SHASTA: A TRAINER'S STORY
By Jennifer HumphreyDuring my years as a horse trainer, I've never met a more extraordinary horse than Shasta. He was special right from his birth.
His birth came at an unsettling, emotional time since my partner's mother was dying. Glory, Shasta's mother, was ready to foal, but incredibly she waited for two weeks until my partner returned to foal Shasta.
We watched Shasta stand up, take his first drink and be licked by Glory. While looking him over to make sure he was healthy, my partner noticed that something was wrong with his lower lip. I cupped my hand under his mouth to see what was wrong and, "bloop," his lip flipped back in place. Since we were both emotional from the death of Jane's mother and this amazing miracle of birth, our laughter over the flipped lip was a great relief. We both knew this colt was special--he was a gift.
Shasta at one month old with best friend Charlie.
After a few days, I began picking up Shasta's feet and touching his ears and muzzle. But mostly I just let him be a horse with plenty of room to frolic and run. When I felt Shasta trusted me, I began to put a halter on him and gently run lead ropes across his back and legs. Based on my experience, I don't think there should be any set age to start training. I believe every young horse tells you when it's ready to progress. Many trainers and owners get in a hurry, pushing horses, especially young ones, before they are ready. A natural timeline makes more sense than having one's own agenda for the horse. We allowed Shasta to socialize with other horses and learn to move around in a three-acre pasture. It's not always possible to give a horse this type of life but it's surely something we all should strive for especially in the first year.
We worked on Shasta's feet during the first year and trimmed them. Gradually, we taught him to lead, tie, pony, longe lightly, and do round pen work. Using an electric clipper we shaved a path for the bridle. We also gave him occasional baths to get him accustomed to the hose and water. We introduced every new experience in a positive manner, never putting him in a position to be traumatized.
I believe in teaching horses well so that anyone can handle them. I never reward them by hand-feeding. Instead, I use affection, common sense, and forethought to make each experience a positive one. To this day, Shasta has never refused to do anything we asked of him. He's developed a tremendous amount of trust, not just in us, but in other humans as well.
One beautiful summer evening, we went out to see the horses. I was sitting on the fence when Shasta came over and stood parallel to me. I wouldn't recommend doing what I did next, but I was confident I'd be okay. I draped my leg over Shasta's back, and he didn't move. Then I slowly got on his back, ready to bail back onto the fence if necessary. He stood perfectly still and reached around to sniff my leg. I clucked him forward a little bit, and he walked on quietly. That was the first time I ever mounted him, and he has never tried to get me off his back since.
Horses are born with genetic traits, bone structure and conformation. It is our responsibility to nurture and develop their strengths. It's unfair to ask them to do things on a daily basis that they are not physically or mentally capable of doing. This is especially true on the competitive level.
I know that we are fortunate to have a horse like Shasta, but I believe that, given a chance, every horse has the potential to be like him. Perhaps the emotion surrounding his birth made us more open and sensitive to him, but we listened to his communication more readily than we had with other horses. Through this communication, Shasta has made me a better trainer and instructor.
I try to get to know each horse I train and let them know me. I spend hours on the ground under the halter or in their pen with no halter. Just because a person purchases an older, trained horse doesn't mean that they know you or vice versa. When you spend quiet, unhurried time with them, they will start to tell you who they are. Make sure you listen to what they want to communicate to you.
Jennifer Humphrey is a trainer, instructor and co-owner of Horses First in Medanales, NM (505-685-4095).
If you talk with the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears one destroys. - Chief Dan George
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