"How long does it take to reschool a horse?”
I hear that question constantly.
On what? So many things! When I go to assess a horse, I don’t have a lot of concrete things to go by. I get a phone call. I am asked if I would look at a horse that is “nice, quiet and sound.” I listen as best I can between the lines because two leggeds tend to fall into categories. There are horse traders who won’t tell you all; “barn blind” types who are biased as grandparents about their “babies;” and those who simply don’t know: farm mangers, bloodstock agents, friends of friends who have heard about a horse, but don’t know much about it other than it needs a new job and home. I get a few details, sex, size, injury history--maybe. If the horse intrigues me and is within driving distance, I make an appointment to visit it at a racetrack, a training center, a barn, a field. Sometimes the horses are spanking clean, sometimes caked in mud. Either way, I start at the head. With the eye. It’s got to be good. Ideally with lots of intelligence and soul, although horses, like people sometimes take time to develop the look of “someone,” as smarts and character often are acquired in the school of hard knocks. Mostly, however, I look at youngsters. There you see innocence and tentativeness, sometimes cockiness, a good sign for prospective event horses. Gentleness. Curiosity. Emotionalism. It depends. Above all, however, mystery. Eyes can give you a peek into a horse’s soul, but not a true understanding of its workings. That comes later when you start training, asking the horse questions, giving it choices.
I work my fingers in the mouth. (How defensive is a horse about this? Always of interest.) Glimpse the teeth, the thickness of the tongue. Feel with my fist the breadth of the jaw. Run my hands up and down the neck, shoulders, back, loins, rump, legs. I pick up feet. I pinch tendons and ligaments. I test acupressure points. I move joints around to gauge mobility and listen for odd internal crunches. I step back and take in the over all picture: Are there three sections--front end, back, and hind end--all more or less equal? Is the rump higher? What’s the angle of the shoulder? Is the neck high or low set? These relationships are telling.
I then watch the horse move away from me, towards me, past me. I study its motion from the standpoint of physics: levers and fulcrums. I look for hitches and flow. I also watch how the horse behaves vis à vis its handler. What does it think about two leggeds? I want to see the horse trot. The rear end is really important to me. Second only to the eye. Ideally it is washer woman big. It should put JLo to shame.
Circumstances for assessing a horse are rarely ideal. Nobody has lot of time: Not the trainer, not the handler, nor me, and the horses are restive. Loose horses in the field run off. Horses at the track skedaddle sideways, rear, prance, yank at the chain shanks that run over their tongues or against their gums. If the horse is in another state, still shots and some short videos are all I have to go by. Luckily I don’t need to see much: Just a flash of brilliance. I look for the action of those fulcrum and levers--how do they propel the horse? Are there signs of lameness? What about unevenness? It doesn’t take much -- a stride or two, and I have a good idea of what the horse might want to do in its next career. Once all this new information is in my brain, it is time to check in with my gut, which I have learned over the years is very savvy, indeed. In fact, there are more neurotransmitters in the gut than there are in the brain so it makes sense, and is wise, to listen to it.
Horses, if accepted, come to the MMSC on a two week trial basis. This is when the true sleuthing begins. Is there physical or mental baggage to unpack? What imaginary demons or real demons might be stowaways from the horse’s racetrack journey? What is the horse saying: in the stall, the field, the ring? If the horse is uneven, which most horses are, like most people, which is NOT the same things as being lame, then how can they be leveled out? Optimal performance is dependent on optimal balance. All that is askew must be set straight before training begins.
Then what happens? Psychoanalysis. Bomb-proofing. Groundwork. Ringwork. Open work. In short, the Horse Centered Reschooling Program.
And how long does that take?
Of course, it depends. On every horse. In every situation.
But, there is sort of an answer, and more to come on all of that. I promise!