Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a frequent guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. She works with Jim Thomas at Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, NC, and runs Essence Horsemanship. Here, she writes Part One of an ongoing project with the beautiful horse, Bellus.
Bellus, a 10-year old Lusitano gelding, came to the Bar T Ranch for training in January with a rearing problem. He was schooling 3rd level dressage (which involves advanced lateral movements, flying changes, and extended gaits – movements requiring balance, rhythm and self carriage) and his trainers were fed up with him.
“Everything else was fine,” they said, except when Bellus decided he was done he would stop and rear. Bellus was brought to us so we could “fix up that one little problem,” then he could go back to schooling. He was expected to start getting good scores in shows and then he could be sold.
Yet everything else was not fine. In the short time that Bellus was in training, the poor horse was exposed to quite a different world than he was used to:
— Bellus was used to going in a stall. As a stallion late to being gelded and having been isolated in his earlier years, his social skills were underdeveloped and he was kept separately from other horses.
— He came off the trailer wearing shipping boots and a fleece-lined halter. He snorted at the cows over the fence and the cows snorted back at him.
— At the Bar T, he did not live in a stall, but in a private paddock next to five other horses.
— His clipped coat stood on end when the wind picked up or when it rained. Because of this ill-advised and prior grooming, I needed to blanket him when the weather was bad.
At first, Bellus struggled to adjust.
I rode him out on the trails, through water, with the cows, and I did very little dressage. I wanted to avoid dressage because the gelding had been drilled half to death with the movements which were a) not done correctly and b) had no meaning or value in his life.
Dressage can help a horse with balance and relaxation. The way it was presented had made him backward and resentful. I thought it’d be better for him mentally to avoid schooling in the arena and learn a different type of balance.
But the gelding had so little confidence on the trail that he shook with trepidation and could not will himself to go forward.
With the cows, he trembled and tried to whirl around or stop and rear when he saw them. His response to everything he didn’t understand or thought he couldn’t do was to shut down. In doing this, he’d sull up. He’d slam on the front end hard, refuse to move, and then come up in the front end.
Bellus had no idea how to use his body properly as he had always been pushed into a false “collected” frame. He had always been ridden on a tight rein, spurred, and whipped into the contact as he continually lost his forward momentum. Shutting down became the only option he could summon.
With me riding him on a loose rein, he tripped, stumbled, rushed, and jolted to a stop. He did not know how to handle not being held up by someone’s reins and driven into them. He had no balance of his own, and without being confined by the reins, he fell forward on his front end heavily. He felt unbalanced and often panicked. He did not have any of the fundamental qualities that a well-started horse should have: confidence, try, balance, ability to go forward, and relaxation. In my mind, without these qualities, Bellus had no business competing at 3rd level dressage.
After a month in training here, Bellus made marked improvements. He would walk, trot, and canter in a forward manner on a loose rein. He would ride out on the trails, and I had many beautiful long trots with him where he loosened and lowered his scrunched-up neck and lifted his back, extending his stride over the hilly fields.
In the minds of his owners/trainers, however, Bellus was still a long way from where they wanted him. I suspect his owners had been strung along by many trainers trying to do the right thing, and after years of spending on trainers who had only muddled him up worse, they were at the end of their rope. They asked me to take him. I was glad to.
My first order of business was to improve his physical and mental well being. I pulled his shoes and to turn him out onto a field with my three-ear old filly. He was pretty tender footed after having worn shoes for his entire riding life. As for his living situation, I think Bellus must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.