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Teaching a rescue horse to find his confidence and trust again

Meet Bill.

Bill was one of the most beautiful horses I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He was a 7 year old, 16.3 hand Percheron cross, a great big gentle giant.

6 months before Bill’s owners sent him to me for training they had rescued Bill from the sale yard and a precarious future where the specter of the knackery loomed strong.

Bill's history is unknown. At some point he was obviously broken in but as his owners discovered, he didn’t like wearing a saddle and struggled with having a bit in his mouth. What we do know is that somewhere in Bill’s short life he was mistreated as he no longer trusted people and was an extremely worried and nervous horse.

Bill arrived at La Mancha in early 2015 a timid, worried, reactive horse and 4 months later he left confident, happy and healthy…. How did we get there? The answer is TIME.

UPDATED on 11/6/2015 I share Bill's training notes with gratitude for having had the chance to meet him, work with him and come to love him. Bill touched me more than any horse I have worked with and he taught me lessons I will carry with me always. Yesterday, after I published this note, Bill's owner reached out to me to let me know Bill was no longer with us. The rest of the story belongs to the woman who rescued him and loved him and did absolutely everything she could for him. I hope she knows what a light she was in Bill's life (he adored her). Horses see our hearts and he knew this woman's heart was gold. I will never forget you Bill.


Catching Bill

During Bill’s first few weeks at La Mancha, my goal was to gain his trust. At first, when I went to catch Bill from his paddock he would walk away from me. I started to approach Bill side on and didn’t make eye contact with him. I walked toward him a few steps at a time, stopping long enough to give him the time he needed to accept me coming closer to him and eventually getting close enough for him to reach out and smell me.

Once he was comfortable with me being this close to him I stroked his shoulder gently and eventually would slide the lead rope over his neck. Putting on the halter was not too bad once we reached this point. He often would dunk his head through the nose piece and I would slowly do up the buckle.

We played the catching game for one month until Bill decided that he was happy for me to walk up to him and catch him like most horses allow.

This very small thing that we often don’t think about when we walk out to the paddock and catch our ‘easy to catch’ horses was a huge achievement for Bill and the beginning of him letting his guard down and trusting me.

Teaching Bill to Lunge

To gain Bill’s trust and confidence in my training, I started very carefully teaching Bill how to lunge and used Manolo’s inhand method and his gentle body work techniques. I mixed the inhand and body work with some very simple walk and trot lunging.

The inhand and bodywork gave Bill the closeness that he needed and the physical contact that he had grown to crave while being close to me. It really made the biggest difference to his learning.

Teaching Bill to move in a better, healthier posture took a little while as he was always on high alert with his head high, hyper aware of what was going on around him. He also didn’t know how to lunge on a circle.

To help Bill with both these things, I kept his rhythm slow by standing close enough to him to be able to help guide his posture by touching him with the bamboo. I kept the circle large with walking a larger circle next to him so he only needed minimal bend through his body. This easier and simpler for him.

I would aim the bamboo at his shoulders to keep him out on the circle, and helped guide his posture by asking him for a little bend. I would aim the bamboo at his hind quarters to increase his rhythm or aim the bamboo in front of his chest to slow his rhythm.

When Bill lowered his head at trot in the posture I was looking for, even for a brief moment, we walked and I praised him. It did not take Bill long to understand that this is all I was asking him for, and he was eager to please me, giving me this posture more often. He was always thirsty for praise and kindness.

Cantering on the Lunge Line

Teaching Bill to canter was an interesting challenge.

His owners had never seen him canter in the paddock, nor had I. When I asked Bill to canter he would actually scare himself when making the trot-canter transition and once in canter he would struggle with his balance to keep going for more than 3 or 4 strides.

I didn’t ask Bill to canter each day.

I asked perhaps only a couple of times each week at the beginning of his training with me because as his balance and lunging understanding improved so did his confidence and rhythm. Having confidence in himself and a more secure rhythm I knew would help Bill in his weaker areas.

It was at the 8 week mark that I was able to ask Bill to canter and he made the transition well.

When I asked Bill to canter I would increase the trot very gently and use my voice. After that it was just practice and patience as he developed the strength to canter more strides at a time until he eventually was able to complete a full circle and later multiple circles.

The key to not loosing Bill’s confidence when he would lose the canter was to ask him to trot gently again and then walk. Then I would give him a pat. Once he was settled and calm and had a happy look in his eye I would ask Bill to go out on a circle again, trot until he was relaxed and try the canter again.

Every thing we did, we did slowly and calmly. I rewarded Bill for trying which taught him everything was ok and he was happy to give it another go.

Saddling, Girthing and Bridling

Re-training Bill to wear a saddle was also done very carefully.

Bill would shiver when he saw the saddle pad and saddle coming his way so I let him smell the gear and slowly lay the saddle pad over him, followed by the saddle.

The girth was the tricky part.

I buckled the girth loosely so that when Bill tensed his body it didn’t compress his stomach and ribs tightly. Then I would hand walk Bill in a few large circles so he could relax and then I could do the girth up another hole. Everything was done little by little and always talking to him in a soft calm voice.

I lunged Bill the same way with the saddle on as I did without the saddle. I took my time each day until he felt more and more comfortable with it.

After a couple of weeks working happy with the saddle on, I introduced the bridle to our lunging routine. Bill was happy to wear the bridle but was very fidgety with the bit. Again, I took my time, lunging, inhand work and bodywork Manolo's way and as each day passed Bill become more settled having the bit in his mouth.

Riding Bill

When it came time to ride Bill, I would first lay over the saddle talking to him and giving him gentle pats. When he was settled with this, I was able to sit gently on Bill. I just sat calmly, talking to him and waiting to feel his calm before we walked.

Sometimes, I sat for 1 or 2 minutes, other days it was 4 or 5 minutes, I just waited for him each day as he needed.

Each ride even at the end of Bill’s time training with me I would just sit on Bill waiting for him to take a deep breath and relax before we walked and then we would walk for 10 minutes before we started to trot. He really needed this walking time, he would start walking anxiously and then he would become calm in his own time.

I just always spoke to Bill and patted him gently letting him know that we were not in a rush and that I was there for him.

Trotting Bill under saddle was the same process. When he rushed, I just stayed quiet, with gently hands and I talked to him. After a couple of minutes, Bill would settle and was happy to listen to me.

Over time and by having the same kind, thoughtful routine, Bill became less and less anxious each day.

Rescue horses and other horses similar to Bill need time, patience and routine so they can gain trust back in people and build the confidence back in themselves.

Bill left La Mancha with anybody being able to walk into his paddock and catch him, no problems at all. He was able to tie and stand quietly in the grooming bays and have a bath in the wash bays.

With my encouragement Bill happily carried me in walk, trot and canter and was able to walk comfortably outside around the property. He trusted me enough to work inside the arena with a film crew and bright lights.His body became more healthy and strong.

Bill is a great example that anything can be accomplished with TIME and TRUST.

*Photo - WEEK 1 Bodywork, inhand and gentle lunging helped Bill begin to gain trust. I allowed him the time he needed to look around at his new surroundings, just spending time with him. I loosely braided a small section of Bill's mane so that it didn't tickle him around his ears, one less thing for him to worry about.

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