Willow's Story - A Case Of Mistaken Identity

A few years back I was doing a couple of clinics in England, one of which was at a livery yard where all the clinic participants either kept their horses, or leased one of the horses owned by the yard itself. One of these horses was a little bay mare called Willow.

Being a livery horse, Willow had been leased out by many people over the years. She was being ridden in the clinic by a particular lady who often leased her and who was just getting started on the QS programme with her. I had heard much about this little horse in past months, much like I had many other horses. It seems that if a horse has ‘problems’ the owners are pretty quick to try to fill me in on all the dreadful things the horse has done as some kind of forewarning about them. When people tell me horse tales like this I listen politely, however I always tell the owner that I’ll let the horse tell me their own story when I meet them and I try not to form any preconceived idea about the horse. So often, in all honesty, its not the horse who has problems, it’s the owner who lacks the skill and communication to work successfully with the horse. So, I had heard of Willow previously but had put the tales about her out of my mind and was prepared to meet her and the others at the yard with an open mind and a clean slate. Consequently all thoughts of her had slipped my mind. After initial ‘get to know you’ and with the clinic underway, I sent everyone out to warm up with their horses and show me where they were up to and what they were doing. I noticed pretty quickly that there was one lady and a little bay mare whom everyone gave a wide berth and who seemed to be spending more time arguing with each other than getting anything constructive done. The little mare had her ears planted firmly back on her head and was very conscious of any other horse approaching her space and would swing her head and forehand aggressively toward anyone who approached her. The students weren’t doing anything particularly difficult or taxing at this time, however, whenever the little mare's handler would ask her to do something like yield her hindquarter or back up (they were still doing ground-work at this stage) I noticed that she would use quite ‘big’ body energy and a very firm stance. The little mare, whom I learnt was Willow, would pull her ears back and crank her tail and, nine times out of ten, she’d rear up and flail with her front legs as if to strike. Attempts at hindquarter yields would result in her kicking out at her handler or trying to bite her. I watched all this for a few minutes to see how the handler would work through it and if she could sort it out, however after a time it appeared that things were not changing and the pattern continued. I could see that the lady was getting more than a little frustrated and also that she was quite fearful of the horse. Not surprisingly too, as it really was only a matter of time before she got hurt. After the group had all had a bit of a play, I called them all in and we discussed how things went. When I got to the lady with Willow, she was quick to point out to me that this was the usually kind of pattern of behaviour people got from Willow. The rest of the class joined in and soon it became clear that Willow had a reputation as being nasty, cranky, mean, vicious and dangerous. The lady who was handling her was obviously quite intimidated by her and everyone else thought how brave she was for working with her at all. It was really interesting to me to hear all this, as it was obviously the way that everyone felt about Willow so she’d been branded difficult and dangerous. Because of this, everyone who touched her expected her to behave this way, so they all treated her like a dangerous and nasty horse. This made their body energy around her defensive and on the ready to tell her off. It also made them almost tough toward her and certainly no one wanted to actually hang out with her or try to make any kind of connection with her or offer any softness. Now… these weren’t bad people. This was a dangerous horse so they were just treating her the exact same way 90% of people would have treated her … with caution and a bit of fear. Apparently she also kicked out at other horses too when she was ridden in a group so she wasn’t real popular. After listening to what everyone had to say, I asked them if they’d mind me sharing my thoughts on this little mare. They all readily agreed so I went to her and introduced myself by offering my hand for her to sniff. I gave her a gentle but firm-ish rub on the head and neck and ignored her when she pulled back her ears. Using soft and light phases I asked her to back up a step, yield her forequarter and to yield her hindquarter … all of which she did softly and politely albeit with ears back a little. When I finished, I asked her to sniff my hand again which she did, this time with ears forward and her attention on me and a lovely soft expression on her face. All I wanted to do was to get a hand on the horse to get a feel for her as I knew she would be very tight and tense, which she was. This poor little horse was just plain scared. She was very claustrophobic and intimidated by other horses and people being in her space. No one had ever asked permission to be in her space, or tried to help her over come her fears … they’d just seen her irritable response to others around her and treated her as a cranky horse without looking for the reasons why she was cranky. So, she got more cranky and defensive which then meant her handlers got more defensive and the whole situation spiraled down from there. Now, the horse was so tight and tense you could’ve bounced bullets off her hide. She lived behind this shield of defensiveness that no one could get through, because they’d all tried to do it by being stronger and more firm with her, instead of offering her softness or building her confidence and winning her trust. I pointed out how fearful she was and that her defensiveness was her way of protecting herself, not her just being nasty or having a go at anyone. I also pointed out that if she was really mean and meant trouble she would have caused more injury to her handler and had more follow through. Many times she had the chance to take her out, but she didn’t. Instead she offered lots of warnings but rarely actually made contact. A nice little horse indeed! The group was amazed! They’d never considered that she was actually fearful … they all just assumed she was nasty. To see her backing up and yielding her fore and hindquarters so lightly and softly was incredible to them, as they were used to her rearing up or striking out. All it took was understanding and an offer of softness and the chance to respond to light phases instead of hard ones. I asked her handler if she was prepared to try to view her differently … as a very scared little girl instead of a mean and nasty one. Her handler said she’d try which was very brave of her as she had had some scary times with Willow before. I forewarned her that Willow would still get scared and try some of her other tricks for a while, but that she just had to ignore them and work through them instead of backing off. During the course of the day, Willow’s handler worked on building the little mare’s confidence. She did a great job of ignoring the rearing and striking (I made sure she was at a safe distance!) and made sure she offered Willow the chance to respond to light phases, she softened her body energy and was quick to reward even the smallest of tries. After a little while, Willow started to relax. Her ears softened a little and she put less ‘oomph’ into her antics. Her ears started to come forward and you could see her curiosity start to build as the connection between the two of them began to form. Willow’s handler was really making an effort to communicate to Willow instead of just bossing her around and telling her what to do. By that afternoon you could physically see Willow’s body begin to relax and her taught skin soften. And then an interesting thing happened. Because Willow had been so tight for so long, a lot of stress had been stored in her body. As she began to relax the stress was released and as we stood there chatting about our day before we finished up, Willow started to sweat. A horse who works hard will sweat, but one who is genuinely terrified won’t (same as us), so now that she was beginning to relax, all of a sudden the stress was released and the sweat came out … and it was a very cool day! Along with the sweat came little lumps like hives all over her body as the tension was released through her skin. {sidebar id=6}We finished up and her handler walked Willow until she’d cooled off, then gave her a light hose and bedded her down for the night. That night as we sat around the dinner table, we all talked about the incredible changes in Willow that day … needless to say everyone was amazed at how differently she responded when she was approached and treated in another way. The transformation was nothing short of miraculous to them. Everyone was quite emotional as to how this poor little scared horse had been labeled and treated as a mean and nasty horse. They all felt bad for having had those thoughts about her, as no one had really liked her very much. Now they were seeing the truth about her and their feelings had completely changed. They were feeling sorry for her and wanted to help her to over come her fears. And all I had done was caused them to change their paradigm of how they saw Willow which then of course changed how they treated her. The next day things continued to improve for Willow and her handler. She was still a nervous horse, but now her handler was more sympathetic to her needs and was able to help her. Because they were making a connection, Willow was more willing to trust her handler and so allow her to help her build her confidence. That afternoon they were even able to trot around happily in a group for the first time without her trying to kick the other horses. It truly was a wonderful transformation to see this lovely little horse’s true personality begin to shine. Overall it was a very happy outcome for this sweet little horse who was just suffering from a case of mistaken identity. View more Aussie Horsemen articles. Join us on Twitter