This week I worked with Libby, a 30 year old Quarter Horse mare, for the first time. Libby and her owner, Kirsten, were referred to me by Libby’s massage therapist, Heather Davis. Libby suffers from some lameness due to injury and hard use (before Kirsten). Not surprisingly as a result she holds her body very tightly. The massage therapy has helped Libby but Heather believed that if Libby could become more mentally relaxed that it would help her body to relax as well. This is where I come in.
Kirsten had started a little bit of target training with Libby before I arrived. I was curious to see how Libby responded to this. Did she ‘get’ it? Was she willing to work for food? How hard? With all of Libby’s prior history I had a feeling that this sort of free shaping work might be too big a leap for her. So I decided to go into the stall with her and work on some basic lessons in feel…. look at me, follow me, turn… on the lead rope.
As always my first objective is to capture the horse’s interest and cooperation. With some experimentation I discovered that Libby loved…LOVED…scritchies. Particularly in the udder area. This was, for her, way better than food. So, I began to click and scritch rather than click and feed.
Historically, Libby would only put up with any kind of handling (like for trimming) for only a short time. Then she would begin to fuss and struggle making the whole procedure unpleasant for everyone involved. I saw this happen when we opened the stall door and Libby tried to bowl me over to get out. This, I learned, was a regular occurrence. Libby is so very focused on what she thinks needs to happen next that all thought of the human goes right out the window.
I decided to make it my mission to show her another way. We worked for a while in front of the open door as I asked her to continue to back up, look at me, follow me and turn. For every tiny change I would release stop and scritch deeply for a moment. (I eventually eliminated the click as it was unnecessary.) Did this take some time? Yes, it did. But it was time spent scratching itchy spots (or being scratched from Libby’s point of view) which was, for all involved, way better than having a fight. Soon, I was walking her out of the stall on a long loose lead and she was exiting calmly. We went in and out several times.
As Libby began to let go of thoughts of leaving she did relax in her body just as Heather had predicted. The lameness was still there but overall she was walking much more freely and relaxed. It was a nice change that I was very happy to be a part of.