This is something that should have been obvious to me a long time ago, but my pride tends to get in the way sometimes; this has never been more true that with my horse, Sadie.
Any “horse people” out there will want the background information, so before I move forward, here it is. Sadie is a gray mare, 14.2h, approximately 15 years old. Since little is known about her history, her breeding is a mystery, but all guesses point to her being a Mustang cross; possibly crossed with draft blood such as Percheron. The Mustang piece is important and I think it may explain a lot.
Sadie has been with me for seven years now. She came to me through a fluke of sorts, but being that I believe “all things happen for a reason” and that “animals choose the people, not the other way around,” I have to believe that she was meant to come to me.
I had purchased a little mare in October 2004 at auction and discovered she was a little too much for me to handle. She was presented as being a green broke 4 year old, but was more likely a barely broke young horse. Either way, after she threw me three times on one trail ride, I decided I wanted something more enjoyable. I returned to the auction barn with her the following month.
On that same evening, a friend of a friend bid on a fat gray mare (she looked bred), planning on using her for trail riding. However, when it came time to pay for said mare, this acquaintance claimed that she couldn’t bring home another horse because her husband would kill her (of course not literally) and this person rarely rode trails. Since I had just sold my little mare, both friends turned to me and said I should take the gray mare home. I hesitated because my dreams were of a tall, dark gelding. But, I gave in and brought the short gray mare home that night.
The previous owners said the horse had come to them through a horse trader known for bringing horses to the state from ranches in New Mexico and Arizona. Considering she has a brand on her right shoulder, the story is believable. They swore she was not currently bred (just fat!) but that she’d had a foal in her past.
From the beginning, the fat gray mare named Sadie was difficult to catch but since she was in a small pen and usually by herself, we made it through using bribery. The place I rented had access to an indoor area and I made use of it, riding Sadie almost nightly and spending time with her daily. One would think this would help her learn to trust me, but catching her didn’t get much easier.
I attribute part of the catching problem to her Mustang heritage. She detests trailers and being stalled. When I first started working with her, she would tuck her back end under her during saddling and quiver. She refused to let me touch her face. In short, I think she was handled roughly at the beginning of her life and never forgot that fact. If her supposed background is correct, my conclusions make sense.
Fast forward to the present and you’ll find that Sadie is still difficult to catch, with the degree of difficulty going in phases. I sometimes spend two hours in the pasture without any success and sometimes she’s haltered in 20 minutes. I’ve tried several techniques, including lessons with the amazing lady who owns the stable where Sadie is boarded. Some of the techniques I’ve used have worked, but they soon stop working and I have to find something new.
As I’m sure you can imagine this has brought me a lot of frustration. I’ve never encountered another horse that is this difficult to catch. Sometimes it makes me consider selling her. Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes I question my abilities as a riding instructor. The fact that Sadie isn’t any easier to catch for anyone else makes me feel better, even if it shouldn’t.
Anyhow, I’ve always refrained from asking for help with Sadie. She’s my horse and I feel like I should be able to handle her on my own. There’s the pride getting in the way.
This year, I have decided to make a real investment in my relationship with Sadie in terms of both time and money. I realize I should have done this a long time ago, but I let my own stubbornness get in the way. I started the first step to building Sadie’s trust in me last night.
As horse owners, we often get so caught up in what we want to do with our horses and our own timelines that we forget about the horse’s needs. Our horse doesn’t see us as a partner, but as someone who makes them work and then leaves. With that thought, I decided I’m going to spend some time with Sadie that is all about her comfort.
Last night, I went into the pasture without any ropes or halters and just talked to her, petted her and hugged her. She didn’t walk away from me. She closed her eyes while I was rubbing her and let her breathing become deep and even. She was enjoying our time. Then, I left when she was more supple and giving me her full attention. I made the choice to end our session while she was comfortable with me being in her space. Keeping our time together stress and pressure free was the objective.
My next visit will also be free of halters and ropes, but will include a brush. She seemed to enjoy me scratching her girth area, loosening the mud stuck to her. I plan on having many sessions such as this with her until I feel she is ready to let me move onto other steps, based on her timeline and body language. I’m not yet sure if this is the right answer, but it feels like a good start.
I am also researching various trainers whose books and videos I can learn something from. I’m particularly interested in trainers who use the natural horsemanship techniques (Pat Parelli, John Lyons, Clinton Anderson). I will make the investment in both funds and time to become a partner with Sadie. In the end, I may find that none of these things made a difference, but at least I’ll be able to say I truly gave it my best efforts.
Many people have asked me why I haven’t given up on her and sold her in order to find a horse that likes people. My answer is always the same. Sadie is a fantastic horse once the lead rope and/or halter are on her; at the point, she becomes a willing partner. I couldn’t ask for a more reliable, steady trail horse than she has proven herself to be. Beyond the catching issue, we have been able to work through everything else together. There is always the fear that if I found another home for her, I would end up with a horse with worse vices (kicking, biting, rearing, bolting). I would rather work with a horse I feel safe with than with a horse I can catch, but would hurt me (such as the mare I sold the night I brought Sadie home). Plus, after seven years together, I couldn’t sell my child!