Although he joined our program late last summer, you may not have heard much about Pilgrim. This handsome QH gelding had the winter off, due to lameness caused by his thin soles on frozen ground. Throughout his rehabilitation Pilgrim was a perfect patient, and now after careful work by our wonderful farrier, Pilgrim is happy on his feet and resuming his training.
Before his arrival with us, Pilgrim’s previous foster family did an excellent job of helping him to relax and trust people. He is as sweet and loving as any horse we’ve had, and is a true gentleman to work around in the barn. Pilgrim wants to be everyone’s friend, whether horse or human.
Although he has a puppy-like demeanor on the ground, Pilgrim can get nervous and tight when being ridden. At some point in his life he was ridden in a way which caused anxiety, and as a sensitive horse this early experience stuck. It’s hard to say whether an early trauma like this can ever be completely erased, but with time and many positive experiences we do believe that an anxious horse can learn to trust in a rider again.
To help Pilgrim relax and gain confidence, we are keeping a few key concepts in mind. Pilgrim’s stress response is to speed up with any slight rider movement, so to help break this cycle we are making sure not to sit too still. As riders, our natural response is usually to sit quietly and try not to move our leg when a horse wants to over-react to the cue. However, that is only going to re-inforce Pilgrim’s sensitivity to any rider tension or movement. Instead, we are reminding ourselves to move our legs gently on Pilgrim’s sides as often as we can. This is not a cue to go forward, but a feeling of ‘petting’ Pilgrim with our leg, and we want him to learn that it doesn’t mean anything. We want him to realize that the leg can move around, his rider can move around, and all the while he can just keep a steady pace. At first, Pilgrim understandably thinks we mean go and speeds up. When this happens, we simply ask him to slow down while still moving our leg, and then stop moving it once he has settled back to the slower tempo. In this way Pilgrim can begin to relax with the easy movement of the leg, as he understands it doesn’t mean speed up.
We are also making sure that we set Pilgrim up for success with each ride by not putting him in an overly stressful situation. For example, when we take him on trails, we make sure to have a calm friend along for support. If Pilgrim is tense in the walk, then we won’t trot until he feels relaxed. If we feel him start to get overwhelmed, we can stop and take a break until his thoughts are back with us. Each time that Pilgrim has a positive experience, this will build on his confidence and trust. Once he can stay relaxed in various situations, we can then introduce new challenges. A calm horse is able to think through situations and learn new things. The message we’re continually giving to Pilgrim is, “this is so easy and fun, and you don’t have to worry at all!”
Because Pilgrim is a smart and sensitive boy, he is learning quickly and we’re beginning to see some nice relaxation under saddle. While he still needs reassurances, Pilgrim is settling in more every week and we’ve had some lovely lazy trail rides. If we can let Pilgrim know that he doesn’t have to worry or work so hard, he will make someone a delightful partner and we will have accomplished our goal.