Small changes with big impacts
In lieu of any updates (other than “waiting and seeing”) on baby Marrakesh, I thought I’d discuss some small changes I’ve recently made in Candy’s life that have had big impacts on her behavior and our relationship.
Candy’s been my horse for nearly two years, and her progress has been…underwhelming.
Her origins are pretty unexciting: bred in Florida, raced until she was 5, had two foals after coming off the track, sat in a pasture for a while, sent to a dressage trainer for restarting, hitched a ride to Oklahoma with my neighbor’s student who was working for aforementioned trainer one summer, landed in my pasture when my neighbor offered her to me. The dressage trainer in Florida had Candy going reasonably well at all gaits, had installed some lateral work concepts, and had introduced her to very small jumps. My neighbor’s student who was in Florida vouched for the trainer and the horse.
When Candy arrived in Oklahoma, I assumed most of her behavior stemmed from her sudden life change and general greenness. She didn’t do anything bad or especially weird. She was just sort of jumpy and timid. As time wore on, Candy didn’t get over the jumpiness or timidity. In fact, it seemed to get worse. Candy trembled while eating breakfast. She shied away when I tried to blanket her. She broke into a nervous sweat at the sight of a ground pole. Trail rides, an activity she seemed to previously enjoy, now caused extreme agitation.
I tried a lot of things to help her, including:
- 24/7 turnout
- Chiropractic work (nothing seriously out of whack)
- Turning out with Moe and Gina
- Turning out alone
- Having a professional assess saddle fit (basically fine)
- Riding lessons
- Calming supplements (3 different kinds)
- Assessment for ulcers
- More riding
- Less riding
- Only trail riding
- Only arena riding
- Ground work (the natural horsemanship kind)
- Ground work (the longeing kind)
- Hanging out without working (grooming, hand-grazing, baths, etc.)
Nothing really helped. Candy continued to be very anxious all the time. Sometimes, our rides would start out okay, but would be derailed by something- a horse leaving the arena, a horse running in a pasture adjacent to the arena, a saddle pad gently flapping in the breeze. The distraction made Candy freeze, stare, and become frantic. She’d jig or try to bolt. On rare occasions, she’d buck. It was impossible to return her focus to me after a disruption.
I gave up. I contacted a trainer in Kansas with whom I have some mutual friends; my friends had recommended this trainer as someone with a lot of contacts who might be interested in Candy. The email I sent the trainer contained Candy’s basic information, a summary of what I’ve done with her, and a conformation photo. I received a particularly condescending response: I clearly needed professional help with this horse, I obviously had no experience with Thoroughbreds, I ought to be treating the horse for ulcers and doing ground work and hiring some young person to ride her. No is interested in my horse because free or inexpensive Thoroughbreds are a dime a dozen. Oh, and the photo I sent made the horse look hideous.
That email made me really angry. This person doesn’t know me! I’m not an idiot, and I’ve certainly tried a lot of things to help this horse! And that photo is FINE!
After stewing about it for a while, I re-framed the way I thought about the trainer’s response. This person doesn’t know me. The assumption that I’m an overhorsed adult amateur probably comes from experience- I’m sure horse pros encounter overhorsed adult amateurs regularly. This person probably thought they were offering me sound advice. Could they have offered that advice more tactfully? Definitely, but I don’t think the advice was meant to be patronizing.
I decided to follow some of that trainer’s advice. I started with ulcers. The presence of ulcers had crossed my mind, and I’d consulted my vet about it. My vet suggested we run a basic blood panel, which is less expensive than scoping. From what I understand, her thinking was that if certain elements of the panel were out of normal ranges, it might be indicative of ulcers. When the blood panel came back with normal values, I dismissed ulcers as a possibility. After all, Candy exhibited almost no signs of gastric ulcers and lives a pretty low-risk lifestyle.
I remembered Austen had mentioned putting Bast on Nexium. Then I remembered that Jen had tried it with Connor. Karen put Hampton on it, too. These aren’t mysterious people from Chronicle of the Horse forums; they’re people I know and respect. I bought a month’s supply of Nexium Clear Minis for Candy. As experiments go, it’s fairly cheap. After a couple of weeks on Nexium, Candy’s demeanor changed. She was quieter and less distracted on the ground. She gained a little weight. I sprayed her with fly spray without her leaping sideways. When the Nexium course finished, I bought a jug of liquid U-GARD (mostly because it was the only thing available at the feed store). Candy has been doing pretty well on the U-GARD. She’s less jumpy on the ground and under saddle and seems to be able to refocus on me after getting distracted.
Another change to Candy’s life was the addition of Marrakesh. She and Moe were in the paddock when he was born (because Gina FREAKED OUT when I tried to split them up before he was born), but were removed as soon as possible. Since then, Candy and Moe have been together without Gina and baby. Candy is like an entirely different animal. She’s easier to catch, seems calmer, and is less distressed when alone. Earlier this year, when Gina was boarded at the vet while I was out of town, Johnny remarked that he thought Candy was better behaved while Gina was gone. He suggested there was some kind of weird, subtle power struggle going on between the two mares. I dismissed his comment at the time, but I think he’s right.
Finally, I started doing some very, very basic ground work things with Candy daily. I read True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond a few weeks ago, and decided that the first couple of basic exercises were something I could do every day. When I say basic, I mean super basic. The first is lowering the horse’s poll and the second is turning the horse’s head. Performing these two exercises with Candy every morning seems to have done something positive to her brain.
All these little changes- the Nexium/U-GARD, the turnout with only Moe, the extremely casual ground work- have made a big difference in Candy’s demeanor. She is much more pleasant to handle on a day-to-day basis. She seems less jittery, both on the ground and under saddle. And when she does have a freak-out under saddle, I don’t feel like her brain has departed for another planet. Now, she feels more like an ignorant green horse and less like an uncontrollable ball of tight energy. I don’t know if Candy will ever be suitable for what I want to do, but at least now she’s the kind of horse I can deal with.
Have you noticed big improvements from what seem like small changes? Or has there been something that doesn’t work when you thought it would?