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The Trouble with “K”

March 26, 2013

I got a call from someone seeking help with their OTTB (Off The Track Thoroughbred) mare, who was a couple years into her 2nd career as an eventing horse.  I’ve met plenty of lovely OTTB’s who learn to slow down and respond to their handler after spending a lot of their time running their hearts out for their humans.  They make can make quite nice partners.  Apparently, this mare, however, was chasing away trainers.  The owner realized something different needed to be done to get this horse performing.

I was excited to meet her and expected her to be an LBE (left-brained extrovert).  LBE’s can often be quite a handful and if you add the athleticism of an OTTB, things can quickly get out of hand.  This mare knocked my socks off immediately!  Her play drive was astounding and her athleticism, well, let’s just say I saw the bottom of her hooves plenty of times in our first session.  This was going to be an amazing challenge for both the horse and for me.

I tried to engage her brain every chance I could.  I never walked her through her stall door forward, always backward.  I let her smell things.  I asked her to be fast, then slow, then fast again.  I taught her to “stick to me” and “mirror me”.  She learned things faster than most horses I’ve played with, not surprisingly.  I had a smile on my face the whole time.  This horse is a horsewoman’s dream horse.

Playful horses love the ball

Playful horses love the ball

One of the habits she’d developed, the one that chased away trainers the best, was her frequent rearing.  When being warmed up on the lunge line, she would often rear.  She’s a tall mare, probably 16’2″ with shod hooves and long, long legs.  A strike from a front hoof of a horse coming down from a rear is much more likely to kill a human than a kick from a hind hoof.  Also, if she rears on the ground, she’s likely to rear in the saddle.  No one wants to ride THAT!

I was focused on this behavior and wanted to see it for myself, thinking maybe I could figure out “what happens before what happens happens” (Pat Parelli).  What did she see or feel before the rear that I could possibly address?  I learned a couple of things…  1)  she seemed to do it mainly at the canter and 2) she did it whenever she got near “K”.  In case you don’t know, in the dressage world an arena will have letters marking spots along the perimeter.  These letters are used to help develop precision when riding, getting a gait transition or pattern to happen precisely at a single letter.  This horse had a major problem with “K”.

Staying calm while she gets extreme

Staying calm while she gets extreme

At first, I thought there were other things around that spot that frightened her.  I looked for shadows, a funny spot on the arena wall, a change in the footing…  This mare would hit an invisible wall at this part of the arena!  She would canter to it, then go straight into the air with the front end, turn on the haunches and end up facing the opposite direction.  I’ve seen horses display this sort of behavior, but never consistently at one spot.

So I asked the owner, who was watching the same behavior from this mare she’d seen dozens of time.  “Is there something going on at ‘K’ that I should know about?”  She thought for a second and answered, “No, but now that you mention it, she does typically display this behavior at that spot.”  How interesting!

Whatever it was, I needed to use a solid ‘approach and retreat’ plan to get her over the emotion about “K”.  She was beginning to understand that I would not ask her to canter through this Bermuda Triangle, I would only ask that she walk through it.  And her reward for walking through it would be leaving for another safer area in the arena.

About 15 minutes later, the owner says to me, “I know what it is.  I hope you don’t think I’m crazy when I tell you this.  The previous owner of this property buried her beloved mare under the this arena.  The mare is buried right in that spot.”  She had an incredulous look on her face and I instantly knew — that was the information this horse was trying to tell us dense humans.  This was a sacred area and she was very uncomfortable crossing over it.  I felt relief wash over me.  At least now I knew what I was dealing with.

The owner explained that the woman who had buried her mare there would come yearly with a wreath she would hang right over the letter “K”.  She would memorialize her lost mare in that spot yearly until eventually she moved out of state.  The amount of emotional energy she left behind must have been very high!  And this amazing mare felt it, even if the other horses who used the arena did not.

I’ve had about 4 sessions with this mare now and she’s better each time.  She can canter past “K” usually, but the last session I was riding her and she unexpectedly spooked sideways at “K”.  It will take more time for her to understand that she will be ok in that area and in the meantime, I’m doing everything I can to honor the sacred area and the emotions it causes in this amazing mare.

Forward and relaxed

Forward and relaxed

The things horses will tell us when we’re listening.  This mare has reinforced a valuable lesson for me about developing horses.  I must remember to respect what the horse is telling me, even if it’s invisible to me.  If the horse says it’s so, then it’s so and I must adapt and help the horse overcome it.

I will continue to write about this fantastic horse and her development.  I just know she’s going to be fine and her future is bright.

One Comment
  1. This is very interesting Tia. You are the 2nd person in the past month that has mentioned energy in such a manner. Could emotional energy be equivalent to spiritual energy? I am looking forward to reading of your progress with this horse.

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