It's important for a horse to know how to react when they're 'trapped', or confined. Because I deal with wild horses, not domestic bred, they've never had the experience of being in enclosed spaces such as stalls or horse trailers, or even halters. While MiKael is talking about how she deals with domestic bred horses, and her technique varies greatly from mine, we are both after the same goal. The goal of having a horse who's relaxed and trusts us in any situation.
Sunny has been dragging a lead rope around with her here from two months now. For a wild horse, wearing a halter is feeling trapped. Dragging a lead, even more so. I'd love to take them both off, but she's just not ready for that yet. She'll come to me when I have grain; I've been sitting in the chair and letting her eat while I stroke her face. This also creates of feeling of being trapped for Sunny, as she's been terrified of having her face touched, especially on the right side. But this past week she's been allowing me to reach up and touch her right cheek and run my hand around her halter while she munches on the grain. Such a small step for most horses, and yet HUGE for Sunny. She's learning to relax and trust.
Being allowed onto Sunny's right side is a huge accomplishment and shows she's beginning to trust me more.
Dragging a lead is something most domestic horse owners would want to die over. The halter left on is horrifying enough, but dragging a lead? Yet for our wild ones, they learn so many important lessons from this. They become accustomed to the rope on their legs and learn to untangle themselves without flying into a panic. They step on the end of their rope and learn to give their head (which comes in very handy when you begin leading and riding!) Most of us never think of the valuable lesson this teaches our horses, but trust me, it goes a long way. Case in point:
The other afternoon I decided to let Sunny out into the pasture. She'd been out twice before, and while there's little grass for grazing, it does promote a nice emotional break from the paddock for her. While I can't just waltz right up to her, she does come to feed and she's proven that she's not a fence tester. I figured it was an hour before dinner, so I'd let her out while I did other chores with the sheep.
My neighbor has three horses. One of the horses is a gelding who's been proud cut. He screams day and night like a stallion at the two mares, and he's one nasty tempered boy. They only get turned out of their paddocks in the evening, and I'd never turn Sunny out while they were out because I don't need her thinking about this guy over there.
Sunny trotted calmly to the other end of the pasture. It was so nice to see her relaxed and not so flipping excited like she had been the first two times. She was quiet, calm, and content just to be out nibbling on the short grass. But no more than ten minutes had gone by when that all changed. The neighbor's horses came screaming out into their pasture, and Sunny heard the cry of that blasted gelding.
The beast was not nice. He reached over his fence (wood) and bit Sunny. She didn't know where to turn. In a hurry to escape his teeth, she dashed through the blackberries. This patch of berries is very thick, and there was no way I could walk through them after her. Sunny was now between the blackberries and the lower pasture. Vines were tangled around her legs.
Sunny has learned to give to the lead all on her own.
And this is where dragging that rope around was so handy! Sunny could care less about feeling those vines on her legs. And because I had grain, she stood trembling right where she was and waited for me to bring it to her. After a couple of nibbles and my picking up her lead rope, I began stomping down on the blackberry vines, hoping she wouldn't spook at my being so active in such a close proximity. She didn't. She was trapped and not flighty.
I got the vines down below her knees, and slowly Sunny began to follow me out of the berries. City Boy had cut the fence into the lower pasture open so she could be led through a narrow opening and back to the safety of her paddock. All the while, that nasty gelding was pacing back and forth along the fence line, pinning his ears back and shaking his head.
As if Sunny's trusting me to get her out of that sticky situation wasn't enough, when we got back to the barn I noticed thorns all over on her face. And while she'd just begun allowing me to touch the sides while eating, she'd never allowed me to do so without grain or while standing up. And yet, she stood right there as I plucked them from her face and cheek. One of them was 1/8 of an inch from her eye, and after tossing her head once, she stood silently while I got it between my fingers and lifted it out.
Thorns were everywhere, one of them right alongside her left eye.
Who knew that something as simple as dragging a halter and lead rope would lead to a wild horse knowing how to stand trapped in a thicket of berries? Who knew that the wee little bit of touching I'd been able to do up until that point would allow me to lead my otherwise sensitive horse calmly through a narrow opening and across the pasture, being followed by a flock of sheep, without her feeling upset or threatened? Heck, she doesn't lead well most of the time in the paddock, but if you'd stopped that day you'd never know it.
Sunny is proof that even the smallest steps can help your horse through a difficult situation. Allowing them to get stuck and figure out on their own that they can relax and get out of a sticky situation is a priceless experience.