From Spooky Horse to Soulmate

I believe that if we are open for it, every horse will take us on a journey. My journey with Nazir might well be the most important of my life, even though it might not look like that from the outside. It’s a journey of self-discovery and it’s difficult to measure in “outwards” results.

I bought Nazir as a six years old, “bomb proof” school horse. He seemed a sensible choice as a first horse: Already ridden, safe to ride in the forest. Not very good dressage skills but I was confident to be able to improve that. There was a slight lameness, but only sometimes, and the previous owners said it’s nothing, just some stiffness. In the following months however, as Nazir didn’t have such an enormous work load anymore, gained weight and got a mineral balancer for the first time in his life, he started to “wake up”, what I now know to be coming out of a learned helplessness. 

Some “issues” where there from the beginning: not giving hooves, not being able to stand still when being brushed, bad leading skills, skirmish when saddling and getting on. He also started spooking a lot and showed separation anxiety. Back then, I didn’t know that all my alarm bells should be ringing and that I should start with him from the very beginning, like I would with a green horse. Instead, I just went on riding. After some time, the spooking got so severe that I started looking for solutions. My idea was to find exercises to do with a spooky horse, or to get advice on how to behave during or after a spook, and that this would solve the problem. 

While the slight lameness had disappeared after I had bought Nazir and I already didn’t think of it much anymore, he suddenly got back issues. The vet discovered chips in his right stifle joint and Nazir had two operations to remove them. I learned that the cartilage damage was beyond repair and that he would always have issues with this joint. Nazir was only 8 years old then.

The operations forced me to take a break from the training. I still spend some hours every day with Nazir and I started to understand him a lot better. I bought books on language signals of horses and studied equine behaviour. It became clear that Nazir had many issues from his past and that I was not knowledgeable enough yet to solve them. I did what I could to keep him happy but didn’t train much with him in the following years, because he just wasn’t enjoying it. 

I often got the advice to just put him on a field somewhere and let him be. Or sell him as a “buddy horse”. Somehow, I could not bring myself to do it. I believe horses come into our life for a reason and I knew I just wasn’t ready to learn that lesson yet.

So the years went by. 

By now, I finally have more skills and knowledge to understand Nazir. He has a lot of baggage from the way he has been started as a young horse and there is so much tension in a lot of things. We are unpacking this package slowly now and it’s one of the most gratifying things I have done with horses until now.

This is what a normal attempt to train Nazir would look like when I first got him: He would plant his feet when trying to take him from the paddock. Then spook a lot on the way to the stable. When being tied up, he would not stand still, throw over anything in reach, paw the ground. When I tried to brush him, he would walk into me. If that didn’t help and I continued brushing, he would squirm around, trying to walk off, turn, get himself entangled in the rope, panic, pull on the rope. He wouldn’t give hooves. When putting on the saddle, he would try to step on my foot or push me over. He would try to nip when tightening the girth and to walk off during mounting. During riding he would be tense and spook, sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes he would be very calm and then suddenly have such a big and dramatic spook that it unseated me.

Fast forward to yesterday: Nazir and I are training regularly again. A lot has changed but we’re still in the process of releasing stuff. When I go to halter Nazir, I pay attention to his signals and only approach when given the ok. We calmly walk to the arena together. Nazir stands patiently and without being tied lets me brush him and clean his hooves. We do some groundwork together. Nothing spectacular, just bending, basic side movements, a little collection in walk.  He is extremely sensitive, the most sensitive of my horses and can read the slightest movements of my body, my energy and also my thoughts. When I see any tension arise, we stop and wait for it to release again. I check if I gave any conflicting signals. He is very bright and quick to take in information, but sometimes it’s too much information for him and he needs time to process. Then we sometimes stand around for 10 – 20min while he is mentally somewhere else. I know now that he often blocked out people during the training and we are still working on staying present and neither pulling back into his shell nor exploding. He doesn’t bite or nip anymore in the groundwork. We are clear on our space and boundaries. He leads very well and calmly does his basic groundwork. When he has a day on which his leg is bothering him, we just hang out together or eat carrots. 

I don’t show footage of his training because his right hind leg steps a bit shorter due to the joint damage and I don’t need any negative comments on that. The internet is an unforgiving and vicious place sometimes. My time with Nazir is a vulnerable one and I want to keep it private. I’m learning more things each day and it doesn’t stop to amaze me.

As the year draws to a close, I’m reflecting on the passing year and make plans for the new one. For the next year, for the first time, I have no goals with Nazir. We just see where the journey takes us. 

I know that some of my students are on a similar journey right now. What about you? Where does your journey take you? 

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