Every now and then these two old timers like to stop to talk to me, or maybe I should say talk to each other in front of me. One was a rancher and the other did rodeo for a good portion of his life. They sometimes include me in their conversations, which start off something like, “How are your horses doing? You riding those thoroughbreds? They aren’t too much for you?” I try to answer before they start debating. The rodeo guy things thoroughbreds can pretty much do anything in an arena, and the ranching guy believes they spook at everything, they have bad minds, and they only belong on the track. They both agree that they can’t be ridden on the trail. I rarely get a word in.
This discussion I’ve heard so many times. Several people told me Shandoka would never amount to anything, and I should just take him to the sale. We proved them all wrong, and I endeavor to show everyone what thoroughbreds can do to hopefully convince someone out there to adopt one. It’s the reason why I write this blog and post the pictures.
Dulce is third OTTB I’ve trained for the trail. I wish I could pony him with another horse, but it never works out for me this way. Instead, I pony him. Before I get into the saddle, we go for walks, we explore things together, and I do everything I ask of him to do. I’ve done this with all three, and it pays off. Today I took Dulce for his first ride under saddle up in the forest.
Dulce is a horse that needs to be walked first in the beginning. His mind gets agitated with excitement, so I need to relax his mind first. If I got on him and go for it, we will do battle the entire time. My expectations will be defeated, and all he and I will do is get totally frustrated with one another. I can’t stress this enough….in the beginning, throw your expectations out the window and pay attention to what your horse is telling you he or she needs to feel more confident. How did I know he needed me to walk him first? He didn’t want me to get on him, and I saw the concerned look in his eye; so we walked. I let him walk until I saw him relax and feel comfortable. His head lowered and his eye relaxed.
I took Dulce and Harley back to the trailer, and I got on him. This time he stood perfectly. He was on the muscle a bit, and I kept saying, “Easy, easy,” and within a hundred feet, he mellowed. I’m asking a lot of him. Harley won’t pony him, so he must lead the way on his first ride into and through things he never experienced on the track. He needs to push through the brush first or walk buy weird looking downed trees first instead of following a seasoned horse that can show him it’s no big deal. Harley follows us and that does help, but it’s not the same.. This is a lot to ask of a newbie, but gosh dang he is so brave and smart. As you can see in the video, he didn’t jump, bolt, buck, rear…..nothing. He walked along calmly with his ears forward interested in everything. He eyed a few things but kept going. He had no problem with moving forward. He did so well that I was able to ride him one handed. I kept the ride short, because I wanted to release the pressure from him pretty quick to reward him, so we only did three miles today.
Dulce rode over rocks, along the rim of a steep canyon, pushed through oak brush taller than me in the saddle, rode through some dense forest, and he dealt with some smells that made him a bit nervous. We wound around pine trees, and we climbed up and rode down a hill. Riding in the forest is so different than riding out in the BLM down below. It can be so claustrophobic, and you never know what is around the next corner. A rabbit ran out in front of us, and he stopped to watch it never spooking. He did everything I could have hoped for.
The great thing about trail riding a horse is that it is a nice break from arena work, they love it and it lifts their spirits, and it teaches them to put all of that arena work to use out on the trail. It also helps them learn to use their hind-end naturally, because each time you do hills, they naturally need to shift back on to that hind end. It also strengthens them physically and mentally in different ways that arena work can’t do.
I always want to say something: Ignore a horse’s pedigree. Focus on the horse that is right in front of you. Don’t let people put ideas in your head on how your horse is going to act because of the sires in his or her line. If I listened to that, I never would have attempted this due to who one of his sires is through his dam. If you have preconceived ideas about how your horse will act, you will create a horse that acts like those ideas. Thoroughbreds love the trail. They absolutely love it, and if you take your time with your horse, you too can have a great trail horse.
I can’t wait to get back out there with him. It felt so good to be out there again on such a brave, smart horse. Gosh, he takes my breath away.
“Others make a point of trying to attain the precision and poise they see in those who have the ability to choose from a great number of horses, those qualities found in only a very small number of horses. This leads to a circumstance in which these imitators of such studies mortify the spirit of a noble horse, and remove from it all of the goodness of temperament Nature has given it.” Francois Robichon de La Gueriniere.
I’m not sure what happened with Mojo the year between his last race and when he showed up at the kill pen, but I do have ideas of what it was like for him at the kill pen. I’ve never been to a kill pen, because I think it would destroy me. Instead, I’ve watched, what I can handle, several videos of what the horses go through. To understand Chaco, I watched the race he went down in four times. That’s all that I could handle, and since Mojo came to live with us, I’ve watched what I can handle about kill pens. The quote above doesn’t really fit, but it does.
Mojo was restrained, forced into a life completely opposite of anything he knew, and the experience mortified his Spirit. I see small steps of improvement here and there, but the one thing that hasn’t changed much is how low his energy is. He walks slow, he eats slow, he responds to things slowly; he’s alert but his responses are lethargic at best. There are times a fog descends over his eyes.
I’ve noticed since he came here how he fights lying down to sleep. When he first arrived here, it was on the fourth day he finally collapsed and slept for the first time on the ground. To this day he still fights it. He usually stands and rests instead of lying down and getting deep sleep. Maybe once or twice in a 24 hour period he will lie down. When he does, he only stays down for maybe 15 or 20 minutes before hopping back up. He will go like this until he becomes completely exhausted finally giving in and sleeping deeply for an hour. The poor guy is exhausted, and there is nothing that I can do to help him out with this. I swear he is sleeping while he eats sometimes. He needs to work through it, and luckily Harley is becoming his safety blanket.
Why is this happening? He couldn’t lie down and sleep at the kill pen, because it simply isn’t safe. Horses are packed tightly into each pen, and lying down could cost a horse its life; he or she could get trampled to death. Usually, my other three go down like dominoes and wake up the same way. I watch Mojo on the cameras standing there, his head sinking as he tries to stay up. Harley, instead of lying down with Chaco and Dulce like he always has, now lies down next to Mojo. This brings some comfort to Mojo, and he succumbs to the idea of lying down on the ground for about 15 to 20 minutes. I watch his struggle every single night on my cameras. I am right now.
Horses experience a wide range of emotions like humans do. They have a fantastic memory, and they dream like we do. The two times I’ve sat with Mojo as he slept, he had some major dreams. One of the times after he woke up, he didn’t want me or anyone else around him. He pinned his ears at me, and if I took a step towards him, he took two backwards. I backed way off and waited for him to realize he wasn’t at the kill pen. The people at the kill pen are not gentle with the horses as they move large groups of horses on and off the trucks. I could tell he didn’t realize he was here with us; he was stuck in his dream of that place. Horses go through PTSD too. After a couple of minutes, he realized who I was and walked straight up to me burying his head in my chest. I held his head as tightly as I could hoping somehow this embrace could wash those memories away.
There are times I walk away from him with tears in my eyes feeling like I don’t have the skills to draw his Spirit out. I’m often asked when I’m going to start riding him. Besides the fact that physically he isn’t close to being ready, it would cause him severe back pain, and the fact that he is as stiff as a board literally (I will talk about his physical therapy next week), mentally he is far from being ready. If I were to get on him right now, I feel like his Spirit would stay like this. I want his Spirit to be revitalized, energetic and enjoying life fully before I think of getting on him.
Every day I work with him my intention is to let him know he is safe. I feed him at the same time each day to create a feeling of stability for him. We go for our walks, which he does look forward to. He often is waiting for me at the gate when it’s time, and boy does he love his feedings. His last feeding is around 8pm at night, and he is especially happy if I hold his bucket for him while he eats. He loves it when I curry him when I feed him around noon. He likes it when I sit with him as he eats his hay….small steps.
After he moved into the paddock next to my other three boys, he seemed a bit happier. Each day I bring one of the other three boys in with him, he seems okay for about five minutes before he hides behind me or stands in a corner with his eyes bulging trying to be invisible despite Harley, Dulce or Chaco solely wanting to eat hay. He has no confidence when it comes to being with them though he really wants to have a relationship with them. Again, I think this goes back to the kill pen, and being forced to stay in a pen with a multiple number of other horses. Mojo is not a dominant horse, and considering all of the scabs and marks, he was picked on a lot. He doesn’t know how to be a horse anymore, and rushing him will only traumatize him further.
That’s the key to everything; him feeling like a horse again.
I got the idea that he needs to get out of here. I’ve walked all of my horses for miles and miles. It is a great way for a horse to build trust in you especially when you take them out on the trail. I often don’t have the ability to pony my newbies with another horse, so I pony them. They learn that I’m not going to lead them into anything that I can’t do myself, and if they get spooked by something, I can help them on the ground with it. It helps me see through their eyes, and we both learn how to work with one another in a unique way. I guess it’s a thing now on Facebook. Who knew?
I also need to help him bond with my other horses by figuring out ways for them to work together. Mojo has no confidence with other horses, so my theory is take him for walks through the forest with me and ponying him with Harley or Chaco. Eventually, maybe I can pony him with Dulce on simple trails, but Dulce himself is learning so not the best combination right now….green with green.
I think if Mojo exits his safety zone little by little, goes and explores the world, and then comes back home he will realize he is safe. No matter where we go or what we do, he will always come back here, which I feel is important for him to experience and believe in. I think this will chip away at his fears and insecurity bit by bit while becoming more confident with me and my other horses. I also hope that it will start to lift this deep fog of depression that he goes in and out of.
The other day I decided to take him to the forest. I didn’t know if I was making a mistake, or was on the right track with my thinking. I loaded him into the trailer, which is always a step of faith for him. He stands at the bottom of the ramp looking up at me trying to decide if he will follow me. On my part I have to suppress any and all desire for him to load. If he senses that I really want him to step up on that ramp, he backs up. If I stand in my trailer looking down at my feet holding the lead rope loosely, it gives him the the time and space he needs to take that first step.
I understand why it’s so hard for him. He is wondering if he will come back or will he end up at another kill pen. Each time I ask him to walk into my trailer, he decides to trust me. Usually, it’s the right hoof that he puts on the ramp first. I then reach out to pet him and reassure him before I step back and keep my energy low. This is when he puts the toe of his left hoof on the trailer refusing to put his heel down in case he decides to retreat. He looks at me with searching eyes. I reach out to him again telling him what a good boy he is. He continues to dance that toe around on the ramp before he finally steps up and slowly walks in. Once he is in, he never balks, never retreats, but he does want some reassurance, which I give plenty to him.
Nervously, I close the trailer, and I drive the long, winding hill to the Uncompaghre Plateau. It is early, 8am, so there is no traffic on the road. The air is crisp and remains cool as we continue to climb. Some deer cross the road ahead of me as butterflies dance in my tummy. Am I rushing him? Is this the right thing to do, or am I going to make things worse for him? I decide if he shows any signs of being nervous or scared, I will reverse course immediately.
After driving over washboard, dirt roads, we arrive at our destination. It’s a small loop, an easy trail, and well away from everyone. It’s as quiet as can be when I get out of the truck, and the air smells of pine. I let my dogs out who run over to an old corral to sniff something interesting. I drop the window and Mojo doesn’t poke his head out right away. He looks cautiously at the new surroundings. His eyes are wide but no white is showing. I tell him I love him, and slowly he pokes his head out. I drop the ramp as I glance back, and I see that he’s interested in what’s around him; not scared. We unload and his energy is high.
I take in a deep breath, exhale long and slow and say, “Are you ready Spaghetti?” I walk towards the woods, and he takes off with me right by my side. He walks through the thick trees, through duff, and over small logs without a second thought. He looks all around in curiosity without spooking once. He lets out a light nicker as he turns to look at me. His eyes are bright, and his Spirit is starting to Rise.
I pulled the saddle out of my trailer tack, and gently put it on Dulce’s back. He’s doesn’t appreciates it being tossed on. I slowly cinch him up, and then I put Harley’s boots on. Headstall slides on easily, I climb up on the fender wheel of my trailer (mounting block) when I get a text. I want to ignore it with all of my heart, but I know….I know who it is.
I pull out my phone, and I’m right. My neighbor grew nothing in his field last year but weeds, and next to my property they are about five feet tall. He wrote to say he was about to burn. Mojo, Chaco and Dulce have never been around that kind of fire. Chaco and Mojo were home alone. I hop off my trailer, throw my saddle back into the tack, quickly load the horses and head home.
I put Chaco where Mojo used to be, my husband could handle walking Harley despite chanting to himself over and over, “You are not the boss of me,” which Harley pretty much is, and I took out Mojo and Dulce for a walk together. This would be the first time Dulce and Mojo would be together with me in the middle, but not the first time he’s gone for a walk with one of my boys.
I take the introduction process slowly with new horses. Two of my friends lost horses, because they went too fast. They ended up with a horse that got a broken leg. I like to put the new horse in a corral next to my other horses letting them eat with each other, sniff one another, and even play over the fence with one another. I then take them for walks with each other with me in the middle. I then will take them into the main paddock with just the new guy on the lead rope, and if I feel they need more bonding time, we go on rides together with me ponying the new guy. I find that all of this helps them bond, brings them into the herd gently, and it gets them to learn how to work together.
Before the burn, I began the introduction to the herd with Harley. Harley is the main boss even though he defers to Chaco every now and then if there is a plastic bag blowing around. I figure if Harley accepts him, the others will much faster. Also, I’ve noticed how at night Harley spends more time around Mojo than the other two, and he chased Chaco and Dulce off a few times while they were trying to get Mojo to play. Mojo doesn’t play; at least not yet. He eats, sleeps, or stands at a distance watching the other horses play, but he has no interest in taking part even a little bit. He loves to eat with them, touch noses, but that is where the interactions stop.
One day, I took Harley along with Mojo and I on our walk. I couldn’t believe how well it went. Usually, I have to break the horses apart a few times, I didn’t have to once. I think they all know that Mojo had a hard time, and they are willing to put some of their playful and mischievous shenanigans on the shelf for him. After his first of two walks with Harley, he seemed to relax a bit more with all three of the horses.
On the day of the fire, I had no idea what would happen. I knew the flames would climb into the sky, the smoke could be thick, and I had no idea if Dulce would be playful, grumpy, or his sweet self. Mojo seems to really gravitate towards him of late. I have a window between stalls, and whenever Dulce goes into the one next to Mojo, Mojo puts his head through, and they touch noses. They often eat together, and I’ve even seen Mojo nip Dulce back a couple of times. Dulce is determined to gently bring Mojo back to the living. He is still pretty weary of any high energy directed his way, but little by little each day he becomes more comfortable.
During the burn, all I can say is they could have cared less about the fire mainly because they had fresh green grass to graze on. They thoroughly enjoyed being together often squishing me as they got as close as they could to one another. A couple of times when the cracking got a bit loud, they’d lift their heads to look, and then their noses dived back down to eat.
All I can say is that I have high hopes that this will all work out. They seem to be coming together slowly. Chaco will go for a walk with him this morning, and Chaco is the one Dulce is more weary of. Chaco is a full hand taller, and he tends to test boundaries. He starts nickering now when I load Dulce and Harley up to go for a ride, and he nickers when I bring them back. He still seems to be sad a lot of the the time, but I’m seeing a happier horse more and more. He really perks up when I come out or when the horses head over to hang out with him. I used to feed him away from the fence that separates them, because he was so scared to eat next to my other boys. Now he ignores the piles of hay away from my boys preferring to eat next to them. He also is holding himself more and more like a horse instead of letting his body droop. His head is held higher, and his whole body rises more often, which I love to see. He is shedding off a bunch of hair, and put on a few more pounds. He weighs 915 pounds gaining 80 all together. My goal for him is 1050.
It’s Easter night, and we are at the tail end of a bad wind storm that raged for several hours today. I love watching how horses take care of each other. Earlier, when the winds were at their worst, Chaco and Dulce stood by Mojo. Then they moved further up the paddock, and Harley came down to be with him. Now in the dark of a moonless evening, the winds are still howling, albeit not as loud. Harley is sleeping by Mojo, Dulce is standing in the barn by the window, and Mojo is on the other side while Chaco stands in front of them all. He has a herd supporting him. I love having cameras!
I would love to put Mojo in with them right now, but everything about him says to take slow steps. Don’t rush anything, so we won’t. Building up trust with him each day is much more important, but we’re getting closer to him being turned out with one horse at a time. I believe Harley will be the first.
And he still loves to have his poll stretched out every day, which is one of my favorite, daily moments with him.