Thor, our not so bright ex-racehorse went through a really spooky couple of months. Not as in two or three months of Halloween or in the I was scared sense of the word. Well to be honest I was scared so I did what most trainers wouldn't do.
I didn't ride him on Monday or Tuesday or at all for as long as he was jumping out of his skin at what some might say was nothing. But to him it was not nothing and to me it was a big something. Not the spookiness, because that was a symptom of something much bigger going on in his head. He started to see the world.
Racehorses can have a varied experience, and this is not to say they are abused. What one horse can tolerate, other horses simply can not. One thing is certain, they are started under saddle where between their first and second a year of life. This is done in theory to get them ready for the races at two. But there is also a very practical... Once at an auction I watched four men pick up a frightened yearling and put him in the horse trailer. I've suspected all along that something similar happened to Thor.
There is a term in psychology called learned helplessness. The experiment (which I blogged about before but I can't remember when or why) involved dogs, cages and electric shock. It was mild shock, probably similar to what we use for our electric fence.
So the psychologists put the dogs in cages. One side of each cage would be turned on, and the dogs would move to the other side. This was repeated until the psychologists had enough evidence to be statistically significant that dogs would move from the negative stimuli. Then both sides of the cage were electrified so that the dog could not escape the negative stimuli. So the dogs just laid down and accepted. And because the dog learned there was no better place, when the dogs were put in a cage with no electric and then one side turned on, the dogs did not even try to go to the other side.
And this is pretty much Thor in a nutshell. I do not believe he was abused but whatever his training, it was overload for him. And he learned when he was a baby, there was nothing he could do about it. To a great extent (and despite hours of ridden and ground work) he's been like a kid with their hands over their ears singing "lalalalala." It's how he coped with being overwhelmed. Yes, horses can get overwhelmed. Its something to think about when buying any horse.
A quiet horse may not be a quiet horse if they've actually just checked out on life. These horses often come with a certain unpredictability. You might hear something along the lines of, "It's like he never saw a bike before." That's because he or she actually may not have seen a bike before. And I think all the things the parts of being a racehorse lend itself to a variety of coping mechanisms.
Taking Thor for example. We've had him almost two years... that's how much time it took for him to mentally be able to cope with the world. Suddenly, he was spooking at the neighbor's dogs, the cars going up and down the road, the birds, the sounds of anything and even the grass blowing. Some might say he lot his mind, but that's really a misunderstanding of what he felt. I can't imagine how mind boggling it was for him and I didn't want him become so overwhelmed that he shut down again.
Not riding was one way I helped him. Riding places a horse in the position where their behavior has a direct impact on their human's safety and well being. I do believe with all my heart that horses do not want to hurt people and take personal responsibility for the people they love.
I also helped him with clicker training. After about a week of nuttiness, I realized he just wasn't coping well with seeing everything. He was being he best boy he could be. For example, one day something behind him startled him and I was in front. Thor never rears, but he started to gallop and could run into me and, as he often does, didn't think about left or right, so it was up, up. Cute, but also telling. Because when I send him to the left or right, sometimes he gets so worried about the consequences of being wrong, he doesn't know which way to go. I say consequences, because if you learned to round pen from any number of trainers, they are loud with their body language. So I broke with the tradition. I asked him to go around in walk trot and canter and brought him into the middle for some target training with the clicker. Rinse and repeat. S
Suddenly the horse we joked about being not so bright, is our star pupil. He is already picking things up and giving them to me. But it's not only that. Things that took so many repetitions for him to learn before, he gets after one or two tries now. He's learning how to learn as well as how to cope with the world. There is an alertness there that wasn't before. He pricks his ears at sounds and looks at things. You can see him thinking about the world, and while I kind of miss his dopey, "huh" expression, the gain is greater.
When I take into account all four of our ex-racehorses, I see a pattern emerging. One that is filled with a lot unknowns. That said, all four of our guys are have enriched our lives immeasurably.