December was a great month for Zeus, our resident wild horse. We experienced many huge milestones. It’s somewhat humorous: the milestones I speak of are things that we take for granted in trained domestic horses. But to Zeus, simple interaction and communication with a human being let alone other domestic horses – was utterly foreign.
I can now confidently walk up to him, toss a lead rope over his back or neck. I can lean on him with my arm over his back (a saddle-like sensation) and lead him around. He’ll follow me. I can ask him to turn in toward me, send him forward, stop and back using only energy and focus. We have fun playing at liberty and he responds softly and kindly. He knows what it feels like to release. Although he’s still shy about exposing his right side, he’s much better.
Soon I’ll take him to the arena where we can really create some positive experiences for him.
One of the highlights of the past month was working with barefoot trimmer, Sharon Leney of Happy Hoof Inc. I initially met Sharon in one of my clinics in 2015 and have since worked with her and her horses several times. She has been instrumental in helping me work with Zeus’s feet.
Not long ago, something would brush by Zeus’s leg and he’d be gone. As calm and careful as I was, the sensation was too much for him. With time we worked up to being able to touch him all over, rub and scratch him, and play with his legs. The next step was asking him to pick up his front feet. Tricky timing! The pressure must disappear when his foot goes up, holding onto it once he’s picked it up would devastate the whole exercise. We’re teaching him: lift your leg and hold it there on your own versus be calm while we restrain your leg. Also, his decision to stay and try is anchored in the mutual trust we’ve built over the last few months. It must be that way: success with Zeus is rooted in his belief that I’m not going to hurt him and that being with me and now others – will consistently be a good experience.
I don’t doubt for a second that Zeus’s capturing was a horrific experience for him; likely the most traumatic thing that he’s ever experienced. Thus I avoid any kind of restraint; it’s crucial that his response to the lead rope is to relax, not brace or pull. This response is becoming more ingrained as he gains confidence. In an attempt to trim his feet there were many moments where all it would have taken was a feather weight on the lead rope to ask him to release when he became tense. But I need two hands to work with his leg and the nippers. Although I was able to cut some length off one of his front feet, it wasn’t a great job. Realizing I either had to grow another arm or get help, I called upon Sharon.
Sharon comments, “Zeus, what an amazing horse! To have the honor of working with this gentleman is an opportunity I could not pass up. Therefore when Scott called to ask for my assistance with trimming Zeus, I agreed.
I have been around horses most of my life and being a trimmer I am not easily intimidated by any horse, no matter the size. Although I wholeheartedly agreed to help with Zeus, I must admit that I was intimidated just a bit by the thought of working with a wild horse. Then I met Zeus up close and personal. What I saw was a small, yet powerful horse, that was scared. In that moment my heart went out to him.”
Sharon and I had the mutual understanding that the goal was not for her to show up and trim all his feet in a session. Our only goal was that Zeus improve at something during each session. We worked towards trimming his feet as he grew more comfortable with each step in the trimming process. The fundamental principle here is: We train at the pace of the horse. Not only does this provide solid and lasting training for the horse, it validates two beliefs:
1. ) There is ALWAYS success. Because when a horse tries, and he will, we respond appropriately, and he will improve with each try. Thus success is a consistent result.
2. ) We are NEVER frustrated. How can we be frustrated when there is consistent success? The key is changing our definition of ‘trimming success’ from getting his feet done in 30 minutes to we’ll advance through a series of steps at the pace Zeus is comfortable with, and it will take the time it takes.
This being our mindset, Zeus is astounding me. I am very proud of him and he feels this. When Sharon and I work with Zeus, I’m not simply the handler, nor is she simply the trimmer. The three of us are a team.
It is my job to connect with him and keep him in a great mental place where bracing, walking off, or kicking are thoughts that do not occur to him. Initially this required a lot of concentration on my behalf. I’m now ‘turning him loose’ a little more as he grows confident: less emotional babysitting, but letting him know I’m there for him. The great thing about Sharon is that she’s of the same mindset. She is not projecting any fear or negativity toward Zeus. She has stated that Zeus is allowed to take his leg away. If he becomes nervous and pulls away, that’s okay. He’s allowed to be unsure. He’s allowed to walk away. It’s then our job to reassure him. It’s simple: when we reward the try and focus on the success, the negative aspects disappear.
Sharon continues, “Although he was scared, he allowed me to rub his neck and work my way down to his front foot. On the third or fourth rub down, he lifted his foot. It was only for a moment, but what a moment. It’s a time when your heart swells, for you realize that this majestic animal is giving you the most precious gift he has: trust. It wasn’t long before I was cleaning his foot and touching up his bars with a knife. We then repeated the process on the other side.
Since that day we have trimmed his front feet and are now working with his hind feet. With every visit we get farther faster, though I am in no rush to finish as I truly enjoy working with Zeus and Scott.
So many horses are rushed through the training process. Zeus is fortunate to have a great trainer that puts the horse before the saddle.”
This amazing wild horse is gaining confidence as our exercises become routine; his expectation now is that working with his feet results in a feeling of peace and pride. What better expectation could a horse have? The look in his eye says it all.
Lately I’ve been working on asking Zeus to turn in front of me. This was exceptionally difficult for him because he’s shy about the face and he’s very protective of his right side. I call this game, left side / right side and we’ve played it quite a bit lately. I simply stand in front of Zeus and ask him to turn the other way. If he’s having difficulty, I just slowly move toward the side I’d like to be facing and cue him to take a step. He’s found it’s easier to do that than tuck his head around to his hip, which has been his typical response!
Not only is Zeus much more comfortable with people on his right side but recently he’s
exhibited a great response: curiosity. He’s very shy about his nose. During Sharon’s last visit, although with noticeable apprehension, he extended his nose toward her to investigate the tool she had in her hand. Also when Sharon was working with Zeus, he slowly turned his head toward me so our faces were almost touching. That move, choosing to turn in toward me – was an astronomical move for him, and is a clear demonstration of trust. Good job buddy!
The icing on the cake came yesterday. I’m still euphoric. To date, we’d been able to pick up Zeus’s hind feet and pick them out. But he was somewhat unsettled about it and he’d move away or take his leg back when we’d brush by a ‘touchy’ spot on his leg. I spent time each day, whenever I fed the horses, playing with Zeus’s hind feet. Letting the lead rope brush by them, asking him to pick up a foot, slowly building up to being able to touch and play with his legs all over.
And what was the result? Zeus let me trim both of his back feet and was calm for the whole process! Although he had every option to leave, he stayed with me. Watch it on our YouTube channel.
I’m having a great time working with Zeus. Stay tuned for more adventures as we head to the arena!