Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader

Lily’s in-hand work progressed quite nicely. Initially, she was difficult to catch and halter, but that was quickly fixed. She learned to follow Amy and Brian’s body language. She would move forward freely, back up, step laterally, and would stand at a halt, coming forward when asked. She appeared to enjoy the interaction during training. Could we breathe a sigh of relief? In a “Stepford” world, perhaps!

What at first seemed of interest and enjoyable to Lily soon appeared to be an imposition. This is common in basic training. Putting it into my own human thoughts, I can imagine a horse weighing whether they’d like to be leisurely grazing with their herd, or being asked to do human things in a round pen?! Given that choice, one might not find too many volunteers.

So, a reversal of attitude had occurred, and sweet Miss Lily showed she could and would emphatically express her opinion. When approached, she would turn and walk away. When asked to move, she would plant her feet firmly in refusal. At one point, I was standing with Brian discussing her new behavior, when Lily walked up to us, stood for less than ten seconds, then pinned her ears and swung her hindquarters as a threat to us. She needed to be leader of the herd, including her humans. Before, when Amy and Brian weren’t asking her to do anything, before she was being “controlled,” she would follow them anywhere. She walked into the greenhouses and tried climbing the stairs to the house. She was like a huge dog! She was content and not threatened. Placing boundaries on Lily brought out her instincts to run, and if she couldn’t run, she’d fight. This is the very trait that had saved Lily, but now that she was safe, she had no way of knowing she would never be hurt again. She could not have known we wanted a partnership with her, so her behavior was understandable.

I know firsthand how those who truly love their horses want to believe “if I just love them and give them lots of carrots they’ll do anything I ask.” But you have to make a decision whether to let your horse rule you, which may mean never being able to ride, or to train him.

Many years ago, I was given a lesson in reality by the “love of my life horse,” Solitary Man. Carrots, apples, sugar, hugs, begging, and crying were not going to get him to do something he didn’t feel compelled to do! Through tears, frustration, and anger, I had to come to terms with the fact that what I wished for was actually humanizing the horse. It took some time to accept horses as they are and not as my naïve dreams had wanted them to be. Once I understood horse instinct, behavior, and language, however, I was in awe of the fact that a horse is willing to partner with a human. What a marvel!

The key is in discovering how to achieve a harmonious relationship and to cause, not force, a horse to work with us. And Lily, despite her difficult background, is no different. So, up the first incline of the roller coaster we headed. We moved our sessions to the round pen – a safe place to establish the necessary leadership role. The round pen provides a boundary without the physical restraints of a rope.

Herding Lily around, I began a demonstration of round pen bonding. I then stepped out and asked Amy to take over. I was sure Lily would adjust fairly easily… wrong again! Lily’s normal gentle spirit became a fire-breathing dragon! She was not to be herded, corralled or controlled easily. She’s smart enough not to try and climb the panels or crash through, but she acted aggressive and threatening to Amy. She pinned her ears, reared and lunged towards her. I’ll always remember Amy’s courage. This gentle woman stood shaking, on the verge of tears but trusting my guidance, as she followed through with the session. I try very hard to never allow neither horse nor handler/rider to get hurt during training. I do not believe in running a horse in the round pen in order to exhaust and force their cooperation. Instead, I use the technique of asking the horse to move forward and to continually redirect them as a herd leader would in establishing the pecking order. Insisting the horse move without frightening them will develop respect without fear. However, when a horse comes at you in a manner that indicates YOU will be herded, you must stand your ground and insist they move. It’s important to remember the horse is looking at you as simply another horse. It’s not personal; they are just trying to establish their place in the herd. Using a rope in a twirling motion, or using a lunge whip to “equalize” you may be necessary.

At this point, Lily fired her engines, using her wonderful athletic abilities to try and outmaneuver Amy. Several times she came towards Amy in an intimidating manner. Amy stood her ground and quietly but firmly insisted Lily move in the direction she asked. I don’t recall how long this session lasted, but it took longer than most. I’m sure Amy thought Lily would never relent to direction. I can only imagine the doubts running through her mind. But, YES it happened. Lily just suddenly stopped her threatening posture, began to lick, chew, drop her head, and look at Amy. She began to change direction quietly, and when asked, she turned and walked in to Amy respectfully and peacefully. It’s a beautiful thing to see a bond between horse and human! Amy appeared to be in slight shock! This one session stopped Lily’s behavior of threatening people. She would allow herself to be haltered, and she once again showed her sweet side. We had successfully climbed that first hill!

lily and amy

It would be great to say that we’ve not run into any more obstacles; that Lily was always cooperative; but that would be shy of the truth! As we continue her training we uncover aspects of Lily that have caused us to step back a few times. Her past experience in riding was just as horrific as the way in which she was kept. As we move through the process of ground work to lunging, saddling, bitting, mounting, etc., we find triggers that must be addressed. I have learned so much from Lily, most importantly to watch and listen to what the horse is telling me. We cannot train without treating each horse as the individual they are. I believe horses are all individuals, and therefore they will not respond the same. I would like to share these experiences with you, so, if you check back again soon there will be more lessons from Lily!

This is the fourth part in a series of posts about Lily. Check back soon to read the rest of this story!

Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily
Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue
Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings
Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader
Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”
Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on

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