I learned quite a bit about the Choctaw Princess’s history and perception of humans while free-longeing her last fall.
I learned that she had, as her previous owner put it, been ‘over-schooled’ to freeze when a human put a rope around her neck or a halter on her head. As soon as there was pressure anywhere on her neck or head, she threw her head up, turned her neck inside out and hunkered down her behind with her hooves rooted to the ground. Apparently, someone had dedicated themselves to using one of the latest variations on the war-bridle to make her freeze when a human had hold of her head.
Calling war-bridles ‘horsemanship halters’ or ‘bitless bridles’ does not make them any more humane. War-bridles are designed to inflict severe pressure on the sensitive superficial nerves of a horse’s poll and face. A heavy hand combined with a war-bridle can result in nerve damage that leaves horses with lop ears and droopy lips. The increase in problem horses that shake their heads relentlessly may be the result of this type of nerve damage as well.
Once I managed to get her moving, I ran into another problem. She was not letting her guard down. She easily demonstrated that she is quite capable of speeding around with her head up and her neck turned inside out in alarm practically infinitely. She made it clear that she was just waiting for the moment when my attention lapsed. Then she would either abruptly halt or swap directions.
Adding a longe line made the situation worse. Instead of ducking away, she threw up her head, squinched her eyes tightly shut, and then stepped forward and slammed me with her shoulder as she swung her head into me. I reacted by straight-arming her with the shaft of the longe whip held vertically in my hand. She smacked her head smartly on the shaft.
But, once convinced that their best option is running people over, horses are reluctant to give it up. The Choctaw Princess paused for a moment and carefully considered both our positions. Then she aimed her head at a slightly different angle and stepped into me again swinging her head fast and hard enough to make a sharp smacking sound when she hit the shaft. And then she repeated it, over and over.
Eventually she decided that walking in a circle was easier. However, her decision to circle was not based on my beating her about the head and shoulders. I kept my focus on holding my ground and allowed her to self-correct.
I had to be both strong and quick to hold my ground. I had to make sure that the shaft of the whip was angled between us so she did not hit either her eye or her sensitive muzzle. I had to keep the longe line ever so slightly slack, so there was no pressure on her head. And I only moved my feet to keep my position near her shoulder.
I did find myself complaining at her during this episode, as she took a while to decide to change her behavior and my arm was getting tired. But, once she realized that I was staying in the same position relative to her and she was the one whacking her own head, it was a no-brainer for her to stop. As she is thoughtful girl, she also figured out that offering a little empathy gets the human to calm down.
She has now started responding to my complaining ‘Quit That’ and demanding ‘What Are You Doing’ in other circumstances by dropping her head and let out a slow gentle whuffling breath as she nudges me ever so gently with her nose. I take that change in her behavior as a reminder that what we think we are teaching and what our horses are learning may not be the same thing at all. One of the numerous reasons for our schooling break was that I realized that I was going to have to get thoughtful and creative in my approach if I want to avoid retraumatizing her.
And, in this case, I am both reschooling and rehabilitating. Her previous owner had told me that the Choctaw Princess had injured an eye when her herd was penned near the Platte River. The horses escaped when the river flooded and rushing waters took the fence down, but the Choctaw Princess injured an eye in the process.
Her owner said that the mare had favored one side since then, and she thought it was because she had a problem seeing out of that eye. She also told me that she thought that one front hoof bothered her more than the other did. While free-longeing her, I found that the mare had such contracted heels that it affected her movement (click here).
But I have not seen any sign of problems with the Choctaw Princess’s vision or with her lower legs. Since she did have back spasms when she showed up, I suspect that she has an old injury somewhere in her neck and shoulder that she got while escaping rushing waters and high fences. Hoof issues like contracted heels aggravate those types of injuries.
And the Choctaw Princess has made it clear she has some deeply entrenched and well-founded opinions on human behavior that she is not giving up easily. And I have a couple of major problems with negative reinforcement as a training method myself. So, I have been considering how to speak to her obvious intelligence while addressing old injuries to both her body and her spirit.
Normally, I like to start schooling a horse with free longing in the round pen, then progress to longeing with a cavesson. But, like most survivors of natural horsemanship, the Choctaw Princess has been round-penned to excess and resents working in that enclosure. And, even though the limitations of circling in a round pen may stress her old injuries, she has tremendous endurance.
But what horses generally learn from lengthy workouts is that being around humans is painful, confusing, tiresome and best avoided. And at best, if you manage to get your horse to categorize you as a dangerous predator, that makes you someone to avoid and resist, not someone to trust and cooperate with. And horses are single trial negative learners. Even as they learn how to avoid the pain in their immediate circumstances, as the Choctaw Princess demonstrates, they also consider how to prevent similar circumstances in the future. So, I need to change the venue where I work with her.
Using a cavesson for longeing is problematic since she has learned to fear and resent the halter. Even though I usually start ground driving with the cavesson before I ask the horse to ground drive with a snaffle bit, I want the Choctaw Princess to learn that she can move easily and calmly with a line connecting her to a human. Although horses are strictly nostril breathers, triggering the Stretch-Yawn Syndrome by asking her to relax her lower jaw still resets and recalibrates both the tension in her connective tissue and the alarm in her nervous system. So I need to change the headgear I ask her to work in.
Now that her teeth are not irritating her mouth, I can start getting her used to carrying a snaffle bit. Once she gets used to the snaffle bit in her mouth, I will be able to ask her to release the tension in her head, neck and shoulders and calm her mind with my fingers on the long lines. But before I can add long lines, I need to make sure that she will tolerate a surcingle and the lines touching her sides and rump.
Since she has been chased down and roped in the past, introducing her to the long lines may be a challenge. Since she has been saddled a couple of times, I will also have to work on how she reacts to strapping a surcingle around her chest. Taking things step by step will at least let me know what causes her alarm and distress.
Once we have passed those hurdles, we can try long lines and ground driving with a snaffle in my large arena. That will allow us to work in larger circles and change directions more easily. Eventually, I am sure that we will get back around to longeing with a cavesson in a circle.
But for now, I am working on appreciating the Choctaw Princess for giving me the opportunity to verbalize the why-to of solving training problems. She is more reserved in her responses than my OTTB was (click here). But I still find it easier to get in with writing that volume of my schooling series (click here) best when I have an equine companion’s feedback to rely on.