The horse standing in front of me was a big, flashy, athletic bay with 3 white socks and I liked him at first sight. He was 6 years-old and had originally been trained as a jumper, but was now so consumed with fear he wouldn’t step over a tree branch in the paddock. Puddles filled him with the kind of terror usually felt by kids when a poster falls off the wall in the middle of the night. But I thought through consistent training and ground work, this lovely horse could get his confidence back.
When I first went to see him, he was quiet and friendly in the barn and had impeccable manners being groomed and tacked up. When the rider stepped up on the mounting block though, he was wound tighter than a guitar string and looked about to snap. He never did snap, but flipped his head frequently and held it so far up, I thought he might brain himself on the rafters. This made him “climb” in his trot, which pulled his front feet off the ground so high, it took him 8,000 steps to get around the small arena. At times his neck would suddenly rocket up and he would sink down with his haunches, shooting forward like he’d been touched with a branding iron. The breeder explained that he had had a sketchy start and had been through a few trainers. She had even lost track of him for a while and had only recently gotten him back.
“Sure I’ll take him, he’s a nice horse. He’ll be a fun project,” I said.
What I should have said was, “Can someone call me a cab? No need to stop when we get to the mental hospital, I’ll just jump out and combat roll through the front door.”
Instead, I paid the woman and arranged shipping.
When he stepped off the trailer, he walked into his new home quietly, immediately putting his head down to eat. He’d already demonstrated that he was a quiet, friendly sort of guy. I scratched his withers, he sniffed my coat and I left his stall to go teach for a few hours. When I came back he was still happily eating and had emptied a whole bucket of water. I took out the bucket, refilled it and re-entered his stall. When I had clipped it, I put my hand out near his rib cage just to move him over.
He shot backwards, scrambling around the stall banging off the walls with me standing slack-jawed in the middle. It was one of those moments where you think, holy sh*t I might not get out of this in one piece. I had nowhere to go, so I just stood there as this terrified horse pinballed around me. As most professionals know, sometimes the best thing you can do in these circumstances is to do nothing. Nothing I could do or say would help this panicked horse. So I waited him out. It was easy to read that he wasn’t trying to hurt me, he was actually trying to get away from me, but in this confined space it was dangerous regardless of his intent.
After what felt like the eternity usually reserved for wedding speeches, he stopped directly in front of me. His breathing was heavy as he watched me, tentative, but not as fearful. I slowly turned sideways so I wasn’t facing him. I was now facing the door and he was beside me. Like any crazy horse person I thought, should I leave or should I stand here like a dumbass and see if he does it again? What should’ve been at the forefront of my mind was get the hell out while I could and for most people that’s exactly what you should do. I didn’t actually know what I had done to trigger such a strong fear reaction in the first place. But I felt a bit of a change in him. I waited until his breathing relaxed. And when he took a cautious step towards me, I knew it was over. He touched my arm with his nose, I thanked him for not flattening me like Dwayne Johnson’s abs and walked out of the stall.
I am still not sure what memory I had sparked in his horsey mind, so I kept the interaction in confined spaces to a minimum for awhile. Thankfully he never again felt the need to flee from me in his stall like he did that day, but I soon realized that any sort of reintroduction to jumping was a long way off. This horse’s fear ran far deeper than jumping.
The journey to understand this horse had begun.
A journey that has made me think more than once, what the hell did I do.
A journey that at times involved praying to the universe to let me escape great bodily injury.
And a journey that has made me as much a student of this horse as I was the trainer.