Jay merits mention in both our Turning Challenging Horses and
Don’t Get Thrown Starting Horses Under Saddle books because
she was a dual challenge that came to Halcyon Acres for initial
starting (which wasn’t completed) and then back to fix her
subsequent, learned talent for unloading riders at another farm
that tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to take her on.
We were making good headway with this difficult Thoroughbred
filly during her first stay at the farm, having gotten to the
point where she was accepting a rider on her back and handling
some basic leg, seat, and hand commands at the walk indoors,
but were far from finished when the owner made a decision to
stop for reasons that were not related to training efforts. Jay left,
but the owners were given a dire warning concerning future
handling and an advisory to keep others off her back until she
returned for finishing.
She came back all right, but it wasn’t until after another tried
to “start” where we left off and managed, in the process, to reinforce
her penchant for winning — effectively launching and
terrorizing anyone who dared hop on her back. Taking her back
was a tough call. One of the things we had avoided in early
training was giving this filly any reason or opportunity to use
her athleticism to unload a rider. She didn’t during the time she
spent at the farm, but it required very careful and observant
handling. We knew, if she learned how to use her extraordinary
ability and determination to unseat her mount, that even an extremely
able rider would have a tough time sticking with her.
Yet, we also saw the tremendous, albeit latent, talent she possessed
and were convinced if it could be channeled, she would
become an impressive performer. The owner contacted us with
a query on what to do — just about convinced she wasn’t worth
the trouble and ready to log her as a lost cause. With no guarantees,
we persuaded him to try one more time to see if the filly
could be reprogrammed and properly prepared for a racing
When she arrived, we spent some time working with her off
her back in the stall and round pen to try to reestablish some
ground rules. These she accepted pretty readily and easily, having
recalled earlier lessons (a typical trait of Alphas is that they
retain information seemingly forever — good or bad — and it’s
rarely necessary to revisit a successful session).
Once we introduced a rider into the mix, the big problems
began. Reprogramming can go both ways — and in her case,
what she had learned during her absence was extremely detrimental
to the forward progress initially established under saddle.
We decided to start in the stall to limit her movement and
reduce the likelihood of her getting up enough room or speed
to launch her passenger. Yet, she was now accustomed to a routine
that included a triumphant lesson with a swift dump in the
dirt for anyone who straddled her back. She was quickly aggravated
with the new approach that made it tougher to unseat the
rider and immediately began to integrate new tricks. It took her
less than two days, after exhausting her developed arsenal unsuccessfully
and throwing a whole lot of new ideas at the problem,
to learn to rear and flip over backwards. With this development,
it was too dangerous to continue in the stall, and we
moved to the round pen.
Often, with Alphas, it’s best to work with them one-on-one.
We found this an effective early strategy with this filly, so decided
to forgo a handler at her head for the move to outdoor riding.
For about a week, we bellied over her first, watching her eye
closely and dismounting prior to the blow, and then, as she accepted
a rider across her back quietly and willingly, put a leg
over her other side and sat up. During the first few days (these
lessons were anywhere from one to two hours in length), simply
standing and accepting a rider was a sufficient note to end
on. As the week progressed (although the time involved for the
lessons remained lengthy), we added walking and stopping on
cue to the mix. The mere addition of movement added some
athletic explosions to the sessions and, ultimately, we decided
it would be best to try to proceed with a lead pony as a companion
before she learned again that her gyrations and gymnastics
could dislodge her passenger. She had been exposed to
our lead pony, Porky, during her prior stay (albeit without a rider)
and appeared to enjoy the activity, and so it seemed a smart
and safe idea to put to the challenge.