This weekend at the farm we held a two day Introduction to Team Penning and Ranch Sorting Clinic and I decided why not try this out with my little off the track friend, Sure Prize aka Indy, in between helping out and taking photos for the clinic.
Well… We got about as far as lunging in the arena when the trailer full of cows rolled in and I watched my OTTB go from curious to horrified in a split second.
In that moment he’d made up his mind that clearly the cows in that trailer were here to murder him. Death was imminent and I watched my normally pretty reliable OTTB turn into every awful stereotype there ever was about a big, pushy, hot headed off the track Thoroughbred – totally unaware of anything but what he was focused on and deathly afraid of, doing his best impression of a horse kite with little regard for anything or anyone else.
It was a complete meltdown that left him in a full body sweat. Meanwhile for the first time I started to feel overwhelmed by my usually manageable OTTB.
Which is when I turned to Lisa with that “please help me” kind of look. I handed her the lead line and off she went to work correcting him every time he was disrespectful on the ground or stomped his hind legs in disgust or panic over the nearby cows. Lisa lunged him to regain his focus all while reassuring me that he was “absolutely” going to be ok with the cows eventually.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I believed her.
As Indy continued his meltdown, this time a bit calmer than before, Lisa handed him over to me. So we walked around the arena and I’d occasionally offer to let him stand and see the cows. We’d do that until Indy got frustrated and stomp his back feet, at which point I’d ask him to walk again, try again, until he relaxed a bit. Rinse and repeat.
Managing an obvious meltdown with my usually pretty steady dude isn’t my favorite to begin with but it’s part of the game. I also realized while watching Lisa that it wasn’t magic; it was nothing I couldn’t have handled. I got just as scared as Indy did while Lisa stayed calm and persisted. That persistence paid off despite the added pressure of having to do all of this with an audience.
As I walked Indy out among the other clinic participants, Lisa got the clinic started and Indy’s focus never left the cows. After 15 minutes of walking in circles, he finally calmed down enough to do what we’d been waiting for — to get curious and calm. He put his head over the fence to get a better look at the cows and we called it enough for one day.
Indy sheepishly poked his head out to watch the rest of the horses work the cows for the rest of the day, completely unaware of the chaos he’d caused. Meanwhile I fielded questions like, “Is he always a little nutty?” or “Oh, he’s a Thoroughbred… What got you into them?”
The stereotypical reactions caught me completely off guard. A few people definitely looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. And I just thought to myself, “You know what. YES. He is a Thoroughbred. One off the track just starting his second career. Did he have a phenomenal calm reaction to the cows? NO. Am I going to give up and lump him into a category of belligerent crazy horses? NO! He’s allowed to make whatever choice he wants because I can handle even his worst… and even when I can’t, Lisa can.”
If nothing else, the first day’s clinic experience proved to me one thing: that even in situations where Indy was at his absolute worse, he still showed the ability to learn and overcome it while respecting my space and instructions.
It gave me hope for day 2.
We got up a bit earlier on Sunday and decided to try a little experiment: turn Indy out in a pen with Lisa’s 27-year-old retired cow and barrel horse, Harley… and let Darwin do the work or at least point us in the right direction.
The reality of that scene unfolded something like this: Harley enters pen with cow, Harley ignores cows and rolls. Indy huffs and puffs and totally ignores their existence. Progress. Cow investigates Harley, Harley (super lame) turns around to stomp and swing at the cow. Indy continues in blissful ignorance.
At that point Lisa decided to up the ante by lunging Indy into the cows. And that’s when the lightbulb moment happened. He moved a few cows twice and then an epiphany: He can scare them more than they scared him. In a quick movement Indy lunged at a cow, reaching out to nip it in the bum.
In all of 3 seconds the wild, hot, OTTB was tame as could be chasing and nipping at cows around a pen.
The mountain was summited and all there was left to do was play on top for a minute. We tacked Indy up and Lisa got on him just to make sure he’d handle everything. Before I knew it I was on my boy, yelling at the cows. Video evidence of that encounter available below.
The same horse that yesterday no one (including myself) would have thought could have handled the cows was now in the middle of them. And here I was, yelling at the herd and encouraging Indy with all my might… and there he was. Steady as a rock.
So for Indy’s first ever clinic of any kind, I consider it a smashing success. Because you know what? We both learned a lot this weekend. And that’s all you can search for any time you work with a horse.