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Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Call Me Cleo

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Call Me Cleo is a three-year-old chestnut TB gelding with a blaze. He went to a farm to begin his under saddle and race training in December — but didn’t show much aptitude for speed.

Cleo was home raised by a responsible and caring race breeder named Karen. She had waited an extra year to start him in training due to an injury. Cleo had a hind leg laceration as a two-year-old that was quite serious and required several weeks of care to heal properly.

Call Me CleoKaren had bonded closely with Cleo while nursing his injured leg — he was a favorite of hers in every respect. When she received the disappointing news that racing was not going to be the ideal career for Cleo, she decided to donate him to LOPE. Karen was especially excited that Cleo would be going into our Racehorse Education Program to receive training and assessment from a professional trainer.

Rancho Bayo is one of LOPE’s favorite horsemanship facilities. We first heard of them at LOPE’s Annual Benefit Horse Show — a group of their riders swept the horsemanship awards two years in a row! It was clear that their program focused on in-depth horsemanship and foundation training (for both their horses and riders). Eric and Michelle of Rancho Bayo have decades of experience working with all types of equine training issues — and are patient, careful horsemanship teachers.

We were excited to learn that they had an opening in their training barn for Cleo! And so Cleo headed there on February 16. At that point, Cleo had about 45-60 days under saddle and training from a professional race training facility. Because of that and his young age, we knew Cleo would benefit tremendously from the foundation work at Rancho Bayo. Eric there is taking a slow approach with him — going over the basics of how to lead and ground work quietly, for example.

Cleo is a very intelligent young gelding with a cute face and athletic build. His hind leg healed well — other than a cosmetic scar, the injury left no damage that will impede his future as a riding horse.

At Rancho Bayo, they noticed that Cleo isn’t confident about new situations. Whenever he is anxious, Cleo wants to make his own decisions about how and when to move away from the things that worry him. At first, Cleo will cling too closely to his handler for security — but then he’ll get frustrated if the handler won’t allow him to take charge of the situation.

Cleo literally will stomp his feet like a cranky child when this happens. Eric simply redirects Cleo’s energy in these moments — by asking him to something specific with his feet (like move to one direction in a specific way, for example). Cleo has already started to learn that foot stomping doesn’t really get him his way (just like children do as well).

Eric is teaching Cleo that he needs to focus on Eric for guidance and not tune him out under pressure. What this means is that Eric will be kind and calm — but also will be a clear leader for Cleo.

At first, Cleo thought this was just a silly idea — why should he listen to Eric? Cleo thought it might be easier to step all over Eric’s personal space or pull away from Eric on the lead rope instead.

In these situations, Eric smiles, stays relaxed — and quietly keeps directing Cleo until he understands what Eric wants. Interestingly enough, Eric doesn’t pet Cleo much during their ground work sessions (even though it is incredibly tempting, due to Cleo’s cute face and sweet eyes). Eric wants Cleo to feel good about being near Eric and about listening to him — without needing to be petted or fussed over. Otherwise, Cleo might think Eric’s main purpose is to pet or sooth him — which will only build the wrong response in Cleo at this time.

As I watched Eric work with Cleo during a session last week, I saw Cleo gradually become more and more relaxed. Like many young horses, he is still trying to understand the world (as well as how his own, rapidly-growing body works) — so it’s hard for him to feel secure in every new situation. Eric is a patient, reassuring trainer — he gives Cleo consistent and clear guidance, so that Cleo can feel supported and understand what he is being taught.

Eric was careful to not overwork Cleo — he knows young horses need time and lots of repetition to master new skills. He allowed Cleo to stand near him and “soak” on the lesson they just worked on together (rather than quickly moving him into another round of activity before Cleo had time to process everything).

I liked Cleo’s state of mind at the end of the session. He was very focused on Eric (like an attentive student), but he also seemed to understand that Eric was there to help him.

This is a significant change for Cleo — and an important step in the right direction. Eric gave Cleo positive feedback immediately, to build on that moment and encourage Cleo to keep “trying” in that direction.

As a young horse, Cleo is still very much an open book. His breeder treated him with great kindness and made sure that he had the time he needed to recover from his injury. She also selected a good race training facility to start him under saddle. At this stage in his training, Cleo needs to be in a consistent routine and structure with a handler who will keep directing him toward success. For Cleo, this means that he needs to see the human as a trusted leader, to understand the boundaries of his role versus the human’s role, and to learn how to handle new situations while building confidence.

Cleo is available for adoption now and would be a good project for someone experienced with colt starting and foundation training. Please stay tuned for more updates on Cleo’s training progress!

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