Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Call Me Cleo: Case Study

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Assessment of Cleo

Call Me Cleo is a three-year-old gelding at LOPE. He was donated by his breeder after his initial under saddle work revealed that Cleo was not a good candidate for racing. As the trainer at the race training facility noted, Cleo is a big, growing horse — and he runs like a puppy, full of energy but without much efficiency or speed.

As a two-year-old, Cleo had an injury — a serious laceration to a hind leg. His breeder diligently nursed him back to full soundness — which took months and delayed Cleo from being started under saddle. Fully recovered, with no soundness issues, Cleo was officially started under saddle as a three-year-old — but with the giant puppy running style, his racing career ended before it had a chance to begin.

Cleo will be back under saddle soon enough, and the first ride will be boring without any wild displays of worry or excitement — because Eric will have prepared Cleo for a successful, relaxed, and enjoyable ride.

So Cleo came to LOPE with about 45-60 days riding under his belt — he was sound, green, cute, and very intelligent. But he also had some interesting patterns — while Cleo was sweet, he also was insecure and unconfident about the world. And he saw people as either a source of short-term comfort or as obstacles that would yield to his opinions when he was upset.

Many times when a foal or young horse has an injury that requires intense rehab, they will develop an unusual relationship with their human handlers. Because socialization by their mothers and pasture mates is so key at this age, a young horse is a like a big sponge where relationships are concerned. So if they must be handled for careful rehab (which might require lots of soothing behavior by human handlers as well as very close physical contact), young horses might begin to see people purely as treat and comfort dispensers — rather than as leaders.

At the same time, because they are young and by nature less knowledgeable, a young rehab horse is often insecure and uncertain about the world and their place in it. So they can tip easily over into anxiety — while never considering that the human might be a good source of leadership and structure.

Cleo fits this description. He is charming, sweet, and very appealing. People (especially ladies) feel an almost irresistible urge to pet and fuss over him. At the same time, when Cleo gets frustrated or anxious, he will brush aside people if they do anything except sooth or comfort him. Essentially, he has little true respect for the human as a leader — and treats them like favorite (but unequal) peers in the pasture.

If left uncorrected, this type of behavior could lead to a spoiled (and thus dangerous) horse. Spoiled horses crowd people’s space and have no regard for people as leaders. Once a horse learns to crowd a person’s space consistently, the next phase is nipping, kicking, running, or striking at the human.

The good news is that Cleo hasn’t had time to develop this full pattern — plus he was treated with genuine kindness by his breeder. We can’t stress enough how intelligent and sensitive (in a good way) Cleo is — this is a young horse with a huge capacity to learn and to be a good partner for a rider.

Rancho Bayo’s Approach

Call Me CleoThe first priority that Rancho Bayo focused on with Cleo was to reeducate him on the horse-human relationship. No matter how cute his facial expression or how sweet his eyes looked, Cleo was put into immediate “petting detox” — which means that the Rancho Bayo team resisted the powerful temptation to pet and fuss over him for no reason (other than his extreme cuteness).

He then was exposed to lots of ground exercises in which his trainer (Eric of Rancho Bayo) directed Cleo’s feet and asked Cleo to maintain a respectful distance and demeanor. This was often hard for Cleo — as he would initially run to Eric for comfort (almost literally trying to get into his lap) but then react with irritable frustration when Eric would not allow Cleo to crowd his space and kept asking Cleo to continue with the exercise.

The next phase was to increase the distraction level for Cleo — by asking him to still do exercises when he was worried or anxious due to windy days, new horses in the paddock, and so on. Cleo would often react by appearing to soften — but only for a moment — and then immediately trying to leave (either mentally or physically) when it was clear that Eric wasn’t fooled and was continuing to ask for Cleo’s participation in the work.

Eric has been careful to always maintain a calm, quiet tone with Cleo in his presentation. He doesn’t get ruffled if Cleo is evasive or showing signs of irritation (Cleo stamps his feet in frustration like a child when he isn’t getting his way). But Eric also doesn’t stop asking for a specific response until Cleo gives it to him. In that way, Eric allows Cleo to search for the right answer — and rewards him immediately when he finds it.

Eric is changing Cleo’s understanding of the role of people in his life. He is showing Cleo that people can be consistent, clear leaders — and he can rely on them to provide structure. This is what allows a young horse to develop true confidence in himself and in people.

Advanced Exercises

Because Cleo is unusually smart and is very tuned into his surroundings, Eric initially adjusted his approach to include some warm-up activities before beginning his ground work sessions with Cleo. One exercise involves tying Cleo and leaving some slack in the lead rope. Eric then will signal Cleo with a lunge whip (that has a plastic bag at the end of it — so that it can act as a long flag) to move away from him and roll his hindquarters.

This exercise requires very careful and precise timing, to avoid putting too much pressure on the horse or inducing panic. At first Cleo would fling himself to the end of the lead line, lean against it, and try to tune Eric out. But he quickly learned that by rolling his hindquarters, he could yield to the “feel” of the lead rope while also reducing the pressure from the giant lunge whip flag (for Eric would immediately stop moving the flag when Cleo rolled his hindquarters).

Another variation on this exercise requires Cleo to face Eric squarely (without his head tipping to one side or the other — a sign that Cleo is preparing to exit). Once he has done that, the flag pressure disappears immediately.

Both of these exercises are of the “don’t try this at home” category — meaning that they do require a very seasoned and experienced handler to execute them properly. Eric has decades of experience with this type of work — plus works with mustangs regularly — so his timing and technique are finely honed.

When done properly, this exercise allows a horse to work through tension and evasion issues much more quickly — and sets up the horse mentally for the next ground work exercise (which usually is quite short, so as to not overwhelm the horse).

Lariat and Rope Ground Work Sessions

Eric has utilized ropes and lariats in his ground sessions with Cleo. In one exercise, he looped part of his long lead rope around the saddle horn. While he held the end of the lead rope on the ground, he asked Cleo to bend in the direction of the pressure — by matching Cleo’s resistance on the other end (plus four ounces more pressure).

Call Me Cleo

If Eric tried to pull Cleo’s head harder and force the bend, it would be very counter-productive (for both him and Cleo). Instead, he quietly matches Cleo’s resistance (with that small amount extra) — and allows Cleo to search for the answer. It is especially hard for Cleo to bend on his left side – after this exercise, Cleo was able to make a big change and relax deeply. The long rope helps Eric work the exercise at a distance and not crowd Cleo during the process.

The next level of session involves a lariat. During another day, I watched Cleo stay calm and relaxed while Eric tossed a lariat at him — even carrying the rope quietly on his back while still trotting in even, consistent cadence. Eric eventually roped Cleo and did some ground work with just the rope on (no halter at all). Cleo showed great improvement in his softness and willingness to follow Eric’s cues (or “feel”). And for the first time, Cleo was able to stop when asked and then voluntarily yield his hindquarters and bend to follow Eric as he stepped back (without any pressure on the rope at all). This was a huge moment for Cleo — as it shows his trust in Eric as a handler and also demonstrates his sensitivity and potential for lightness one day.

What About Riding?

It can be time-consuming to put in all of these ground work sessions with a horse like Cleo. Many people might wonder why we just don’t saddle him up, mount, and “ride him down” to quietness. We don’t do that because it won’t work as well as Rancho Bayo’s approach. Sure, people might be more impressed by a flashy display of riding an anxious young horse into what appears to be submission. But at the end of the day, we won’t have accomplished anything — Cleo will be more worried, will trust people less, and will ultimately regress. This long, slow, “boring” work is what sets up a horse like Cleo for true success — because it gets at the root of his issues and rebuilds his understanding of the world, of people, and of how his body works.

Cleo will be back under saddle soon enough (in the next few weeks). And the first ride will be boring without any wild displays of worry or excitement — because Eric will have prepared Cleo for a successful, relaxed, and enjoyable ride.

That is what impresses us at LOPE.

More Details About Cleo

Cleo is available for adoption now at LOPE. He would be a terrific project for someone who enjoys working with young horses and bringing them along slowly. Because of his intelligence and athleticism, Cleo will be a fantastic partner one day for a handler willing to be patient and gain his trust.

Austin Equine Hospital Schleese
Paddock Foundation American Association of Equine Technicians and Assistants Sam Houston Race Park
Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance The Ranch Broker Moose Pants Studio
Thoroughbred Charities of America Scissortail Hill Equestrian Secretariat Foundation
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