Kjartan Mustered Up
by Allison Brunelli
written for SNHSA Newsletter July 1
On the morning of Kjartan’s first trailer loading lesson he waffled. Perhaps you’ve seen it in your own young horse. It manifests as fear on the verge of panic. Only Kjartan didn’t waffle for long.
Minutes later, after some friendly, calm and well-timed handling by hunter jumper trainer Ashlin Bowen, Kjartan gathered himself up and showed some courage. We watched his body language as he slowly made the effort. One minute he was standing at the base of the ramp. The next he was stretching his left leg out and lightly placing his hoof on the ramp. I noticed how close he placed it to Ashlin’s boot, as if he was asking her to hold his hand.
“What is he doing?” I asked.
“A lot of horses put their feet where ours are,” she said chuckling. “I think it’s because they think it must be safer.”
Kjartan lowered his nose and sniffed the ramp. He sniffed the ramp; he sniffed her riding boot; he sniffed the scent left by my other horse the last time he loaded. Things were getting fascinating. Kjartan was investigating in a way that appeared to be going in the right direction.
Before the lesson, I told everyone I really needed Kjartan to learn how to get into my trailer. However, now that the lesson has long ended and it is time to write about it, I can say that this experience had only a little to do with familiarizing Kjartan with this particular trailer. This lesson with Ashlin was an opportunity to help a young horse capture that priceless feeling of confidence. All great horse people see it this way; the way your horse feels about you and how much confidence you build in him that will help him get into any unfamiliar space like the unpredictability of a new bridle path, the adoration of erratic little kids, a dim arena, a hustling vet clinic, a small box stall or a pond reflecting the sparkling rays of the sun.
Shortly after Kjartan lowered his nose to the ramp, Ashlin giggled. “Now he’s mustering up his courage,” she said.
Let’s revisit the ten ways in which Ashlin used her strengths as a person and the strengths of her relationship with Kjartan to build Kjartan’s confidence enough to stop fishtailing and put his foot on the ramp:
1 When he began fishtailing, she slowed his feet down to help him think. Then she guided them to the ramp. She explained that horses can do their best when they are at least thinking and not panicking. Only then can they connect with the grounding qualities of their handler.
2 She befriended him authentically by “seeing” him and placing her needs aside in order to place one hundred percent attention on him.
3 She gave him the time he needed to gather himself.
4 She talked to him kindly and soothed him.
5 She pet him and let him feel the comfort of touch.
6 She giggled and let him know that the learning experience is intended to be fun and joyful.
7 She left her foot where it was when he put his right next to it. This was the equivalent of letting him hold her hand.
8 She explained to him that she was not the problem, she was part of the solution.
9 She let him use her confidence to build up a morsel of his own.
10 She let him be curious. Allowing him curiosity was like allowing him the chance to relax and take a deep breath. Allowing curiosity is allowing confidence to grow naturally. It is the opposite of smothering, controlling, hitting, forcing, telling, yelling and insisting on compliance.
In short, Ashlin gave Kjartan calm, patient, relationship-based support. It worked and continued to work. Only a few minutes after Kjartan put his foot on the ramp, he followed Ashlin up the ramp, through the door and generously hung out with her in the trailer until she carefully led him down. I had a chance to walk him in and out and hang out, too!
Confidence-building with your horse also builds a strong, trusting, joyful relationship between you and your horse. Confidence is the foundation to breakthroughs in ground manners, work-in-hand, lunging, riding and liberty work. The reason I want to focus on building confidence in Kjartan is because the opposite of it — anxiety — will destroy him like it did Contigo.
Contigo is my eighteen year old hanoverian who was diagnosed with Kissing Spines in January 2016. Kissing Spines is caused by incorrect (tense, forced, traveling hollow) training and ill-fitting saddles. Due to the pain he felt, he became fractious for many years before he became unrideable. He lacked the confidence he needed that should have come through comfort, relaxation, correct development over his back and trust-based relationships. I’ve been infusing all of Contigo’s current classical foundation training and rehabilitation (traveling relaxed and round) with confidence building techniques. Finally he enjoys the healthy, supple, happy life I always wanted for him.
Many years ago, Contigo fishtailed at the base of the very same ramp I stared at on the morning of Kjartan’s lesson. It had occurred in the early hours of the morning, when the sky was still pitch black, and everything in and around the trailer was dark. I had hired someone, let’s call that person Pat, to help me trailer him for a vet appointment. I’m always astonished by how clearly I remember this moment. Perhaps that’s because of the guttural noise Contigo made when Pat suddenly swung an arm around and backhanded him on his gut to punish him for fishtailing. Or, perhaps that’s because of the unsettling noise made by his metal shoes hitting the edge of the ramp and then the sight of him folding over at his knees but somehow raising himself back up to desperately scramble in. Or, maybe it was the whites of his eyes, fraught with fear, that suddenly showed in the dark. On that very early morning, when even I could see how it might be frightening to load in the dark, I saw a horse’s spirit dampen and become more frightened of a human than the dark hole inside that trailer. In just this one instance my horse was left with two fears instead of none.
Now, years later, Ashlin gave my new horse Kjartan the support he needed, identifying it as “mustering up his courage.” I realized, while watching her, that she was a huge incentive to his mustering. I reflected upon my studies in Confidence-building for horses and humans which I receive not only from Kjartan’s lessons with Ashlin but from another non-local coach. And I emerged from the experience feeling incredibly grateful Kjartan is getting the best possible support.
In my next article I will write about Kjartan’s lesson in hard-tying and closing Kjartan in my trailer for a drive around the property. For those of you interested in Confidence-building for humans and horses, contact Ashlin Bowen at Franktown or Leah Taylor, founder of Clever Riding, on Facebook.