We are not always presented with ideal situations. Sometimes we have to do a lot of adjusting and be willing to take the time to keep horse and human safe. Kim and I had been musing about this for weeks. Our friends were purchasing a weanling filly for their son’s birthday. Kim had been giving Paul lessons for about a year. In preparation for getting his own filly, he had been working with our young horses. Now it was time for us to pick up Princess.
We had suggested that Princess be weaned with other foals in a corral and be given about two weeks away from her mother before she was moved to her new home. That would give them some time to begin to interact with her and reduce her stress by making this change in her life gradually. As circumstances would have it, things were not done that way. When the mare’s owner decided it was time to wean Princess, the filly was run into a small pen by herself and our friends were told to come get their horse. We made arrangements to pick up Princess that evening at 7:00; we didn’t have an opportunity to work with her before then. What a daunting task it was, to teach this baby to accept human touch, to become comfortable with a lead rope, to allow us to put a halter on her head, to give to pressure, to lead, to load into a trailer, and to travel safely—starting so late at night! Our first priority was that Princess was not to get hurt, and we were not to get hurt. Safety was everything—time was not an issue.
I had a previous commitment that evening, so Kim went to meet Mike and his wife at the farm where Princess was waiting. There was junk all over the place—treasures to some. Kim negotiated the narrow, curved drive between a large manure pile and the round pen to a small turnaround. Access to the long row of pens was blocked by a hot walker; therefore, backing up to Princess’s pen was not an option. Kim found herself in a challenging situation. Not having had much human contact and having just lost the security of her mother, Princess was flighty. Princess’s pen, near the far end of the alley, was in poor repair. Jagged, broken boards, exposed nails, and piles of the kind of junk that collect on a farm over the years severely limited the amount of pressure that could be safely put on her. The foal next to Princess had a ghastly gash on the back of its front leg from an exposed T-post.
When Mike and Kim entered Princess’s pen, they found one thing in their favor—Princess, who was hungry, had just been given a few flakes of hay. Her strong desire to get something to eat momentarily overrode her fear of people; therefore, touching her was not a problem. The hay drew her back when she left. As Kim started to introduce the halter, Princess, less hungry now, didn’t want anything to do with it and moved off. Determined to take the time it took to get this done without injury, Mike stationed himself about halfway down the pen, and Kim stayed near the hay by the gate, creating a kind of human round pen. Each time Princess ran past them they would reached out to touch her. As she quieted down, Mike and Kim gradually worked their way closer and closer together.
Princess was making them devise ways to encourage her to want to be with them. Kim began to put a little more pressure on Princess by tossing a lead rope over Princess’s back when the filly came near Kim. Mike tried to make things soft and comfortable when Princess came near him. To get Princess even more comfortable with Mike, he switched places with Kim and let Princess have some more hay, because by then she was hungry again. While Princess was eating, Mike approached and retreated with the halter. Princess moved away a little, but for the most part, Mike could touch Princess’s ears, head, and neck. Princess would not allow the halter to go over her nose, but Mike slipped the lead rope around her neck and took it off and put it on again several times.
Kim knew from experience what could happen the first time a young, nervous horse was asked to give to the pressure of the lead rope. She had to get Princess out of that pen. There was no room to drift with her, and the fences were so dangerous Princess would likely get hurt if she slammed into them, or she might flip over in a state of panic. By this time it was 9:30 P.M.. Again, time really wasn’t an issue, but it was interesting keeping track of how long each step in the progression took.
Mike and Kim discussed their plan to get Princess from the pen to the trailer. Mike’s wife was stationed at the gate. After she opened the gate, she was to stand in the alley, blocking the path to the other horses. Kim would run to the other end of the alley, by the hot walker, and block the stallion pens. Because Mike could only get a lead rope around Princess’s neck, Kim talked to him about keeping a forty-five-degree angle on Princess. That forty-five-degree angle was his safety and power position to disengage the hind end. Kim mentioned all the things Princess might do out of self-preservation before she started to look for the release. And the most important thing was for Mike to NOT LET GO.
When Mike’s wife opened the gate, Princess shot out with Mike in tow. Princess, weighing about 300 pounds, dragged Mike, weighing about 185 pounds, toward the mares before she turned. Mike kept the forty-five-degree angle the entire way and never let go. Princess ran again, Mike still in tow. This time, when she turned, she ran in circles around Mike before she stopped—frozen. Mike took this opportunity to pet her and let her settle. After Princess had calmed down, Mike moved off at an angle to start teaching her to lead, one step at a time; first a step to the right, then a step to the left. Princess’s first few steps were erratic, sometimes tentative, sometimes lunging forward or sideways. Kim explained to Mike that if Princess did elect to throw herself down, he must hold her head up with the rope to keep it from hitting the ground. By being persistent, and releasing for each forward movement, it was amazing how fast Princess seemed to go from panic to understanding. Soon Mike could lead her with a loop of slack in the rope, and when she did leave, she turned back as soon as she felt pressure.
Try to imagine all the changes in Princess’s life up to this point. Next she was presented with a strange cave—the trailer. It sounded wrong and smelled strange, and the lighting was hard on her eyes. It must have looked like a death trap. By approaching and retreating, Mike asked Princess to stand near the trailer. She quickly became comfortable standing at the back of the trailer and sniffing it but would go no further.
It was after 11:00 P.M. when I arrived. Mike and Kim were tired and were running out of ideas. I had another lead rope with me so that Princess could be haltered properly. By this time, she willingly accepted the halter. Mike had been reassuring Princess all evening by rubbing and petting her. Princess had become comfortable with his touch, and she was comfortable with me. I began asking her to step from side to side, trying to encourage her to try a step into the trailer. It looked, for a moment, like we might be making progress. Princess brought her hind feet under her for balance and lifted her front leg up to paw the trailer. Our hope, however, was short-lived. That was the extent of Princess’s try, and it seemed to convince her that we were asking her to do an impossible task.
Princess had hit a plateau. She was comfortable with us, and she was comfortable standing just outside the trailer. It was time to make outside the trailer uncomfortable and inside the trailer a good place. Kim stood to the side of Princess and tapped her croup, stopping with the slightest indication that Princess was thinking about going forward. I was inside the trailer, encouraging Princess with the lead rope. Kim and I became good at timing our releases equally. It was as if we were reading each other’s mind. Princess began to understand. She tried many times to lift herself into the trailer. Knowing her final try would be a big one, I moved to the front of the trailer to give Princess plenty of room. She took all the room I gave her with one big leap into the trailer. It didn’t take Princess long to find the hay we had for her. Petting her as she ate, I made sure she was content before I slipped the halter off, leaving her loose in the trailer.
It was 1:00 A.M. when we made the short drive to Princess’s new home. She was still eating the hay when we pulled in. I stepped into the trailer and haltered Princess like she had been doing it her entire life. She softly leapt out of the trailer and was led to her new paddock without incident. We had accomplished our goal—Princess had not been hurt, and we had not been hurt. It was incredible how much Princess learned in a few hours. We were all impressed with how her understanding developed with each step. Princess was a good find. Paul is one lucky kid. We knew he would be happy when he woke up.