found away to express his brilliance that gave us both satisfaction. Now he knows he can enjoy and express himself while pleasing me, and that is our win/win working agreement. To maintain that agreement, I do not want to ask him to do anything that hurts. Rearing is a stressful exercise, and while with enough adrenalin my horse could and did blast through the pain from his back injury, I want him calm and I want him sound. So we stopped schooling the rear. While WAIT continues to be very handy, UP is not necessary until he is completely sound. And leading on a loose line has become a given.
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