I first met Decadance in January of 2013. I had journeyed north to Ocala from Sarasota with some friends, looking at horses for several different clients. The big black gelding with the white blaze and soulful brown eyes was just coming 4, but had the disposition of a much older horse. Quiet and calm, he was well mannered and polite. Exquisitely proportioned, with long legs and a well muscled top line, he moved like a gymnast with effortlessness and abandon. It was not hard to imagine him competing at Grand Prix one day. He was that horse I had always dreamed of riding; I loved him! However, his age and experience level were inappropriate for any of my buyers, and, regretfully, his price range put him out of range for me. He sold to a lovely couple who recognized his talent, and were enamored of his beauty. They sent him to a well respected trainer who competed him successfully. Life appeared to be going well for Decadance.
I met Decadance again a year later. I was working for his owners, and they moved him back to their facility. He was a pleasure to ride, and a joy to be around. He was everything I remembered and more! But our paths intersected only briefly. As often happens when you do not own the horse, situations change and plans are altered. Even Edward Gal had no control over what happened to his World Champion mount, Totillas! To my dismay, Decadance was sent away again, and I turned my attention to other prospects.
Two owners and eight trainers later, I discover Decadance again for sale and at a price I can afford. I go to see him. He does not have the muscling I remember. He seems subdued. I ride him, and feel him struggle for balance. He seems heavy in my hand. Despite his physical weakness, he tries hard to please. I remember what he was and am hopeful that he can be that again. I understand he will be a project, but I know what he is capable of. I do not want to lose this horse again.
The Tipping Point
At first, things progress fairly smoothly. After passing his pre-purchase exam, Decadance is put back into a light work program, and we focus on building up his strength. Nothing difficult, nothing strenuous, a little lunging and then work under saddle. I am more than pleased with the results. Yet, there are puzzling idiosyncrasies that, with hindsight, are harbingers of misbehaviors and resistances to come.
There are horses that are acutely sensitive to the touch. They require a soft brush and a gentle hand. Decadance is one of them. The slightest pressure on the hip causes him to flinch and quiver. He is super sore in the pelvic and lumbar region, but I understand it takes time to condition and strengthen those muscles. I start a personal work out program and can sympathize. After a particularly grueling lower body workout, I am aware of muscles I didn't even know existed. So, too, must my horse feel as he begins his exercise program.
When I ride him, I feel as if the saddle is slipping off to the left side. He is constantly falling over that left shoulder. I notice that my reins are often several inches shorter on the left if I am not careful. Is it a rider problem? I make a concerted effort to ride evenly into both reins and to stretch my right side longer. It feels crooked, but my horse travels straighter. I am able to keep him more consistently on the line of travel.
Even on the lunge, when asked for transitions, Decadance will toss his head in the air and hollow his back. It's worse with a rider. I make certain I am riding from back to front, and riding him out to the hand. I want him to stretch forward and down into the bridle. He becomes more consistent as he gets stronger. I learn to wait for him to reach for the contact, he will tell me when he ready.
There are days when Decs is less than cooperative. He refuses to enter the arena, or when in the ring, he suddenly exits stage left. I believe he is ring sour and deal with it accordingly. He has to work harder outside of the ring than in, the whole pasture area becomes my arena. Is this a test of my leadership? He is a big athletic horse; I cannot 'make' or force him to do anything. I try to create opportunities for him to make the right choices. It works best if I can go at it sideways and channel his misbehaviors into positive actions deserving of praise and reward.
And then we have the tipping point. I have an amazing ride on Decs with an FEI level trainer. His opinion is, I have done well, but it is time to kick it up a notch, to take it to another level. Consequently I am riding with another seasoned professional who believes I am not asking enough of my horse, who agrees that we need to ask for more. I begin as I always do, at the walk, very systematic and symmetrical. What I do to one side, I do to the other. Decs and I both find solace in this structure. However, against my better judgment, I am rushed through my warm up. We begin to trot a bit prematurely, and Decs explodes, leaping out of the arena, then freezing, refusing to move forward. I am confused and a bit frightened, Decs has never been this obstinate before. I am told to dismount, and hand over my horse to the other trainer . This trainer gets on, and the misbehaviors continue to escalate. The trainer is not harsh, but insistent; Decs tries a litany of evasions. After bolting, backing, spinning, kicking, Decs at last submits into acquiescence. I am told, I need to demand obedience from my horse, he cannot be allowed to behave in this manner! I may not have caused the problem, but I need to fix it, and the sooner the better!
I agree about the behavior, but secretly wonder, did I cause this? Did I push my horse too far too soon, and violate the trust not yet firmly established? The instructions are valid, but the methods very masculine and assertive. I'm a very petite woman on a 17h horse, am I capable of doing this, of muscling my horse into submission? I doubt my ability, the odds are not in my favor.
Can willingness be forced? Absolutely not, and I want to create a more harmonious picture. And, I question why? Why the unwillingness? Why the lack of cooperation? To me, while they are problems, they are not THE problem. The unwillingness and lack of cooperation are symptoms, pointing to a larger underlying issue.
If a horse says, 'no', it is for one of three reasons. He can't, he won't, or he simply does not understand.
If a horse refuses to do what is asked of him, there is often an underlying physical issue that makes performing the task uncomfortable or impossible. I know Decs lacks the muscle tone I would expect of a horse in regular work. I pay close attention when I work him from the ground. When trotting, I note his left hip seems to drop and he swings wide with the left hind. It improves as he warms up. Often when asked for transitions, he will slip out with his right hind, when this happens, he flips his head, or bucks and bolts. I remember back to our second meeting, over a year ago. Just before he was sent away again, he pulled his right hind shoe and the clip became buried deep in the sole. Could that have been the origin of this issue? Did he learn to compensate for that injury and began to use himself incorrectly? An injury or imbalance in one area can lead to other issues. Your back hurts, you favor it, and put more stress on your knees. In time, you forget which was the original problem.
I also know he was worked in advanced collection at an age when he was not yet developed enough for that degree of weight bearing and engagement. Could training methods and procedures be a part of the equation? He certainly seems less than accepting of contact and connection. Again, did he use himself in a manner that did not allow him to develop muscle correctly? Instead of rounding his top line, did he put stress on the hip? Is it the stifle? I'm sure he has ulcers, are they the cause or the effect? The prepurchase exam found nothing of concern, but I'm not sure. I decide to enlist the help of my good friend, Dr. Wendy Ying, DVM, a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine.
The challenge will be to make absolutely certain Decadance is capable of comfortably performing the work being asked of him. If only he could speak! Nutritional and pharmaceutical support, combined with chiropractic work and acupuncture, will help support his rehabilitation and recovery. It is essential that he receives the benefit of the doubt. Because, without a doubt, a portion of this is learned behavior. At one time, if not now, it did hurt. Perhaps he tried to communicate, and his pleas were ignored? He was pushed through the pain, and he complied, until that critical breaking point. Flight or fight were his options, and they were ultimately successful.
The physical "I can't" and the behavioral "I won't" are closely entwined. Pain, or the anticipation thereof, creates a conditioned response. Decadance couldn't work, so he wouldn't work, and thus, an unwilling horse is born. Breaking that cycle is never easy. It requires a great deal of patience, time and trust. I had started to make progress, and got greedy. I accept full responsibility. And so we came to the tipping point. Poor Decadance, my apologies, you must have thought, "Oh no, not again!"
I have to start back at the beginning, and try to earn his trust again. Lots of groundwork, and being with him, watching, listening and learning. I must be clear and consistent with my aiding, making sure he understands what is being asked of him. I need to minimize the risk of misinterpretation; I need to set him up for success. I need to take one small step at a time, rewarding infinitesimal progress. I cannot make anything happen; I need to allow it to happen. I need to practice passive persistence. I must not get frustrated or impatient, but take a deep breath and wait him out. When resistance is not met with resistance but redirected, he will eventually come around and meet me partway.
I cannot overwork him; I need to give him plenty of time for rest and recovery. Time off is as important as time on. I can use that time to engage him mentally as well as physically. Together we can do this, but it's going to be a very long road to recovery. The physical will heal faster than the mental, and I cannot push this.
How long does it take to get to the heart of a horse? How many steps does it take to achieve willingness? I am taking the long road, no short cuts, and, as with any journey undertaken, I focus on today's progress and take it one day, one small step, one hoof print at a time.