We recently had a very special, interesting and challenging pony to come to us for restarting.
His owner bought him to us as the a resort for this little guy - His background....
Once upon a time he was a cheeky and playful young horse full of potential and possibility and a view to competing in dressage. He was sent off to be started under saddle and this is where all his troubles began. As I said before he was a playful happy youngster, and sadly he came home a nervous, uptight horse complete with bleeding ulcers. He would not stand to be mounted and would not stand for dismounting, but worse still he had completely lost confidence in humans. When in hand he would be in complete protection mode on the look out for danger, concerned only with self preservation and completely ignoring the thing (me) on the end of the lead rope.
Such a sad situation and not something that can be fixed overnight.
The first step was to get get this horse to connect and to acknowledge that the human exists and from there establish trust. This seemed so simple and something not unusual, but this horse was damaged and it took quite a while to see any changes.
This horse required some real ‘outside the box’ thinking - as our usual tools just did not suit this horse. He was a mix of confident with what he could touch and completely fearful of the things he could not. We had to give him one thing at a time to do - the first thing was to have him maintain the space between me and him. I didn't care where he stood or what he looked at, he just needed to maintain the gap between us. I did this without ever looking directly at him as this was way too much pressure, the pressure to maintain space was directed at the ground only. Eventually, he learned to let down and be in control of himself. The 'zero pressure' coming from me began to earn his trust - in that he came to realise I was not asking him to do 'something'.
After that we started to establishing some boundaries. Asking him to back and make a reaching step in an arc. Showing him I was in control of his feet using very gentle methods. This was very soothing for him and earned me some real brownie points and was when he first started really taking notice of this human.
Next was to teach Ossie that touching him was ok. Again no pressure and not asking anything of him other than to touch him. Now, remember this horse was a very well handled horse before going off to be started, and yes you could touch him, but what I was looking for was no tension with the touch and no reaction, I was not asking anything of him. Initially putting a hand on his side, would cause his skin to wrinkle and contract any further pressure would cause him to react and rush out from under the touch. Slowly but surely we were developing some trust.
From there we progressed to teaching him the difference between generally touching and rubbing to asking him to move his feet. Which came along quite quickly, asking for just one calm and measured step instead of getting 20 reactive ones!
Other exercisers including the crab walk (or clock) were introduced one by one. This exercise was a game changer for Ossie and gave us awesome connection and bought about a lot of relaxation.
There were a lot of other tools used in desensitising Ossie as well - although I did find he was really confident with things in his immediate environment, things in the distance were still a concern, but the more we connected we became and the more confidence he had in me the less concerned he was by those distant sounds. We also worked on herd boundness issues with other horses coming and going from his environment both at work and at rest.
Now, it was not all smooth sailing and we had our share of backward step days. There were some days where I thought I was not going to be able to help this boy - but I persisted. As Mike says it is a natural part of the process, just take it as information and move on.
Now the issue he was bought to us to "fix" was his mounting and dismounting issue, where he would run out from under a person getting on or off. As expected, after all our groundwork, the problems were eliminated, and were non-existent by the time we got to the point of mounting. We spent a lot of time getting along side the fence or mounting block until he was very comfortable before making any moves to mount - getting relaxation at every point before the introduction of something new.
So as I said, by going through an extensive careful process, there were no issues in mounting and dismounting as these were only a symptom of the underlying problems - fix those and the problem was eliminated without actually having to address it all. It was important for him to stand quietly next to a mounting block or fence as his owner has a bad knee and requires a mounting block.
So finally we got to the point of riding, with confidence and relaxation, with the big emphasis on relaxation. Helping this horse get to this point was such an amazing and rewarding experience.
Before Ossie went home, we spent some time with his owner. It was wonderful to hear how they were seeing the old Ossie before he got "Broken" (literally), he was again showing his sweet and playful character. As well as helping the owner learn the exercises with Ossie both in the saddle and on the ground, we provided a written going home plan to act as a reminder of the program as well as being available by phone/email etc. if needed.
It is imperative that the owner can follow the same program of exercises to be consistent and continue the progress. Happily, from all reports all of Ossies' lessons seem to be well engrained so the future is bright for Ossie. A truly happy little horse.