A horse came into my care this fall that was defensive, angry, and in pain. The well meaning and caring owner had rescued him from an unfortunate situation, and then turned him out to pasture for several years for pressing personal reasons. Upon return we realized not only had some of both the mental and physical issues he had pre-turnout not resolved, but multiplied. Like the incredible majority of horses, he wasn't mean, malicious, or "bad," he had just learned to protect himself and came into every situation on the back foot. I explained to the owner that we had a long, uphill battle, but I was willing to try if she was. She agreed to whatever he needed, and we set about trying to earn his trust.
Already in his mid-teens, he danced in the cross ties, would occassionally stand up and strike while being led, turn his rear to you when trying to enter the stall, and more. He wouldn't let the vet near him at first to try and treat him, and we resorted to a lip chain in order to tranquilize him. I soon learned however, that with enough patience you could get the horse to do almost anything. When he reacted to the vet, I would go in and stand with him and he would eventually relax and I could handle him. If he reared up while being led, I could stand with him spinning in circles for a few minutes and he would calm down. True, the adrenaline would run out of his system, but at the same time he learned that I wouldn't react against him--in fact, I wouldn't react at all. I was using my patience as an aid; an aid to diffuse his reaction and earn his trust. After two months, I could groom him in his stall and he would wuffle my back gently with his lips when I ducked under his neck.
As we put him back to work, we found several soundness issues that needed dealing with, and the time off and multiple issues faced us with a lot of setbacks, which was frustrating and made it hard to see the possibility that after all of the time, effort, and cost, he would become truly rideable for the owner. Anytime he was in pain he would resent the work, and act out. He was never dramatically dangerous, but he made it clear he was not playing unless he felt fine; I had to respect how clear he was with us. The vet came back and took out the chain, and instead I said to just hold him and wait--low and behold, we could treat him without much fuss at all. He was starting to realize every time we did something, he felt better and better. When he acted out in any way, we backed off and gave him space to breathe, and when we came back he was more willing and more open.
Yesterday, for the first time since arriving, that horse jumped around a small course of jumps with me, and he was an absolute gentleman. I raised the jumps slightly and did it again, and he was eager, willing, kind, and responsive. He waited for my cues, and responded. On the ground, in the stall, and in the saddle I used patience, and he responded, with enough time, with trust and patience of his own. He now stands perfectly in the cross ties, he's excellent to lead, and he meets us at the stall door with ears up and a nicker. I could not be more proud of him, what he has overcome, and how much he has learned to trust.
This post would be incomplete without mentioning the extreme patience of his owner, who was willing to wait, trust, and take a chance on him for months just to make him feel better even if she could never ride him. I know he's grateful, and I'm excited to see how he shows it going forward.