Tao Of A Thoroughbred and a little bit about me, too!
I’ve been told I think outside the box.
It’s a good thing.
My current horse is an off the track Thoroughbred (OTTB) obtained at the age of five. A grandson of both Seattle Slew and Bold Forbes, there is no question he was bred to be a racehorse. It is said however, that both these lines throw out good performance horses.
He was raced a few times and managed to win a few lower priced sprints. As he continued to race, his placings diminished and soon he wasn’t running in the money at all. His owners decided it was time for him to go.
He went from the track to some person whose identity I do not know. With that person, and who knows, maybe even with the racehorse trainer or even someone else, he was manhandled and abused. Or at least he thinks he was.
This made this highly intelligent and sensitive creature loathe to be near humans and it taught him to resent humans anywhere near him, unless they had food. I can see why. Old pictures of him show him ribby and “starving to death” thin, a real skinner.
However, by the time I had met him he had been fattened up well and in good bloom. In fact, I thought he was awfully good looking. And even though I didn’t see him ride, or even get to ride him, I wanted him. I liked his walk very much. He kind of slinked like a cat and he had a good overstep. The more I saw him, the more I liked him.
Shortly after that, he came to me. But it wasn’t easy, even at the very beginning.
Thus began our journey, and that journey has me now well acquainted with what I call “T brain”. T brain is simply the very overactive and sensitive brain of the Thoroughbred, or more specifically, my Thoroughbred.
When I decided he was the horse for me I approached the owner stating my interest. She was hesitant, as I was an amateur. So was she, but she was being cautious because of the horse’s tendency towards violence. She figured the horse should go to a trainer and I’m not one.
Thinking like this always gets to me as I know a lot of ammies who are way more knowledgeable than a lot of trainers.
Finally I and a friend talked her into it. I had to produce three notarized letters from trainers stating that it was their belief that despite being an amateur, I possessed the skills to handle such a horse. An exchange of money, and he was mine.
In my mind he wasn’t “dangerous dangerous”. He was “misunderstood dangerous”, and I was pretty sure I could deal with it. I knew I’d find a way because I had a hunch all his behaviors were simply reactionary from his past contact with humans.
Change the contact and you change the horse.
This was in September, 2000.
He seemed so quiet in the beginning. It was hard to believe that so many people had such a hard time with him. I had noticed sensitivity to brushing, but nothing too extreme.
In November of that same year, when cooler temperatures had him feeling perkier, I got to meet the dark side, and I met it in a big way.
The scenario goes like this: He’s in crossties, which are rather long due to the number of ponies at the place. I’m saddling him up and had just settled the saddle on his back. He’s feeling really good. I’ve learned since then that he’s always a different horse in the cooler weather and far worse behaved.
I was attaching the girth to the off side of the saddle, not even running it under his belly yet. I saw him have (and I can only describe the look in his eyes) a flashback. It seemed an instinctual response, like slapping at a mosquito. He was anticipating pain. There was fear, and then there was anger.
Before I knew it he swung his big ole horse head around and bit down on my upper arm by the armpit. And then he tried to rip my arm off.
First came the pain and then came the stars.
The only thing that saved my arm that day was the fact that it was a chilly November day and so I was wearing layers, including polar fleece. Even with that, the bite was so hard it went through to the skin, and the skin was cut and pinched. A huge bruise soon developed around my arm which mimicked a tribal tattoo.
Ten years later, and I still have quite the scar.
Oh, so THAT’S why he’s dangerous……..
At the time of the bite, all I could manage to do was to smack his mouth off me, stumble back, and sort of crumble to the ground, seeing stars and crying. Yes, big bad ass me was crying. As bad as the pain felt, I think I was also partially crying because of perceived betrayal. “How can you do this to me?”
Schmuck. Feeling betrayed by him was one of my shining moments in amateur-land and was in reality, absurd.
But I’m only human you know.
It became clear I had to devise a strategy to deal with this horse. I needed to get “through” to him and I also needed to keep myself from getting shredded to death as well. He just could not be trusted.
He was such a putz. He wanted to kick me so much when I groomed him that I had to be very careful, standing strategically so he couldn’t nail me. He would actually try and swing his front leg sidewise to get a crack at me. Teeth and hooves were ever at the ready just waiting for me to let my guard down.
Now a lot of people would have groomed him with a whip in hand, so that if he misbehaved they’d smack him. Well with this horse that wouldn’t work. I know because I tried it. All it did was make him escalate, and I thought one of us would end up killing the other.
I had to find another way, a better way. This was my solution.
I began with the motto “Safety First” and so purchased a rubber muzzle for my horse to wear while I was handling him. This I thought would keep a bad bite away. But I also had to change the way he thought about people. And it was just a matter of dimming past bad experiences by introducing good experiences, one after another. Step by step, until it became a way of life.
I didn’t want him to hate human contact and grooming. So I played upon his love for treats by stuffing the muzzle with carrots and stuff. This way, he would learn to look forward to grooming.
Another plus is that it kept his very active brain focused on trying to slurp up the bits of carrot, rather than focus on his hatred of me and all humans.
It worked. Before too long I was able to remove the muzzle, and then simply use the allure of the treat to get him to comply.
So I continued the methodology but changed the tools. With the muzzle away, I began to use the treats as positive reinforcement but in a different way. Stand like a gentleman and you get the treat. You don’t get a treat for just existing. You must perform, and that performance is standing like a gentleman.
Stand still for brushing and you get a treat. Act like an asshole and I walk away and leave you alone, doing nothing. That’s right, your active Thoroughbred brain now gets to do nothing.
When he would be in a perkier mood than usual, I’d add what I call a chew chain. Basically, it’s the chain at the end of a lead line, and being from the track, he was very familiar with it. I’d snap the chains clip on the side of the halter, run the lead under his mouth and simple loop it on something like his neck or the other crosstie.
His energies would then be focused on trying to lip capture the chew chain rather than messing with me. Worked like a charm. Go figure.
He’d happily slobber all over the chew chain, until one day, we didn’t need it anymore.
By then his kicking had stopped. He hadn’t tried to nail me with a sideward swing of a front leg in months. And with the back legs, rather than just kick, he’d notify me he was uncomfortable with the brushing, and would issue a warning of a gently lifted leg, which I learned to be mindful of.
With him, brushing had to be a “conversation”.
I was also mindful of the thinness and sensitivity of his skin. No curry comb for him. The softest of brushes and a sheepskin glove were in order. For more rugged dirt, I’d use a fart rock or even a fingernail. He would tolerate those. (You have seen fart rocks, they are rectangular, look volcanic and smell like sulfur when you use them.)
As time passed, it became easier and easier to handle him. But it took a rather large incident to cement our relationship. It took a life or death situation.
It took colic.
COLIC AND BACK AGAIN
It was April 2001. It was rainy and cool. The barometric pressure had dropped but at that time that fact meant nothing to me. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what barometric pressure was or that I should pay attention to it at all. April 13, 2001 was the last day I would be unaware of barometric pressure again.
I was on my way home from work and heading to the barn. On the way home I received a phone call that my horse had a stomach ache. I drove very fast to the barn and was there in about half an hour.
At this time my horse was at a barn that was run by my very good friends who were horsemen I respected. We did what we usually do in such a case, what we had been taught to do. We gave my horse 10cc’s of banamine and waited. Twenty minutes went by and the horse seemed to have no relief. Aftrer that twenty minutes I said that was it, he was going to the horsey hospital. We are fortunate in that we have a premier equestrian hospital about an hour away.
There was a half hour struggle to load the damn horse into the trailer. My friends drove. We have this “rule” that states a distraught owner should never be the one to drive and that if possible, another qualified driver should drive. A bunch of people from the barn jumped in as well for moral support, some of whom I didn’t even know all that well. By this time it was about 7 pm and we were all in for one hell of an all-nighter.
To this day I am grateful to those who came with me, especially because I was nothing or noone to them.
We got to the hospital relatively quickly and my horse went in to be evaluated. The first hurdle was the hospital’s rules regarding entry for colic. You had to put up $4,000 up front. Yes, that’s right, $4,000.
Well heck, that’s what credit cards are for and I happened to have a few of those.
During the evaluation we spoke with the vet and they tried their usual procedures including tummy taps and lunging. They also explained that as far as administering banamine goes, 10 cc’s were not needed and that 2 cc’s was a better dose.
You learn something everyday.
After an evaluation that took hours it was decided that my horse had to go for surgery. I made the decision that we would have the surgery. My horse was only five and I was prepared to do whatever needed to be done, no matter the cost.
I signed up for this payment program called “Pet Care Credit”. It allowed up to $5,000 and if you paid it within a year, that five grand would be interest free. Past that time and you pay a hefty interest rate, I think about 25%.
My horse went into surgery in the wee hours of the morning. Luckily, because I had jumped all over this colic thing he had no necrotic intestine. He had flipped and a piece of food/poop had weighted that section of intestine down so it couldn’t flip back. The surgeon unflipped it and said he secured it into place. I don’t know how they do that.
He came out of surgery and was still alive. I was most grateful. Sometime around dawn, we were heading home.
The next day I headed back out to the hospital to visit with my horse. He was standing lethargically in a stall with a needle sewn into his neck and IV fluids being pumped into him.
On the way home, my car started giving me trouble. I ended up buying a new used car (thank you father) so I didn’t have to worry about the piece of chit car I was driving breaking down in the middle of nowhere.
Horsey hospitals are always in the middle of nowhere.
The next day I went back again. Same with the day after that. They wanted me to take my horse for short walks, which I dutifully did.
One day, during one of the walks, an 18 wheeler tractor trailer pulled into the hospital’s parking lot. As it came to a stop it hissed it’s air brakes. My horse spooked.
When he spooked he jumped sideways which must have pulled on the internal and/or external stitches. It must have hurt like hell.
All of a sudden, his skin began to twitch wildly. His entire body – neck, sides, butt all twitched as if small creatures were crawling directly underneath his skin. I had never before seen anything like it. Never.
Yet somehow, I knew what it was. I knew exactly what it was. Call it mother’s intuition.
My horse was having a heart attack.
I dragged him the best I could back to the barn doors of the hospital screaming at the top of my lungs. I was never so frightened in my life. The staff came running out and I told them what had happened and I told them he was having a heart attack.
The vet quickly came rumbling out with a cart full of dials and tubes and things. He hooked up a monitor and looked shocked when he discovered I was right.
Back into the stall and shots given, the horse now on a heart monitor. They got him stabilized as I explained exactly what had happened.
The vet, although he was the top colic vet in the area, had never experienced such a thing, yet here it was.
As the day progressed to night the vet was on the phone with others from around the country. The next day we spoke and he told me what he had learned.
He said that although it was uncommon, horses have been to seen to have heart attacks in stressful situations. The horse had also been running a low fever and the heart’s beat were a bit irregular. All these factors aided in him having a heart attack, and because of this additional health problem, my horse would have to stay longer.
My horse had also been the first sick horse in an apparent colic wave. Within a few days horses from all over were being admitted for colic. It got so busy at the hospitals that all the recovery stalls filled up, and when more horses became ill, they couldn’t accommodate them. The vet said it was the weather and the barometric pressure. When the barometric pressure falls, horses seem to be more prone to colic.
Eventually, my horse improved. I kept on going every day and walking him. I learned to avoid this one area behind the hospital’s dumpster. It was where the horses that didn’t make it from colic surgery were kept until they were disposed of.
Do you know that when a horse dies in surgery they don’t bother to sew them back up? I couldn’t help but peak at those horses fallen, crying whenever I looked. I couldn’t believe the pure volume of the intestines, as if they could never possibly fit inside a horse. When they’re exposed to air for awhile, the blow up and look even bigger.
Eventually, my horse was fine and it was time to go. The vet told me exactly what I needed to do to keep my horse from getting colic again.
He put my horse on Senior feed even though he was only five/six years old. He said it was easier for them to digest. The horse had to be out as much as possible, and in a place where he’d walk around. He had me put my horse on daily wormer, even though worms were not the issue of the colic. He said he noticed that daily wormer really keeps them from getting sick. My horse was not to just stand in a stall day after day, he had to be out. And as such, once my horse recovered, I’d have to find a place that would accommodate his needs.
My total vet bill was $6800, but I didn’t care so much about that. I had my horse back.
Now all I needed to do was to keep him alive.
It was very hard. I had to go to the barn every day after work and care for him. I’d have to hand graze him, and made sure to do it at times when he was less likely to get spooked by something. That heart attack still stuck in my mind and continued to for a very long time.
The wound was oozing as well and that had to be cleaned. Sometimes it seemed the ordeal would never be over. Plus, I had to start looking for a new barn where the turnout was more than a pen. I needed to find a place with acreage, where my horse could live as naturally as possible and be able to graze and walk all day.
I was deathly afraid of him getting another belly ache and so I never missed a day of his rehabilitation. Our walks got longer and longer, and soon the external stitches were taken out, and the inner ones dissolved. There was still ooze though and that continued for a few months. One day, that was gone too.
The warm weather finally came and I had to stay back in the barn while others would go out riding. I told myself to be patient. I knew if I listened to the vet and did all the right things, that he would be alright and not get sick again.
All this contact drew my horse and I closer. He no longer resented my presence. If I humanize the situation it would seem as if he knew I’d saved his life, and all of a sudden I had his trust. From the day that happened, he never lashed out at me again, at now it’s been nine years.
In fact, from that moment, my horse decided he that he liked me a lot. From that one moment he began to whinny for me when he’d hear my footsteps or my voice. From that moment, he became affectionate.
My friends couldn’t believe the transformation. Those who thought I’d lost my delusional mind when I got him began to trust him more. I remember the day when one timid girlfriend actually pet him for the first time. And when he accepted me, he seemed to accept the rest of humanity too.
I became very protective of that trust. No way, no how, was I going to let him down and betray it. I would be the horseman that I always imagined myself to be. I began to look at the same old situations with new eyes and I was determined to learn a different way, a better way.
I would enter myself in a sort of equine re-education program.
When the riding began again, I took it slowly. I had him good on trails, and had him riding to what I’d best describe as an english hunter type frame. That’s what I knew to be able to do. I knew how to make a good beginning.
I took him to local shows not with the idea of competing but with the idea of acclimating him to the environment. Sure the commotion wasn’t anything new to a racehorse, but what about being ridden next to so many horses?
None of these shows were even dressage shows. They were small, local events full of children, beginners and a few more accomplished amateurs competing in english, western and gymkhana events.
Like it was no big deal I’d show my horse that going to shows was fun, and nothing to be upset with. We’d ride in the warm up rings with horses zinging and zanging all around us. Some running for gymkhana warm ups, some jumping for jumping or hunter classes. Ponies, dogs, blowing plastic bags, it was all there.
The first warm up arena had him so jazzed the only thing we could do is trot a 20 meter circle until he wore the freak out. Each subsequent show warm up arena became easier and easier.
Then, after my rides, I’d unsaddle my horse and tie him to the trailer. We’d sit there for some time with him happily munching on some hay. It was a good way to teach him patience and he’s still very good tied to the trailer.
Plastic bags were easy to overcome. Since he loved treats so much, I’d always bring them in plastic bags. He soon learned to associate plastic bags with food and will gladly chase one down to see if it has any yummies.
So he was able to get all sorts of positive experiences and exposures. Now it was time to make a dressage horse.
But exactly how does one make a dressage horse?
I needed help. So I sought it out. Locally, there wasn’t an instructor worth their salt who knew dressage well enough and who wasn’t crazy. At one point, I paid someone to come in from far away just to show me that next step. My biggest problem was at that point I was so afraid of making a mistake that I didn’t trust my own knowledge.
In retrospect, it wasn’t all that complicated, but I like many ammies, I chose to think it was.
I found a nice enough barn about fifty miles away. It had its good and bad points. There was a huge thirty acre field for the horse, but he had to share it with other geldings. The family who ran the place were of western stock, so when it was time for the herd to come in, the HERD literally let itself in with the horses trotting into the barn on their own and slipping into their assigned stalls. It was pretty amazing to watch on one hand, pretty frightening on the other. It was a full year before I could watch the herd come in without having a heart attack myself.
The place had an indoor and was right next to trails thousands of acres large. I could park my trailer and there was a small shop on the property which sold useful items like bell boots and fly spray. Very convenient not to have to schlep to a tack store!!
Another plus was that in the summers they’d run an event called team penning. Basically, it’s herding of cattle against the clock and could be run as an individual event or as a team event.
The old cowboy that ran the place liked me and when I expressed my interest in further exposing my horse, he offered to help.
At first my horse wouldn’t walk down the barn aisle after he smelled the cattle. It took carrots and coaxing to get him near the arena fence, and probably about an hour. After that hour, and seeing that nothing bad was happening he went nose to nose with a steer. I put a saddle on him, and me, the racehorse and the dressage saddle went into the herd, not in a showing situation, but just to move the cattle from one pen to another in the capacity of event workers.
My horse soon learned that the cattle were more afraid of him than he was of them. He liked that very much getting all full of himself. Later that night things were good enough that we had a run at it.
My horse chased the steer with great enthusiasm but when the steer veered off in another direction, my horse stayed straight! I could only laugh, and I pet him for being so very brave. We continued to team pen from time to time, though we were never any good, especially if the steer changed direction. We had one good direction and that was straight!
That barn was also centrally located near show arenas and literally hundreds of barns, so there’d be a way bigger pool of instructors. I figured there just had to be someone in that bunch who’d be competent to school my horse and I in the way I knew we needed to be schooled.
I tried a few trainers, some with bigger names than others and was not happy. One stressed my horse so bad he seemed sick the next day. I was still so shell shocked from the colic surgery that I almost passed out when I saw my horse not himself, but thankfully it passed.
I scoured the internet to find my training savior. And I found him. Through posting boards and books and videos I found him. And he was doing a clinic in my area.
I immediately went to sign up. I did not get in.
I did however get to speak to the clinic organizer, or should I say symposium organizer. I was told I wasn’t up to par with the level of horse/rider teams being shown at the symposium. So instead, I volunteered with the enthusiasm of a school girl.
I then began to take lessons from her. Yes, call me a suck-up.
I drove the clinician to and from the airport, made sure he was comfortable and pretty much basically volunteered to become his weekend slave, immediately dashing off for water should he thirst. I also talked his ear off and did my best to suck as much knowledge from him as I could. Trips to the airport afforded me over an hour of me and him time where we spoke at great length. (If you ever want the opportunity to speak to a highly regarded Master, offer to volunteer and drive them to the airport.)
So great was my enthusiasm (sucking up) that I was accepted into the next clinic. The couple of hundred bucks I had to spend helped too!
After that clinic, I’d never look back. I had found my religion and it was good and it was righteous.
Ride Classically Not Drastically! TM Copywrited