Channeling Walter Farley

Jan 19, 2014 - 11:05 AM
"What stood out were strangely conformed legs, a giraffe neck that went straight up into the air, and the biggest head and ears I’d ever seen. Then I caught his eye—worried but so kind. I was smitten," said Arbittier.

As a veterinarian, I meet a lot of people and treat a lot of horses. I have been very lucky in my career to develop close relationships with clients, many of whom have become like family. The basis for those relationships, on both sides, is trust.

Ephraim has been a part of my life for a few weeks now, and I realize that trust is going to be the biggest obstacle in his retraining process. By nature, he is a very quiet horse. He and I take the same approach to exercise. He clearly prefers ambling to working and is a champion at standing still; a match made in heaven! I’ve figured this out thanks to the new but strong measure of trust that has developed between us. It has come relatively quickly but hasn’t been without effort and compromise on both of our parts.

I occasionally run into people who vehemently insist that they own a one-person horse and that it can only be handled by them. Truthfully, the ‘scared’ horse is usually quite spoiled and walking all over us—more dominant than fearful. I call it ‘Black Stallion Syndrome': the notion of the wild horse that only trusts the boy who helped him survive. And it’s fiction…most of the time.

Ephraim has learned to trust me. Thus far, it has cost me only two containers of treats and the requirement that I approach him every day with calm and patience. Where he used to suck back in the stall, he now comes forward and sticks his nose in the halter. Before, any movement of my hand would send him flying back on cross ties; he barely reacts now. I can hug him, mount him from a block, feed him treats from his back, reach back and pat his hindquarters while mounted, tighten my girth from his back, rub his ears from the saddle….all things that really scared him from me when he arrived. He now sticks his nose in all of my pockets, mugging me politely for treats, and follows me like a dog. Foolishly, I thought he was (for lack of a more appropriate word) cured!

During my second lesson, we cantered. He was perfect! Hard to get moving (see above comment about his love of inertia), but he has an awesome rocking-chair canter, and there was no sign of the panic that sent me flying when I set us up for failure the first time I tried. I was so tickled by his canter that I jumped down and asked Kate to get on—I wanted her to feel it! I went to hand the perfect beast over and…he was scared of Kate. She gave him a treat and got a hand on his reins, and he tensely followed her to the mounting block. I watched as he wouldn’t stand, was backing up, and his whole expression was scared. I showed her where I stood him, when I gave treats, and how I gave him a treat once I was on. He stood so tense that he was almost shaking, but he was quiet.

Once up, she went to give him his post-mounting treat from the right, and I always do it from the left. His head shot up, he coiled and almost panicked. Kate froze, and I didn’t move, but I must have sounded like a deranged Beyonce crooning, “To the left, to the left.” Kate slowly leaned left to hand him the treat. He hesitated but took it. Then he went right to work. We were both struck by his dramatic reaction to Kate, who gives him treats every evening at night check. But, once she got him going, he was great for her and she rode him much better than I did. He was probably relieved!

That episode made an impression on me. I had erringly assumed that once he trusted me, he would trust everybody. I want to say, “Look Eph. I am not Alec Ramsey! I don’t want to wear a gold-trimmed helmet with a tassel on my head and run in the match race!!” Okay, so I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t mind riding my big, black horse on a beach somewhere with no saddle or bridle, but all that aside, I’ve now learned more about how trust works and how perceptive my horse is. The terrific people at my barn are helping me by fussing over Eph and feeding him treats, and Kate will start riding him regularly. Hopefully, he will soon learn that most people are kind, and his first reaction won’t always be fear.

Meanwhile, my homework is to rent The Black Stallion and get more tips from Alec on how to succeed with The Black!   

Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up casually riding hunters, did IHSA in college, and got started in show jumping before vet school when she took a job managing Kevin Babington’s team. She’s ridden with Kevin for 18 years and, while Ephraim is a departure for both Liz and Kevin, Kevin is excited to meet him!


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