This is how Donia, a 4-year-old warmblood filly, came out of her paddock one day. To most people, such behavior is intimidating to say the least, and should be punished. But let’s take a look at how her trainer, Sarah Sheehy, handles the issue. To begin with, Sarah is not viewing this behavior as inherently “bad.” Dangerous? It certainly could be. Needing adjustment? Absolutely. But by not pre-judging Donia’s actions in a punitive way, Sarah is free to think tactically rather than reproachfully or vengefully.
As you continue to observe the filly, watch Sarah’s position and demeanor. It takes a lot of patience in order to resolve this kind of build-up in a horse without penalizing and adding more tension to the situation. As the filly rears, Sarah holds her ground and swings the end of the rope, sending Donia to the left. Sarah then takes a step forward and extends her left arm toward Donia as the filly tries to cut in too close (right photo). Without words, Sarah is making it very clear to Donia to move back and out of the way.
Donia complies, but lets Sarah know what she thinks by bolting off and showing her prowess. Sarah, however, remains calm, and doesn’t become involved in Donia’s emotional outbursts. Instead she simply holds her ground. When Donia runs out to the end of the line, the pressure causes her to turn, creating a circle around Sarah. This is one of the best and safest ways to deal with all that energy and power. The horse gets to work out their issues in a way that’s natural to them: by moving forward, but the handler actually remains in control by holding their ground in the middle of the circle and directing where the horse goes: forward in a direction.
As Donia continues to act out, Sarah remains patiently and calmly in position at the center of the circle, or at “the eye of the storm.” Note the rope placed around her right hip with her right hand. Our legs and our core are much stronger than our arms. When the filly runs into the line, it will pull hard, creating a lot of pressure, but by pressing the rope into her hip, Sarah holds her ground and ensures the filly doesn’t snatch the rope out of her hands. If the filly were moving to the right, Sarah would have the rope on her left hip with her left hand. (We expect the horse to be evenly strong, supple and balanced on each side; so should we be).
Once again you can see Donia (left) lean in toward Sarah with her inside shoulder, trying to get the upper hand by moving Sarah off her ground. Instead of backing away, Sarah moves calmly but determinedly toward Donia, sending the clear message that she is not going to cede her spot, but that Donia is to respect her position.
In response (right), you can see Donia moving out away from Sarah. Her shoulder is now bulging toward the outside of the circle. But staying true to a young horse’s desire to take over (typical teenager 😉 ), you can see her exaggerate the move by now pulling away from Sarah and creating quite a lot of tension on the line. Sarah is ready, however. The rope is neatly tucked behind her right hip, giving her the strength she
Horses have a lot of energy and strength. A young horse adds exuberance to that power. Knowing how to let them learn to channel that energy is key. As this filly continues to cavort, Sarah perseveres and keeps Donia moving in the direction she has initiated. Although the filly continues to buck (below)
she is now light on the line. Sarah will not try to stop her from acting out, but through continued movement forward, the filly will learn how to work through her emotions and come to terms with her handler. This is very different than longeing our horse ragged in order to make them safe enough to be handled or ridden. At the end of this session, we want Donia to maintain her sense of
Why is the fact that there is no more tension on the line significant? Look at the next photo below. Something has changed. Can you see it? Donia is still acting out but her body is no longer tightly coiled. She is reaching more forward out of this little buck, elongating her muscles and slowing down.
Her tail is not in as much of a kink, but flowing more out behind her, and her ears are not as tense and pressed back. Sarah will keep Donia moving as she relaxes so that she can practice that feeling inside herself until it is a familiar way of being.
It’s important that Donia learn how to let go of the tension she carried a moment ago. Horses would rather feel good inside, just like us, but sometimes they don’t know how,
just like us. We want to help them learn the feeling of “letting go” until it’s second nature and they can relax from the inside. We want them to maintain their composure because they feel at ease inside their own skin, not only because we told them to “behave” or “stay in control.”
Sarah allows Donia to walk (below), but insures that she keeps walking with energy until her emotional attitude is as soft and pliable as her physical demeanor. This is what we want Donia to remember the next time
Stopping is great after Donia has cooled down and been willing to go along with her handler. It is key that we have allowed her to finish with a bright expression rather than that dull look of defeat so often seen in horses who are shut down in order to survive their world emotionally. Awwww… Who would have known this was the same filly we saw a moment ago? 😀
All photos in this post were taken by Iga Opanowicz! Thank you, Iga!