Heart in My Hands: Gentling the Unhandled Horse
If you’ve read back to my early posts on The Barb Wire blog, you know the story of how our Barb horses came to In the Night Farm. You may remember that most of our original Barbs came to us as two or three year olds that had never been touched by human hands.
By now, many of our Barbs are in various stages of training — one is started under saddle, and another is only weeks away. But Sandstorm, the lovely mare whose photo graces our banner, remains in the early stages of gentling.
Back in the Quien Sabe days, when Sandstorm was just two (the age at which this photo was taken), her short back, long legs, and astonishing trot caught my eye. Sired by Lancelot, a small but tough and tractable stallion recovered from the wild in his early teens, Sandstorm is by far the most timid of our Barbs. Early on, I nearly despaired of ever succeeding with her because she was so reactive to even the smallest threat.
I knew, however, that we’d need to get her at least to the point of accepting hoof trimming and deworming while restrained in a squeeze chute. A week’s work on touching her from a distance, using a lunge whip to scratch her withers and stroke down her legs, led to calm sessions in the squeeze chute. Travis and I rubbed her neck and sides until her trembling ceased, then desensitized her to the tug of ropes around her legs.
Two days later, still in the squeeze chute but no longer terrified, she was offering her hooves for trimming at slightest cue. It was then that I realized I had a treasure on my hands — an intelligent and extremely sensitive horse whose trust would be hard to win, but who would do anything for me once we crossed that invisible line.
Unfortunately, a move and related lack of training facilities, followed by a year of time-consuming work with other horses, delayed Sandstorm’s continued gentling until this spring. Yesterday evening, with Aaruba, Consolation, and Acey all taking the day off, I opened Sandstorm’s paddock gate and drove her into the round corral. (The training compound here at In the Night Farm is set up for working with unhandled horses; that is, each paddock opens into a square compound with the round corral at its center. This arrangement enables us to run any horse into the round corral with no need for halter and lead.)
I moved Sandstorm off around the corral, admiring her gaits and dreaming of the day I’ll take her down the endurance trail. Her attention riveted on me almost immediately. She obviously remembered previous training sessions in which she discovered that the easiest place to be is beside me, being touched.
I drew her in to halt facing me, then approached her slowly, shoulders relaxed and gaze soft. She quivered when I touched her shoulder, but stood her ground. Then, I lifted my other hand to stroke her neck. She leaped away, snorting and tucking her hindquarters as if chased by a dominant mare. Poor Sandstorm — I’d been working with my more advanced horses so long that I neglected to move with the fluidity necessary to an ungentled horse, each action flowing into the next, never lifting hand from hide, stepping close, breathing deep, centered and weightless as though the two of us floated together in water or space.
I circled her back and started again, touching her first with one hand, then sliding the other palm down my own arm and under her mane. I stroked and scratched, speaking with body instead of voice, good girl, brave girl, baby girl, my girl. She stood, first trembling, then still, then calm.
But I wanted more than acceptance of my presence. I wanted Sandstorm to find real benefit in staying at my side — not merely cessation of work, but genuine pleasure. So I searched, exploring with fingertips from chest to tailhead. At last I found it — the itchy spot just down from her poll, the one that made her twist her neck and grimace and release the shuddering sigh of a prey animal that is safe in the will of a benevolent leader, cradled by mutual kindness and respect.
I hope to work with Sandstorm more in the coming weeks, hope my schedule allows. The mare behind those eyes is special, and I can see she’s waiting, waiting for me to carry her to the place that she can begin to carry me.