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Brooke's Baggage and Progress

Published: 1/5/2009
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By Maddy Butcher

Way back a few decades, I had a dog named Jack. He was a “free-to-a-good-home” mutt, energetic and smart. He came from a divorce situation.

Once in a while, my boyfriend and I would wrestle playfully. Jack didn’t like it one bit. He’d bark and try to put himself between us. He was clearly upset by us getting physical. So we stopped whenever he was in the house.

Why did he flip? Maybe his owners fought and got physical and bad things followed. Just my guess.

Now, I have Brooke, a wonderful quarterhorse mare recently adopted from a rescue agency.

And I am reminded once again of how past traumas can impact animals forever, even when they’re far removed from their bad situations.

I don’t know all the details. But I’m told she was kept in a 10 x 10 foot stall with three other horses for years. She gave birth to a foal in that stall, making it five.

I visited Brooke several times before adopting her, taking her to one of the agency’s round pens, getting to know her, putting her through some elementary groundwork. I recognized her amazing try.  Her eyes were not readily soft, but she gave me plenty of glimmers of potential.

Brooke learned at the rescue farm that not all humans are neglectful, abusive idiots. She wanted to be with me and wanted to work with me. Taking her history into account, that attitude alone was a miracle. That she was sound was a bonus.

So after some contemplation, Brooke came home to our farm.

And then I quickly experienced the other side of this sweet girl. I received Brooke’s baggage.

When it came to her stall and food delivery, the message was clear. Gimme or get outta my way!

As soon as Brooke saw grain coming her way, ears went back and hooves started dancing.
At first, I had trouble staying safe during those first feedings. So instead of bringing the grain to her, I would place it in her closed stall hours beforehand and then let her in at grain time.

This strategy avoided the bad behavior. It was a non-confrontational stance and wasn’t solving the problem. But it bought me some time to think.
I talked about her food-induced craziness with a few people, most notably trainer Chris Lombard.

And I tried to put myself in her place. Before she was rescued, she was literally fighting for survival. Back then, Ruby learned that if she was aggressive, she would have enough to eat.

So I’m the lead horse in her life now. I have to show her that she can have grain and hay when I allow it. She needs to learn that she won’t go hungry if she waits and has “manners.” She needs to learn that I won’t hurt her.

I stay consistent with every encounter and stick with the adage so familiar among trainers: Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.

There is a lot of “unlearning” in this process, too. It is NOT okay to be aggressive. It’s NOT okay to dive at the grain as I am setting it down. It is NOT okay to invade my space.

I had great plans to spend these past months getting her used to being ridden. Instead, we devote our hours to real simple stuff. Each time I put a halter on her and have her do groundwork, I place hay or grain within her reach. She can have it when I say so.
And each morning and night, when I deliver grain to her, she must back up in her stall and wait until I give her the okay to eat it.

It’s been a few months.

She’s made wonderful progress. Each time I take the halter off and give her a pat to end the session, she never runs away. She always lingers, as if to say: “Can I do something else for you?”
Yup, that’s one heckuva try, especially considering her baggage.

Note: Many thanks to Kim Stone for her photography, featured here and in other articles!

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3/19/2009 Crystal
sounds like a long haul but worth every mile!

"Practice sharpens, but overschooling blunts the edge. If your horse isn't doing right, the first place to look is yourself" - Joe Heim