Last Saturday, the barn had its holiday party. The day’s schedule featured multiple events: a horse parade, a costume contest, and an obstacle course. This is all great fun for the humans, but for a sensitive, reactive horse, it’s like asking them to participate in a day-long episode of Fear Factor.
I have a sensitive, reactive horse. If an object, say, a mounting block, has moved position since the last time she encountered it, Navani views it with fear. The kind of fear that indicates she has heard the stories about Pinnochio and is suspicious that other fairies might be out there, granting wishes of sentience willy-nilly. And of course, every object dreams to be free, free to move about and predate on horses. Other, less cautious horses.
Photo by Liz Ostasiewski
So in the time I had between the invitation and the event, I did everything I could to help set Navani up for success. I introduced her to each element of her costume as it was completed. As new obstacles appeared in the arena, we’d work around and on them. I was especially proud the day we went through the new gate: she listened as I asked her for subtle movements to position me to reach the latch, and when the latch was free, she even bumped the gate open with her nose so we could pass through. I started to feel more confident. We might not cover ourselves in glory during the competition, but we’d probably avoid a Friesian-size freakout with everyone watching.
And then, five days before the party, the tarp tunnel appeared.
It was nothing more than a large blue tarp affixed to the side of the arena, but the amount of fear it generated was equivalent to its size. Navani spotted it through the arena gate while still in the parking lot and hated it so thoroughly, immediately, that she threatened to rear. If a differently-positioned mounting block was worthy of suspicion and fear, this tarp represented the end of life on Earth. My confidence plummeted.
By the end of the first session in the arena with the tarp, I had convinced her to walk through the tunnel in both directions, in-hand and mounted. I had not, however, convinced her that the tarp posed no threat to her well-being. I thought perhaps asking her to work on a line in a circle near the tarp would desensitize her to it, but she’d veer in on the circle on the tarp side and speed up dramatically when she passed it, looking back to make sure no tentacle slithered out to snatch at her legs. Nothing lasting is built in a day, so I accepted the progress we’d made and determined to expose her to the tarp as much as possible before the party.
The next time we saw the tarp tunnel, someone had scattered pool noodles underneath, also known as foamy fear spaghetti. But I had a secret weapon. After my fall in October, I needed to take a break from riding in order to allow my brain to heal. It was the ideal time to begin clicker training, which I started by loading the clicker: sounding the click every time I gave her food. I did this for short periods over several days, varying the location of the practice space and where I would click so there was no question that the treat was click-related and not location-based. I was also careful not to click whenever she started getting pushy about asking for the food: nudging me, my pockets, the treat pouch, so as to avoid inadvertently teaching her bad habits. She’s a big girl and I don’t want her thinking it’s acceptable to shove people around if she believes they have treats. The way she’d slurp my whole hand into her mouth in her joyous dive for hay pellets was gross and left me a bit concerned for my fingers, but I hoped she’d be more polite as she grew confident that food was coming and accustomed to taking pellets from a cupped hand. Before party prep began, she had started learning to touch a target with her nose but we hadn’t done anything beyond that.
The difference between the session with the clicker and the session without was almost unbelievable. It had been a couple of weeks since our last click session and I wasn’t sure she’d remember or had made the connection that a click meant food was coming. But that night, she proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she fully understands its meaning, and her willingness to try everything increases when she knows there’s a potential for food. In a previous obstacle exposure session, I introduced her to a pedestal: a tire with a sturdy wood circle affixed to one side. The idea is to ask her to step up onto it, and though I’d had some success, it took a lot of asking while she circled around it, trying to show me that there actually was no need to go over this thing or touch it at all, really. But that changed as soon as she got the first click for putting a hoof up. She understood what I wanted, saw the value in offering it, and now steps up with no qualms. Same for the wooden bridge that teeter-totters as the horse walks across–suddenly even stepping on and crossing from the raised side was no longer as insurmountable as she’d insisted previously. The click bridges the communication gap, the reward cements the behavior.
The tunnel was still scary, and the scattered noodles didn’t help matters. Each time through represents real danger…to me. I have to be mindful of her body language and mental limitations every time I expose her to a new fearsome object at home or in the field: her reactions can be big and fast. So, for instance, even though she looks to me for protection from the terror of the tunnel, I cannot allow her to walk through behind me because of what might happen if her fear gets the better of her, whether that’s rearing up and coming down on top of me, or smashing through me to safety like a bowling ball to a pin. It’s a real consideration, as not every walk-through was achieved calmly and more than once I ended up knocked against the arena wall as she shoved past me in her rush to be out.
I don’t know if the idea was that she was supposed to carefully pick her footing through the noodles, but, direct as always, she mashed her way right over the top of them. When I clicked mid-tunnel and she came to a dead stop to collect her reward, noodles shifting underfoot, I began to understand the power of this type of training. She was still nervous and didn’t want to be in there, but the click had happened and so she suspended her discomfort for as long as it took to crunch a small handful of pellets. By the end of the session, I even convinced her to touch the edge of the tarp with her nose a few times; even with the promise of a food reward she wasn’t eager to do that. Still, it was a vast improvement in her overall comfort level.
The night before the party, I planned to do a last costume exposure/fitting and some preliminary grooming because Navani is a firm believer in the skincare benefits of a mud facial and a crusty face for the party just wouldn’t do. The joke was on me for showing up at the barn with a plan, because as I crunched through the gravel, arms stuffed with costume, the barn owner called out to me. “Hey! Melissa! You riding your horse today? Because they put up a tent for the party, she’s afraid of it, the ceiling is low, and I don’t want her going through there and wrecking it.”
Of course. Of course this new, out of place structure was, in horse-o-vision, a flappy horror from the pit of her deepest nightmares. It was new and out of place and clearly in cahoots with the tarp tunnel, which, in addition to the pool noodles, now had a second loose tarp underneath. Because it wasn’t dangerous enough already, right? I knew that the plan was to set up the course that day in preparation for the party, so with the tent up and the new tarp, I figured at least that was the last of it and I probably wouldn’t find an arena full of live snakes the next morning or a cannon that fires glitter and screams on either side of the tarp tunnel. Probably. One more night of clicker-enhanced bravery training would help ensure a safer party for everyone.
We worked on everything, acquainting her with the new tent and the sound and feel of a tarp underfoot combined with pool noodles, and afterward, I asked her to work in a circle again, near the tarp. This time, she didn’t come in off of the circle nearly as much on the tarp side (after a couple of reminders) and she was able to keep a consistent pace and respond to my instructions. I had enough time left to braid her tail and clean up her four-scoop fear poop before I had to clear out of the barn for the night. We were as ready as we were going to get.
The Big Day
Since I didn’t accomplish many of my grooming goals the previous evening, I was out and at the barn extra early in the morning. I knew that in the chaos that was to come, there wouldn’t be time or space to get her gleaming, so I took advantage of the opportunity, wrapping up just before the horse yoga class taught by a local vet. Over the course of an hour or so, she walked us through stretching the horse’s legs forward and back, relieving tension in the neck, and finally the “full body wave”, which starts with a butt crunch, moves into a back lift, and then into a neck release. Navani thoroughly enjoyed the process, and by the end, she was so relaxed, head hung low, bottom lip dangling, that she gave off the appearance of being drugged. She seemed even more relaxed than the last time she was actually drugged, potentially because no giant grinding dental bit attached to a drill ever made an appearance. In this relaxed state, she was even receptive to me hugging on her neck, which she normally barely tolerates. I was glad that the day started off with something that relaxed her, made her feel good, and helped improve our bond. I was going to need to cash in on every bit of goodwill I’d ever engendered in her shortly.
Immediately after yoga, it was time to get her costumed and ready for the party. I was all over the place in my ideas leading up to our first ever costumed event, ultimately going with a nod toward the pagan by dressing her as a tree. With a holiday sweater and a red velvet bow on my helmet, I was an accompanying gift. The kind you can’t return and endure with a grimace, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. To construct the body of the tree, I was inspired by fleece horse exercise sheets, which sit under the saddle and extend down the back and over the rump. To bring the greenery up to her neck, I sewed a felt wreath onto her breast collar (I wanted color and texture to be consistent between the two components and also she’d try to eat a real wreath.). I braided her mane in a running braid down her neck and fixed in some artificial poinsettias, the first and only idea I never deviated from in the six different costumes I considered. And to top it off, I made her a star-shaped leather brow band for her bridle, finished in artificial gold leaf. It practically blazed in contrast to her dark fur.
Because of the new tables and chairs taking over the front of the barn for the party, I had to get Navani ready in her stall instead of in the normal tacking-up area. We also couldn’t take our normal path to the arena, and the back path is less a path and more an obstacle course in its own right, having to step over extension cords and thread between farm equipment and trucks and trailers and after we got past all of that, the front barn door was 80% closed (horse brain: “different! bad! danger!”) and oh, there’s a glimpse of that tent she was concerned about yesterday and just as we passed the dark gap in the door, someone unseen inside ripped off a loud swath of duct tape and before I could react, Navani had already jumped in fear and landed full bore on the edge of my foot*.
With the wet weather and ensuing sloppiness of the nearby trails, our outdoor pony parade turned into a parade around the arena which devolved into chaos after two or so laps, with horses going every which way, practicing obstacles, and people with cameras darting among them. We tried and were successful at some of the obstacles: the tinsel curtain, the platform, and the tippy bridge, and with all of these she understood that I was asking her for the same job under saddle as with the clicker, which I think is an impressive association and I was glad to see willingness from her even when it was clear I was not packing treats. The tarp tunnel, however, I could not convince her to approach mounted. I asked her several times and each time she would slant away, flap her lip, or otherwise communicate her concern by disregarding my cues utterly. I could’ve continued to raise the issue. She might have eventually acquiesced. (Maybe. She can really hold on to a thought!) But it was also possible that she’d explode in her fear and cause other horses to panic in her wake, and that was a risk I was unwilling to take.
Photo by Liz Ostasiewski
Photo by Liz Ostasiewski , awkward “good girl” face is all me and 100% on brand.
I’d already decided that with Navani’s tunnel reticence we wouldn’t be participating in the official competition, and it was right around then that an entirely new group of new obstacles were dragged into the arena, including another giant tarp, which, like its brethren, was a fear-based entity. This is when we got into the most trouble we had all day: stuck between two tarps she feared to approach, she stopped listening to my cues and started veering on a collision course with a person on the ground having a conversation with someone on a horse, neither of whom were paying any attention to their surroundings, including the freaked-out horse dancing in their direction. It’s a Christmas miracle we didn’t crush anyone, and it was at that point I got off: I didn’t have control or at least enough influence and we were becoming a danger to others. I used the rope halter to introduce her to the new stuff in a more controlled, safer way, and then decided she’d had enough for one day and put her away. Though I wish I’d kept her out long enough to watch the neighbor’s mini pony try the obstacles and see how that bold little critter stomped through and touched everything immediately, as I feel she could learn a thing or two from its utter confidence.
I’m of several minds on the introduction of new spontaneous obstacles during the party itself. I think that if you want to have a fair competition and a trial by fire of sorts where no one gets opportunity to practice, this is the way to do it. Or maybe there wasn’t time to fully set up the night before. Or maybe they were being considerate of the space needs of the horse yoga class. And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to have less fun because I or my horse couldn’t handle it, which is why I don’t invite myself along on rides where we might be a burden on more experienced horsepeople. But another part of me, the part that felt vulnerable, the part that’s still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the beginner rider and beginner horse owner of one of the most reactive horses in the barn part is upset that these new things came in when I was mounted, no warning and no choice in the matter. It added more wild cards into a situation that didn’t need them. “Unpredictable events out of my control that could spin out into a deadly situation” is part and parcel of interacting with horses, horseback riding is an inherently dangerous activity, and I cannot blame others for the risks I assume with the horse I chose to buy. But on the other hand, it’s a holiday party, not a serious event. Ultimately I’m left feeling a little annoyed and also feeling that I have no right to be annoyed because it’s not like I helped plan, pay for, or execute the event. How can I complain when other people went to so much work to host a good time? They couldn’t know Navani and I would struggle in this way. At least from the ground, she was more willing to investigate the new obstacles, though touching the snowman with her nose was right out and she was also offended when I took his little claw and used it to pat her.
Photo by Liz Ostasiewski
Photo by Liz Ostasiewski
Even with the foot-mashing and the attempted trampling, I would say we had a successful day. Considering her costume and all the other horses (some new!) and their occasionally loud, blinking costumes going in all different directions at different speeds plus all the people and the new objects and the music and everything else, she took it remarkably in stride. Sometimes when I see her snorting and reacting when a flag flaps in the wind, I despair at the idea of ever turning her into the warhorse of my renaissance faire dreams. But I also know that we couldn’t have done any of this a year ago. Six months ago. She’s improving because she’s starting to trust in me. The promise of a food-based reward motivates her, no doubt, but it’s the trust that brings the follow-through. I know it, when I see fear etched in her body language and nothing but trust in her eyes when she follows me into a scary place because I’ve asked. I couldn’t have asked her for a two tarp noodle maneuver earlier in our relationship. That we did so much, relatively calmly, is a testament to the trust we’ve built over time.
We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with by next Christmas.
Photo by Liz Ostasiewski
*It’s fine, don’t write my obituary yet.