Madrid, an Andalusian stallion, was passionately afraid of a dressage whip; no one could get near him with the whip without him freaking out. He would run backward, spinning, absolutely out of control. Many who knew him believed that he had been chased with the whip by his former guardians.
It was important for me to break each step down into bite size chunks. This way I would be able to come to an educated conclusion as to Madrid’s cause of fear.
1. APPROACH, STROKE, RETREAT
We began with simple stroking, my hand on the shoulder, neck or head and subsequently walking away, thereby reinforcing his appropriate behavior of standing quietly. With each approach I changed my speed, mannerism, angle of approach and body language, at all times remaining calm.
2. RELEASE AND REWARD
The next step included taking the whip with me, stroking him on the shoulder and praising him through the release of walking away, all the while using a soothing voice. I opted to use food as a reward as well, a technique I use only in certain circumstances. The bucket of carrots was left on the outside of the round pen so that Madrid would not associate me as the carrot dispenser. Each time I walked away from him with the whip in hand I returned just moments later with a bucket of carrots. He was allowed to dip his nose into the bucket and choose a carrot. Within a short time, Madrid began to realize that he was in full control of this whip and could direct it at all times by simply remaining still.
3. REINFORCE “YOU’RE SAFE”
We “raised the bar” to include tack, a mounting block and a rider, continuously reminding him that he would not be harmed, but instead would be able to exchange his past experiences with positive memories. As I approached with the whip, Madrid stood like a rock as I passed the whip to his rider. Immediately I took the whip back and walked away. We gave him time and space to process the last request before we began to repeat the exercise on both sides of his body without any adverse reactions.
4. REMAIN FOCUSED AND POSITIVE
I suggested the rider stay very focused and clear with her requests, not allowing for any preconceived ideas so that the messages and pictures she had in her mind would represent the outcome she desired. We continued to praise all of Madrid’s efforts through petting his neck, soothing words, walking away and the occasional mouthful of carrots to reinforce our message. The whip was now a source of good feelings and an indication of something positive to come.
5. CHANGE IT UP
It dawned on me that Madrid was not frightened of the whip, but was indeed frightened of the moment it appeared, the timing of the introduction to the whip. I learned the whip had been introduced when Madrid had tried to comprehend a request but was not processing it correctly. Our rider intended to utilize the whip for clarity of an aid, yet Madrid thought it would be presented as punishment. I suggested to my client that she introduce the whip earlier in her future lessons while Madrid was still in a relaxed state and before any signs of confusion. That way he would learn that the whip was indeed an aid and not a form of punishment; he would come to understand the proper use of the whip.
In the whole time his person had known Madrid, she had not been able to pick up a whip without an adverse reaction. In only one short lesson, Madrid’s association with the whip was transformed. He was accepting both the handler and the whip as he digested the information presented to him. I have no doubt Madrid will make it to the next dressage level and look forward to seeing him in the show ring.
Anna Twinney is a Natural Horsemanship Trainer, certified animal communicator and Reiki Master. She is the only person ever to be entrusted with the title of Head Instructor at the Monty Roberts International Learning Center in California. Anna gentled mustangs for 2 years before becoming the founder of the Reach Out to Horses® program. She conducts classes and clinics, has been featured on TV, and writes for equine magazines. Her DVD series “Reach Out to Natural Horsemanship” was launched on Nicker Network in January 2008. Visit www.reachouttohorses.com