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Topic Review
Pauline Moore

Joined: Fri Mar 23rd, 2007
Location: Crows Nest, Australia
Posts: 273
Status:  Offline
Posted: Sun Apr 19th, 2015 03:21 am
Hi Dr Deb
A few months ago a friend purchased a very nice Spanish mare for her 13-yr old daughter. The mare is about 8 years old and was sold as being quiet and reliable. When I first met the horse recently, I found her quite puzzling. Superficially she does appear to be ‘quiet’ but I feel she is far from OK inside, and therefore not as safe as she needs to be. Her young rider rides well, very softly, but asks for very little and the mare takes good care of her, almost foal-like.

The mare’s reaction to just about everything is to disappear inside herself. She does not actually freeze, but her eyes have that ‘gone to another planet’ look. Is this what you mean by ‘absance’?

I briefly tried to ‘catch her birdie’ with a flag but there was no difference in her response regardless of the flag being gently fluttered at ground level or strongly wafted right in front of her high-head eyes.

She is obviously a strong-minded horse as it took her only a couple of months to establish herself at the top of the pecking order in the small herd at her new home - despite being kept in isolation at her previous home. It turns out that her previous adult owner sent her to numerous ‘trainers’ in order to make her manageable - I’m wondering if at some point she has been hobbled and then sacked out.

I’m thinking that perhaps the next step should be to see if a non-visual ‘flag’ would get her attention - maybe some crinkly plastic hidden in the hand, or pebbles in a plastic bottle.

I have the owner’s permission to ask so would very much appreciate your advice on how to proceed from here.

Super Moderator

Joined: Fri Mar 30th, 2007
Posts: 3307
Status:  Offline
Posted: Sun Apr 19th, 2015 06:41 am
Dear Pauline: Yes, your description is exactly of 'absance'. The horse's birdie is in 'the wood between the worlds' (ref. C.S. Lewis' 'The Magician's Nephew').

And I agree that you're likely to be dealing with a horse with which somebody tried to get 'closure', but did not -- leaving the horse convinced, at a very deep level, that no matter what may happen and no matter what the situation, it needs to refer its troubles to itself; in other words, solve its own problems its own way.

Whereas, what we want horses to do -- and the very measure of 'brokeness' in the good sense -- is that the horse has been led to believe that it would always be best off referring its troubles to the human. We want the horse to look to the human for direction and we want it to believe, and have a solid basis for believing, that we will protect it from anything that threatens to take away the deep peace or inner OK-ness that is the no. 1 absolute first priority and need of all horses.

I had the opportunity to observe Tom working with several horses of the type you have on hand, and the one biggest thing I learned from that is that less is more. And the second thing is that perfect (you might say, 'subtle') timing will be the key to success -- not the application of more stimulus or more force.

And the third thing is -- please keep a good eye out for yourself anytime you're around this horse. It's charming that the mare treats the child almost as a foal; this is the ONE thing that will save the child from harm, and it really will probably work 99% of the time, since this is also (like the mare's self-defensiveness) proceeding from a very deep emotional spot within the animal. But it will NOT apply to you or probably to any other handler, or any other horse; hence the mare's need to be Numero Uno in the pasture and her swift ascension to that spot. She will equally try to control the position and actions of any adult, or anybody who "acts" like an adult and not like a "foal".

HOrses whose birdie is absant can and frequently do 'explode'. They do this just when the naive observer -- by which I mean the inexperienced horse owner who cannot tell the difference between 'quiet and broke' vs. 'absant' -- thinks that the horse is all calm and happy, and then BOOM they jump straight up in the air and kick the handler in the head. I can't caution you enough to expect this.

Further, you should expect it ANYTIME you put significant pressure on the horse. The process is, first the pressure will drive the animal down inside of itself; but then, at a certain point if the pressure is continued, the animal will come back out, and when it does, it will be sudden and explosive and extremely dangerous.

Therefore, this is what I advise -- and I go into this because I know that you, Pauline, are capable of succeeding -- because you're a very fine horsewoman, highly experienced in handling not only your own stallions but the general run of unmannered horses owned by the public; and also because I know that you can perceive the real status of the horse's birdie from moment to moment. ANYBODY ELSE READING THIS -- if you've got one such as Pauline is describing -- you had better self-assess pretty seriously before beginning.

So here's the equipment that you'll need -- you can engage the child in this, or not, as you see appropriate.

1. Round pen or smallish paddock, no more than 75 ft. across.

2. Comfortable folding chair.

3. Soft rag attached to a stiff stick about 3 ft. long (a flag) -- make the flag of very soft, non-crinkly, non-scary material; the piece of cloth should be about 2 ft. on edge.

4. An interesting novel, or if you have the child with you, perhaps a board game (she'll need her own chair too, to sit in; and you could bring a small, sturdy table to set the board on; or maybe use a largeish mounting block as a table. Good opportunity to teach the kid to play chess).

5. Sunscreen and wide straw hats.

Set your chair(s) and table up right in the center of the pen. If you're going to play chess, set up your board and the pieces.

Now go get the horse and put her in the enclosure. Take the halter off, walk away, and ignore her.

Now go sit down in the chairs. Have the flag next to you, handy-by; or have the stock laid across your lap, but otherwise, don't do anything with the flag. Start your chess game if the child is with you, or go to reading your novel if you're by yourself.

However -- the whole time, you keep one eye on the mare. Do your best to not let her know you're doing that - very casual. Give the mare a few minutes to familiarize herself with the pen. She'll tool around the edges, and maybe nibble some grass; she'll also probably, sometime within the first ten minutes, come over and ask what the heck the chairs and table are, and you let her do that without however permitting her to get close enough to kick or strike, or knock over the chairs or table.

Once this initial period has passed, the mare will go somewhere -- probably to the side of the enclosure closest to her stall or else closest to her normal pasture-buddies. When you observe her standing over there with her head raised and her nose over the rail, you take your flag and you shake it JUST enough to get her to either look or turn an ear. And THAT IS ALL; then you go quiet.

She will then look back where she was preferring to look by her own decision. Give her a moment to go ahead and do this, and then flip the flag again. You don't even need to look at her when you do this; it's as if you were using the flag to flick off a fly that was bothering YOU but in the process of this flicking you irritate the mare just a little. There's no doubt she will look -- she will look every single time you flip the flag -- and the key is that THIS IS ALL YOU DO -- because you see, if you do any more, you will be the cause of driving her birdie down into her. The trick is to do just enough to draw her birdie outward so that you don't drive it inward! Because if it never goes inward, she will never go 'absant'!

Now you'll keep this up, this little teeny irritation, for perhaps twenty minutes, perhaps a couple of hours -- you'll have to be the judge. And maybe not the first day, maybe not the second day, but pretty soon -- certainly before the afternoon of the fourth day -- what you'll see is that you flip the flag, and the mare will, of her own volition, turn her body around and face you. At first she'll stand pretty far away, and we don't care how far it is; as long as she's facing you, that flag should be absolutely quiet. You'll notice that the number of times you have to remind her not to look out of the pen, but rather to look at you, diminish almost logarithmically.

Finally, you will notice that she'll position herself not only facing you, but closer and closer. The first time she walks up to you so that she's less than fifteen feet from you, that is the signal to fold up your book or your chess game, quietly pick up your chairs, and leave the pen: PRESSURE ENTIRELY OFF -- even the pressure of you being present in the pen!

From there on out, you won't need the chairs, though you might LIKE to have them, and if you do, that's dandy. But from this point you will be able to enter the pen with the horse, and after letting her settle for the first minute or two, by flipping the flag gently, just once, she will give you her eyes AND THUS HER BIRDIE.

At this point your timing becomes crucial; you cannot walk up to her with the flag. But if you're walking and not sitting, you can call her eyes, and then when you get them you can step off toward the side of her inside hind leg, cutting obliquely across the line of her nose, and very likely you'll be able to get her to hook on. This is a great step forward, if you can walk away, holding the flag on whatever side of your body is away from the mare, and "pull" her along because you have her BIRDIE but the THREAD is connecting her birdie back to her, so as you walk, you pull on the thread and she comes.

Ultimately, of course, you want her to get to where she offers to walk right up to you; the easiest way to get this to happen is after you have been leading her by her thread, then you stop, and she offers to just keep coming. Yes -- this is a violation of her coming into your space, she is violatng your space, so you will have to balance it tactfully if she comes in with some kind of aggression. What we want instead is soft curiosity. When she comes up to you the right way, spend many minutes just petting, scratching, and praising her; AND THEN LEAVE.

If you can possibly do it, set it up so that every time you leave, it was BEFORE she wanted you to -- you leave while she is still desiring your company! You want her to long for your company, you want her to literally beg for it!

At that point -- this is where I finally got with old Painty, who had similar problems -- yes, for the rest of the horse's natural life, he will still be scarred, and you will still have to protect him every minute you're around him. But at the same time, the more you teach the horse to long to be with you, the more you show him that what bothers HIM is also going to be of concern to YOU -- the safer he'll be. That's as safe as a ruined horse can ever get.

This is a wonderful opportunity not only for you, but for the child and the child's parents, if indeed you can get them to believe what I'm saying and get them to go along with it. Every time the horse experiences pressure that is either badly timed or too much, though, you'll find yourself having a setback. Always remember with this situation: don't go to the can of rocks. LESS IS MORE.

Keep us posted! Cheers -- Deb



Pauline Moore

Joined: Fri Mar 23rd, 2007
Location: Crows Nest, Australia
Posts: 273
Status:  Offline
Posted: Mon Apr 20th, 2015 03:18 am
Dr Deb - Thank you so much for your detailed reply, very much appreciated. I will liaise with the mare's owner and rider and we'll work out a plan.


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