Special Needs Horses

Before Sunshine, it never occurred to me that horses might have IQ’s that vary as wildly as they do in people.  Some horses use their free time to paw out the theory of relativity in their shavings and exchange beta wave conversations with Steven Hawking about string theory.  Others are, well,  a bit…challenged.  Who knew?

Right.  Thanks.  You can all put your hands down now.

I love Sunshine the way you love your own kid.  In a kind of illogical throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-train sort of way.  He doesn’t look real.  Sunshine is elegant, tall, a bright white ‘gray’; he looks like he stepped out of a sappy kids movie about Unicorns.  He moves like a ballet dancer.  He’s kind, sweet, forgiving, honest.  As straightforward as they come.  Trained to 4th level.  All buttons installed and all wires live.

So why wasn’t he being ridden?  Granted, Katherine had 8 horses in training, and 3 of her own (including Sunshine) to ride, plus lessons to give.  Not a lot of free time.  Occasionally I wondered why she didn’t use him as an upper level lesson horse.  She must have seen me looking at him.

Hesitantly, she suggested I try Sunshine for one supervised ride.  I assumed the hesitation was: “Is Jane going to ruin my horse?”.

Then I rode him.

The first 15 minutes on a new horse is always tricky, with horse and rider trying to figure each other out.  On Sunshine, for me, it was the equivalent of working out algorithms…alone.  He was…blindly happy.  Willing.  Listening.  Processing.  Yup, processing.  Processing….processing.

There was the glitch.  He had an unusually long lag time in processing the aids.  Fine.  We can work with that.  Ask him for a transition 3 strides before you need it, and don’t repeat the cues.

The fact that I noticed this, and figured out Sunshine wasn’t reluctant or disobedient, but had a processing glitch, surprised and pleased Katherine.

(Why do I constantly surprise my trainers?  This does not strike me as a good thing.  They totally don’t expect me to get stuff.)

Ride him, she said.  You’ll learn a lot.  I’m booked, he needs it, you’d be doing me a favor. Uh, not hardly.

But I jumped at the chance.  I rode him for 6 or 7 years, 5 days a week, along with whoever else I picked up.  Sunshine: heart of gold, completely incapable of being dishonest, wants you to go with him if he gets scared (he doesn’t like to be alone when he spooks), throws himself into whatever you ask and tries to give you exactly what you ask for.  You’d think he’d be an easy ride.

He was the most difficult ride I’ve ever had.

He gave me exactly what I asked for.

This was the You will learn a lot part.

One day (I feel really bad about this) we were cooling out after a very successful workout and I got into a conversation with a friend on the ground.  I twisted slightly in the saddle so she could hear me, inadvertently giving Sunshine the aids to walk head-on into the rail.  He never questioned me.  Any other horse would have said to himself  “white noise” and totally ignored me.

As I gently sponged the blood off his nose, Sunshine looked at me with shock and disbelief: why did you hurt me?  Why did you ask me to walk into the rail?  I don’t understand.  You like me.  I’m confused.

I cried.

That was the moment I understood, really understood, who Sunshine was.  He carried out his duties cheerfully and willingly, to the letter. He was incapable of making distinctions based on anticipation.  I couldn’t assume he would recognize the start of an aid sequence and complete it himself…everything had to be orderly and in perfect sequence.  You want a round canter with a jump, you can’t ask for it once and assume he’s got it.  Flatter than a pancake next stride out.

I gained a deeper understanding of the maxim “ride every stride”.  I also realized how bad my focus was.  I was constantly dropping some little thing here or there.  I was used to communicating in a kind of shorthand with other horses.  The concept of shorthand was unfathomable to Sunshine.  It was the rider’s job to hold him together.  Every second.

He’s retired now.  I cherish the very humbling and sometimes physically painful lessons I learned from him.  He was one of my finest teachers, and I still adore him.

Sunshine was at the extreme end of the spectrum for me. What is your experience with special needs horses?  Have you run into any?

21 thoughts on “Special Needs Horses

  1. My Trakehner, Kroni, was one of those horses that provided a mirror of your riding because he only went well if you rode him correctly. It wasn’t because he was mentally challenged. Quite the opposite. He would pretend he didn’t know what you were asking unless you asked him exactly the right way. And yes, you needed to ask, not tell. However, sometimes this was an advantage. I used to let my husband (a non rider) trail ride with me in Vermont. I knew absolutely that no matter what my husband inadvertently “told” him to do, that Kroni would completely ignore his beginner rider and keep him safe. Even when my husband dismounted, caught his foot in the stirrup and fell (pulling the saddle under Kroni’s belly) under him, Kroni patently ignored the episode and stood like a statue. I can forgive all those dressage lessons where he showed up every flaw in my riding for those moments when he showed why he was smarter than we were.

    1. Kroni sounds like a wonderful teacher. This is a great description of an extremely smart horse and how he used his smarts. A saint to stand there with patience during the foot-in-the-stirrup dismount. Though I suspect he was inwardly rolling his eyes? A real treasure.

  2. speaking of special needs…I posted a response to this entry somewhere in your blog. Somewhere is the wrong place. Forgive me please as I’m working on diminished capacity! My fingers, eyes and brain are on different wavelengths today.

    1. I can relate. Like “me too” comments, I have no problem with responses being on different posts. Makes it interesting! Been there, done that.

      *hands you chocolate for wave length coordination*

  3. All of your comments have been amazing…made me think…given me new ideas. Thank you for your contributions! I’m sure others will come through and find your thoughtful words useful as well. 🙂

  4. Interesting post!

    I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a horse that was quite like the one you’ve described. My horse now is opinionated enough that if I inadvertently asked him to walk into a fence, he’d turn around and give me the “are you serious?” eye. He does do that on occasion.

    Our older (upper level dressage trained) mare who is now retired from riding was very sensitive to weight aids but also a bit opinionated – sort of “you told me to do x but I think you really meant do y but possibly aren’t refined enough to ask correctly, so that’s what I’m going to do.” Usually she was right!

    The QH is much more say/do but very laid back, so he will occasionally give the quizzical response to a vague or nonsensical request.

    1. I love your description of your older mare: her sorting out and repeating back to you what she thinks and then does what she believes is correct.

      Her reaction is similar to what I’m (mostly) used to, and why Sunshine was such a huge surprise. So interesting to read about other people’s horse communication experience. Thanks for sharing them!

      1. An even more interesting tidbit about this mare – she came from Germany and has one eye and arthritic knees (she’s now 26 years old) and she is incredibly gifted at mirroring what’s going on in her rider/handler. If you’re willing to listen to her, you learn a lot about riding/handling horses, but also about yourself. She just seems to force the development of insight.

        But the tidbit – I have become obsessed with tracking down horses closely related to my primary riding horse Keil Bay, and to Salina, this older mare. Recently I actually found Salina’s daughter, who was stunning in the videos and was for sale. I instantly emailed to see if she was still available.

        Turns out she had sold the previous week, but in describing Salina to the trainer who had brokered the daughter’s sale, she got intrigued and forwarded my email to the daughter’s owner, who had actually done the early training. She said she’d never been able to accurately describe the “conversation” Salina’s daughter had/has with her riders, but felt I had captured the essence of it in describing Salina. We were both really enthused by the thought that such a marvelous trait had passed from dam to daughter. Later the new owner emailed me too, promising to give Salina’s very gifted daughter a wonderful home.

        I have said to Salina many times that I would have dearly loved to be able to ride her when she was young and with healthy knees. Even now when she moves out, you see the power and the brilliance there.

        1. Now how cool is that!? Wonderful to talk to someone who ‘gets’ exactly what you’re describing, and exciting to hear about Salina’s daughter.

          They are all so unique in what they offer us!

  5. My very own beastie is one of those.

    He is very acutely aware that he is NOT an alpha horse. And he takes his beta role very seriously. He will not do anything unless another being tells him it is ok. If allowed to make any sort of self governing decision, he panics.

    You need to ride him every single footfall. You need to tell him how high or low his head should be. You need to tell him at what angle to turn.

    He is so frustrating to ride. But at the same time, he’s like Sunshine…a great gift. Because of him, and our many many many frustrating rides, I’ve learned to RIDE. Not sit and look pretty, but be an active communicator.

    Although I guess I’m more of a benevolent dictator since I make EVERY DECISION.

    Nice post. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy thinking about the differing personalities of the horses I’ve ridden.

    1. Sooooo familiar. Can totally see The Benevolent Dictator, and understand the panic factor if left to his own government.

      For him this is alpha/beta role issues? (Not a low IQ thing)

      Interesting how different reasons can give you the same end result when you’re on board. I”m thinking you probably have to ride him with a bit more finesse if he’s smart, but a follower?

      Sunshine asked almost no questions. I’m guessing a beta horse at his level would be ride every footfall, but be able to defend your decisions if asked. Is that right? This is all so interesting to me!

  6. What a wonderful experience to be able to ride a horse like that. I don’t think I ever rode a horse with a particularly low IQ – I’m not sure I would have known if I were. The horses I rode who had problems I knew about were inflicted problems, emotional problems or physical problems.

    I guess that would be a special need, of a sort. Jumanah had only one eye, but was a talented jumper, and higher level dressage horse, but the blind side…just needed more presence without an actual cue – a delicate balance.

    Thoraya had been ridden only with body balance cues, and any leg meant ‘go really fast’, and she and I slowly worked out that leg can mean many things, including ‘go really fast’. That was more of a training thing, though.

    Well, and there was Kemo – distrustful, in pain, smarmy, again, not his natural state.

    Anyway, great post, has made me rethink my horses and the horses I was priveledged to ride.

    1. Sunshine was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity horse, to get to form a strong bond, and ride him for so many years was a huge gift from Katherine that I will always be grateful for.

      Thankfully, she raised and trained him, so there were never any abuse or conflicting training issues. I don’t think his mind would have stayed intact.

      I think you hit the nail on the head describing so accurately the other kind of special needs: problems that are inflicted, emotional, or physical.

      Jumanah sounds like a horse you’d have to be completely solid with: I love your description “needed more presence without an actual cue” and think that concept could be so…soft and kind…on other horses. I’ll be trying that one! Thanks.

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