I love this picture of Murray, but not just because he is adorable(I might be a bit biased). I like this photo because it says so much about how far he has come in the past two years. This is not just Murray’s story, many horses who start with positive reinforcement(R+) training, change in amazing and intrinsic ways. It is the changes that I witness in their free time that tell me the most about a horses overall mental wellness. Murray, is a classic example and I have had the privilege of watching his metamorphosis. He was a horse who was afraid of most everything in his world.
Murray did not trust people, other horses or animals. I could see this clearly in him and set out to help his confidence grow by utilizing R+ training. My goal was always his emotional state, but I can’t just sit there and wait until he is happy! I would most likely just add to his current frustration. Instead, I utilized teaching him some behaviors in order to begin to change him from the inside out. I am constantly telling my students that teaching an animal to do behaviors is rather easy, it is getting the attitude right that is the hard part…and the most crucial part.
Murray was heavy on attitude, but not the right kind of attitude. I knew I had my work cut out for me but I also knew that I could vastly improve his quality of life. At the start of our journey, his reaction to outside stimulus was to freeze and stare with big eyes and pinched lids. His reaction to people and animals was to kick first and ask questions later. I couldn’t touch his belly or take his temperature without him kicking out at me. Putting a blanket on him could be a bit hair raising. He fussed when I tried to get a halter on him, it went on and on. So I set out to classically condition his entire world. He was an unhappy horse and we had a long way to go.
In the beginning I wanted him to spend time with other horses. I hoped this would bring some balance back into his life. I tried turning Murray out with Minty, who couldn’t be more easy going, yet he does like to play. Murray would just stand and was clearly afraid to move when he was in the arena with him. Once he learned it was safe to move, he turned into that horse who was antagonistic. He was what many people would refer to as “dominate” or the “leader”. But the truth is that he was being a bully. Most everyone knows that the bully is actually rather insecure and this held true for Murray. This was an improvement from the horse who would freeze, but still it showed that he wasn’t really emotionally balanced. Meanwhile, he started to react to outside stimulus with an actual startle, not just freezing. I knew that this was also progress. He had learned to open up but he was still very defensive and suspicious of most things.
I ended up not letting Murray be turned out with other horses during this phase. It was not good for him or the other horse. The good news is that he continued to build trust in all areas of his life. As I began to see the internal changes that were happening, I once again started introducing him to other horses for supervised turn out. Like most Thoroughbred’s he has a lot of energy but it was different now. He was playful, not defensive. During this m time I made an observation, I realized that I had never saw him roll when he was in turn out whether he was by himself or with another horse, in fact, I’d never seen him lay down. He also wouldn’t really let other horses roll in peace, he still had to bother them about this behavior. Eventually, he began to roll but only when he was by himself. Next he started to let other horses roll and pretty soon he began to roll himself. This was a huge and obvious change in his confidence and level of comfort. Most anyone who can recognize a horse’s facial expressions could see how much his expression has changed. All of this tells me so much about his overall mental state, which ia more balanced and healthy. Now he gets to spent his nights out with other horses. They eat and sleep together on the track paddock. Back to the photo, to see him laying down in the middle of the day?!?! That is huge for him! The more he learns the better he gets. While we still have a lot to do, he clearly feels much more secure and trusts that the world is a safe place after all.