Replacing Fear with Curiosity; Building Courage – July 2012

TiaratreasurehuntTiara is a beautiful, sensitive pinto Arab mare with smooth lovely gaits, stamina and agility.  She was also deeply afraid of things that flapped or touched her when she wasn’t expecting it. She would go from sweet and compliant to losing her brain and leaving when something startled her. Ropes touching her were the worst. To get her used to ropes touching her sides and legs, I had her wear a surcingle with a couple of short dangling ropes clipped to it for about a week – until she seemed to become completely comfortable with it. OK, what is step two?

I took every cone, ball, tarp, extra rope, garden hose, rain slickers, inner tubes, barrels, hula hoops, swimming pool noodles, Frisbees, garbage cans, empty feed bags, a big plastic bag filled with empty cans, PVC pipes and any other toy I could think of and spread them out in our round pen and seeded them with carrot slices or cookies on top and underneath them. I then brought up Tiara and her sensible boyfriend Sandor and left them in the round pen.

Tiara and Sandor stood crammed near the round pen gate looking like “what is all this crap doing in here?” as I walked away to pick up manure. A couple of minutes later, the two horses were glancing at all the objects and within minutes Sandor was going from object to object discovering the joys of the treasure hunt. An hour later, all the top treats were gone, but a number of those underneath the objects were still there. I rolled the ball away and showed Sandor the hidden cookie and he proceeded to shove the balls over and picked up the hat and Frisbee, cone and tarp to get to the treats. Tiara watches. How many days of doing this before she learns to follow his example? Before curiosity, exploration and puzzle solving trumps doubt, fear and flight?

After a few days of treasure hunts on their own, I put Tiara on line, walked into the round pen with her, picked up various objects and rubbed her with them, dropping them and going on to the next one. Toleration, not acceptance. We’re not there yet.

More treasure hunts with Sandor for the next couple of days. Fewer cookies being missed. Apparently moving the inner tube and barrel is not on their list of acceptable or likely things to do. Getting to a treat inside an empty feed bag is also too difficult. Still, she is knocking over the bucket and pushing the swimming pool noodles to find where I’ve stuffed a cookie into it.

OK, let’s try adding a human to the equation again. This time I line up the obstacles around the edge of the round pen, every 6 feet or so and have Tiara on line. I ask her to “touch” something easy and name it. She does and gets a treat. We walk over that object and on to the next. Some things take as long as 5 minutes before she is willing to touch it with her nose and some objects she skirts around rather than walking over it to get to the next one. Stepping on the inner tube, the tarp and the empty feed bag are beyond her. Still, her head is low as she approaches the majority of objects, her eyes are mostly soft and once she works up the courage to touch something she is going back to touch it again and again, saying “don’t I get another cookie for touching this?” And, she is beginning to recognize the names of a number of the objects without any fear at all.

Back to more treasure hunts with Tiara on her own – Sandor in the trail course watching his lady.  It clearly takes longer for her to get in the spirit of the treasure hunt – hours longer, but she gets to everything except the cookies under the tarp, feed bag, barrel and inner tube.  Good enough for now.

Just as I knew my earlier approach wasn’t effective with this mare I know this approach is finally making headway at how she perceives startling things in her world.

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