Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

CSI Witt: What Happened Before the Clinic

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wittwalk

When I rode Witt way back in 2013, he was a happy-go-lucky, friendly horse. He showed no signs of aggression and handled his first post-track rides easily. The word that comes to mind is “uncomplicated” — and that is exactly the opposite of what I saw at the first day of the clinic.

The people who adopted him were truly nice and caring owners. I can’t say anything bad about them, for I know that they didn’t intend for Witt to change like he did. It’s completely implausible that they abused or physically mistreated Witt. But there are several clues that Witt’s behavior gave me about what most likely did happen.

Clue 1

The odds are high that Witt was hand fed treats as a way to bond with him. I can see this from the way he would crowd my space and lean his nose into me. He did this when he was feeling like he should get a reward (i.e. while leading him out of the arena after each day’s class). The odds are also high that at some point whoever hand fed him treats became nervous or frightened around him. This showed in how Witt would act irritated and hostile when I didn’t present a treat to him (I don’t ever hand feed treats since I learned my lesson years ago) — he’d flip his head and try to push harder into my space when no treat appeared. Clearly he thought this approach would yield him a handful of cookies as appeasement.

He also showed the treat feeding in his utter lack of respect for the human. Why should he move his feet when a person asks? People yield their food to him, so he should definitely not have to yield his feet to them. Most likely people were also yielding their feet to him as well in the past 18 months — scurrying out of his way when he bullied his way toward them.

But the most telling signs of treat feeding were Witt’s multiple attempts to bite Peter during their session together. Due to his experience and skill as a horseman, Peter has a very unique presence with horses. For a horse to push past that presence and try to bite him is a strong indication that he had been rewarded for that approach in the past. Which means treats.

Clue 2

What else happened to Witt? At some point, he began to specifically act out his disrespect toward people while under saddle. As a green horse, Witt might already have had understandable lack of confidence about new things like riding in a big arena, riding out with other horses, learning how to jump or do dressage and so on. But when a layer of contempt for people was added to the mix, Witt might have begun to do things like refuse to move forward easily, kick out when leg was applied, spurt randomly when other horses were in the ring and so on.

Now all of those things might have happened with a green horse any way — but there is usually an extra flourish of intensity when the horse is doing them out of lack of respect (as opposed to simple ignorance as to what is being asked of him). A green horse will be open to learning to how take the rider’s aids when he learns that a release is coming. A contemptuous horse will instead escalate his behavior to try to convince the rider to stop asking.

Clue 3

Which leads to another clue in the “CSI Witt” mystery. I can say with complete confidence that Witt was put back in the barn or paddock after a session ended on a bad note for the rider (and thus also for Witt). Somewhere along the way, Witt learned and deeply internalized that the reward for being difficult would be that the ride or ground session would stop. Witt had multiple chances to “soak” on that concept, based on his behavior at the colt starting clinic.

A classic scenario might look something like this: A horse is being ridden in the arena with other horses. He starts to tighten up, threatens to kick out or buck and tosses his head. His rider wants to avoid trouble, so he is steered away to a quiet corner of the arena. Horse remains tense but has stopped tossing his head or kicking out. Rider is relieved that he seems to have improved. But when asked to steer closer to other horses (or anywhere the rider wants to go), the horse begins acting as if things might escalate. Rider dismounts soon after and puts him away, possibly even hand feeding him treats afterward as a way to “be close” with him. Lesson to the horse? Act like a bully and work stops (and treats begin).

Clue 4

Another clue about Witt can be seen in his inability to move out with the other horses in a group. To me, this indicates that he wasn’t turned out with other horses much. At LOPE, the horses stay outside 24/7 in a pasture setting (unless they are injured, of course). We find that this gives them much needed socialization with other horses while also teaching them proper herd manners (which is helpful for when you ride them). Witt was turned out with other horses while he was at LOPE in 2013 and did well with that.

My guess would be that Witt was kept in stall a good portion of the time — and that his turnout was limited to solo time in a small paddock. It could be that his barn at the time didn’t offer full turnout (not all boarding stables have the acreage for that) — or it could be that there was a concern about turning him out with other horses. Whatever the reason, in this case the lack of turnout sped up the negative consequences of the contempt for respect for people. Witt didn’t have the immediate (and implacable) social feedback from other horses about appropriate boundaries and manners with other horses. So the inappropriate boundaries that were building up with people had even more emphasis for him — because there wasn’t any other kind of balancing interaction with a herd of horses who could care less that Witt sometimes bullied people.

Clue 5

My next guess would be that at some point a professional trainer decided to teach Witt a lesson, perhaps with a low-key form of “riding him down.” The goal may have been to push Witt through his threatening antics and force him to move forward at the rider’s demand. This might have happened late in the game, when Witt was thoroughly committed to another viewpoint — and when his body tension had settled into an ongoing muscle state. The rider might have spurred or used a crop on Witt to urge him forward, no matter what. If that scenario did place, I’m pretty sure the rider wasn’t successful. Witt either didn’t move forward or he did so with unintended consequences for the rider (he moved in such a way as to ensure the rider exited quickly).

Clue 6

Finally, my last speculation would be that no one understood the consequences of their decisions about Witt. They probably assumed that all of his behavior was due to the fact that he was an ex-racehorse. Many equestrians and pro trainers hold the view that most OTTBs are kind of difficult and crazy. It would be so much easier to just blame Witt and his racing career. After all, who really wants to face the hard truth that they are responsible for any kind of negative outcome with horses? Especially for a horse as obviously troubled as Witt.

When Witt was returned to LOPE, his adopter told our staff that he was “easy” and “perfect.” By their account, he was in training with a professional, doing w-t-c plus poles and had no issues at all. I can only conclude that they just didn’t understand what Witt was showing them with his behavior and why it had happened. Had they understood better, I am sure they would have disclosed Witt’s status more fully (so as to make sure he would be handled safely without risk to staff here). Again, I’d like to stress that his adopters were truly nice folks — the last kind of people to abuse or mistreat horses.

Conclusion

But the result was close to the same as if they had hit him in the head with a rock on a daily basis. Good intentions sadly just aren’t enough when it comes to training and working with horses. Horses are wonderful, intelligent and sensitive creatures with much emotion and heart. But they don’t think, learn or feel in the same ways that people do.

Good intentions sadly just aren’t enough when it comes to training and working with horses. Horses are wonderful, intelligent and sensitive creatures with much emotion and heart. But they don’t think, learn or feel in the same ways that people do.

Yet we so often assume that what would be a kind gesture to a person (giving them a special cookie treat or not making them exercise too hard) can often be extremely detrimental to a horse. Does one cookie make a horse into a dragon? No, of course not. But consistently encouraging a horse to bully you does tend to create extinct giant reptile behavior. And once the giant reptile is present and awake, it will take much skill to undo that.

It is difficult to regain a horse’s respect once he has been trained to approach people with disdain. To do so almost always requires a horseman like Peter, along with a safe setting such as a clinic. Because a horse shows disrespect with threatening behavior that can really create harm to the human. So calling that bluff can be a tricky affair — and needs a horseman to do it as well and effectively as possible.

This clinic had a happy ending for Witt. Thanks to Peter, he made a huge and genuine change at the clinic. He is a good horse and will be a great riding partner for an adopter. We ask that people not hold his past against him (for it wasn’t his fault) — and we hope that our readers will learn as much as we did from his clinic experience.

1 Comment

  1. Candace Costis says:

    Fabulous. Thank you for the insight. I am not nearly as experienced as you are but since I am a breeder and deal with foals and broodmares my perspective is different. In the past, we have made the mistake of acquiring older horses of good conformation and pedigree. The number one problem we have is the result of physical abuse. An intelligent, friendly, civilized horse who is suddenly thrown in with trainers who use the harsh methods so common even at this day and age is going to exhibit the behavior you describe above. They teach anger … resentment. If you add to that inconsistent or confusing signals, as you clearly note above, then that will drive any human or animal crazy. Crazy. We no longer release our horses, unsupervised, to “trainers” no matter how good they are or how smooth their talk is. We usually get a horse back who is surly, acts out and is skilled in passive aggressive behavior or they are dulled and unresponsive. These better clinics are great ways to teach owners how to handle their horses properly and without risking their horse’s good nature. I want to go!!

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