Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a young mare named Zelli.
Zelli has been one of the most interesting horses I’ve known. As a foal, she had several medical conditions that made her early handling quite an unpleasant experience. Zelli was already a sensitive and intelligent filly and she quickly learned how to resist handling with rears, spins, or nips.
Zelli came to my farm hating pressure on her halter or anything near her mouth, she had never had her hooves handled or trimmed, and she had a big aversion to anyone on her left side.
For the trailer ride to my farm, Zelli had kindly been sedated, but after the drugs wore off and I tried to halter her in the stall I was met with both hind legs! I created a makeshift shoot from the stall to what would be Zelli’s new paddock and simply opened the stall door and let her find her way out. This was the start of Zelli and I working together.
I started by just building a sort of friendship with Zelli in her field, hanging out near her, scratching her, and teaching her to take food rewards softly.
Then we started working on leading, just teaching her to go forwards and backwards with a light pressure from the halter, and then teaching her to step to the side for both right and left turns. At first, any halter pressure was met with vigorous head shaking and an occasional little rear, but I learned to let my arm just be dead weight, not fighting her attempts to escape the pressure but not allowing her a release either.
With frequent sessions and lots of rewards, Zelli seemed to begin to enjoy her training, although she would still have a tantrum now and then, letting us all know that she could still think for herself and “voice” her opinions. Zelli was also known for giving a squeal and a leap in the air when she felt frustrated or decided the training session should end.
Eventually Zelli began to lead easily, following just the movements of my body, and learned step by step the different responses and movements she needed to stay balanced on the lungeing circle.
Initially, any attempt to ask for trot would lead to a leap in the air and a charge forward, but after working on following the target stick into her transitions, Zelli learned to stay soft and trot slowly.
The concept of targeting also helped Zelli overcome her aversion to syringes, and taught her to walk and stand calmly into the trailer.
With time and consistency, she learned to pick up all four feet and allow her legs to be moved around and her hooves rasped.
Her balance and control of both her body and mind continue to improve, to the point where just recently we trusted each other enough that I climbed up on her back for the first time!
Through the last few months of working with Zelli, she’s learned a lot, but I’ve gained a few important lessons from her as well.
The first is to go slow and pay attention to the horse that day. Just because she could wear the saddle yesterday doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to put it on today. Sometimes when an exercise just wasn’t working I had to override my Type A tendency to “just get it done” and go back to something easier. After all, it is always better to build on success.
The second lesson is to balance keeping training fun with “you’re just going to have to do this”.
I believe the key to any good relationship is balancing the needs of both individuals – how can I make this exercise fun and rewarding for the horse, while still setting appropriate boundaries (for example you can’t throw your head in the air and run off kicking when you think the session should end).
The third lesson from Zelli was that it’s important to accept the horse for who they are. I recently posted a video about different types of intelligence. I believe part of Zelli’s intelligence comes from her sensitivity.
While her sensitivity has its obvious drawbacks in that she can be reactive and jumpy, it is also part of what helps her learn quickly and notice subtle cues easily.
I think I haven’t been the only one learning from Zelli, as the members of Training Journals have also been enjoying her weekly update videos.
I wanted to share some of the best clips with you, so we’ve put together a video of Zelli’s work, from leading to trailer loading, the first time with tack up to the first time with a rider. You’ll also see my luck at dodging a few boisterous kicks (these were just the ones we caught on camera!)
Click Play below to watch the video.
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