Saturday, January 2, 2016

A horse named Chase

My best friend's name is Chase.  He's a horse - my horse; and I want to tell you all about him.  Be forewarned, this will be a fairly long post.  Please stick with it.  If there's one single thing that I'd like people to read on this blog, it's this.  He's so incredibly important to me; it means a lot to tell you about his story and our journey together.

Chase at Gentle Giants - May, 2012.
 Chase came into my life in fall of 2011.  My previous horse, Trooper, had just been adopted so I found myself without a project horse to work with at the Rescue.  The head of the rescue asked me if I had time to go up to our off site trainer and take a look at a horse.  She mentioned that the horse had some issues with mounting and seemed more comfortable with a male trainer than a female trainer.  Seeing as I didn't have a project horse I agreed to go take a look at this horse and see what I could do to help.

The day I was going up to see Chase for the first time I stopped at Gentle Giants first and was talking with one of the barn managers there.   They caught me off guard when they said "You're going up to see Chase?  I hear you're his last hope."  At the time I put it out of my mind.  Deep down I knew what she meant but I didn't think she was serious.  More on that later though.

With that I drove up to the trainer's place in Frederick, MD.  The first thing she said was "Here's Chase's halter.  He's that black horse with the white blaze out in that field.  Go get him and bring him back down here.  You probably won't be able to catch him, he's named Chase for a reason."  With that challenge laid down, I walked across the field -  right toward the black horse with the white blaze.  He was grazing and popped his head up when he saw me and gave me a look, but he didn't move otherwise.  I walked right up, put the halter on him, and walked him back to the gate. The trainer was standing there watching and remarked "You just made a liar out of me." 

I brought Chase down to the barn and tied him outside so the trainer and I could groom him.  She described him, helped me groom him a bit.  I could tell Chase had some serious trust issues.  I could barely touch him without him stepping away from me.  He was headshy - I couldn't get a hand or a brush near his head because he'd pull away.  He also didn't like people behind him.  If I tried to walk behind him he'd spin away so that he could see me again.  I could definitely tell he had some trust issues.  After I spent a few minutes getting to know him, we brought him to the round pen and the trainer showed me his mounting issue and how I was to get on him.

Chase while at the Trainer's farm.  December, 2011.
I'll digress from the narrative portion of this story for a moment to describe Chase's issues and backstory in a bit more detail.  When I met Chase I knew very little about him.  I was told he "had trouble with mounting."  In reality, he very clearly had a bigger issue with trusting humans.  Also, as I'd later find out, he disliked mounting blocks.  He was very smart and knew exactly what they were, and would not stand next to one.  When a person tried to get on he'd bolt out from under them in that split second when it was impossible to not sit down in the saddle.  And by the time you sat down, he'd be running with a full head of steam who knows where.

Chase running in his field at Gentle Giants.  August, 2012.
Where did he come from?  Well I got him from Gentle Giants.  Two other people had adopted him before I met him but they returned him because of his issues; which would diminish but then flare up again (mainly because people were likely lazy and didn't work with him properly or often enough - in my opinion).  Gentle Giants bought him at New Holland auction from a guy who had bought him off another person.  He was almost certainly destined for the kill pen if Gentle Giants had not bought him that night.  He caught their eye because he rode through the auction very nicely.  They only learned about his issues after they bought him.  His life before New Holland is a black hole I have no details on and likely will never have details on.  It's clear he was abused, likely struck, whipped and beaten.  My theory, based on what I know about him and his issues is that someone beat him after he stepped away from the mounting block one too many times.

December, 2011.
Back to my narrative.  After I groomed Chase I took him over to the round pen (enclosed circular area that prevents a horse from hiding in a corner) so the trainer could show me a little more about his issues.  This was the moment that changed everything for me.  I can say in all honesty that I'll never forget this moment.  I had always told people I would never get a horse.  I'd said I would always help them and always ride them, but I didn't want the responsibility of owning one for myself.  I also said I didn't want to be 'Horse poor' as I put it.  But standing outside the round pen, watching the trainer show me more about his issues and watching Chase standing in the middle of the pen changed me.  I saw real fear - in his face, in his body language.  That's what changed me.  Everything I saw in him told me something terrible had happened to him.  A horse doesn't act and react the way he did without some major traumatic event.  In those few short moments, I felt a compassion I've rarely, if ever, felt before.  This seemingly innocent creature had had an experience with humans that made him completely terrified of them.  I knew I had to try and help him.

Our work together started the following day.  Again, I groomed Chase for a long time.  I truly didn't know much about making an abused horse trust me, and I really didn't consider myself a very good trainer at the time (and still don't know).  What I did know is that Chase was very sensitive to any touch, anywhere, and hyper-aware of where I was in relationship to his body.  As I said, I couldn't easily walk behind him because he'd swing around and try to get his head pointed at me.  With all this in mind I decided to just start touching him and petting him all over as I walked around him slowly.  I would rub the middle of his neck and crest, occasionally moving up to scratch his ear (he didn't like that at first).  I would work my way down his shoulder to his forelegs, and then work my way down them as well.  Then I'd slowly work my way backwards, continuing to touch him and rub him all the way back and around to the other side of him.  I reasoned that this would help desensitize him to me being in certain places around him and also help him realize that I was a "good" and wouldn't try to hurt him.

From there the trainer showed me how I needed to get on him.  There were "procedures."
  1. Stand on his left side (mounting side) and pull his head around to me.  - This was so he couldn't bolt forward when I went to get on (he threw me twice because I didn't do this)
  2. Jump up and down a little bit to get him used to that idea. - Let him know I was there beside him and so he would pay attention to me.  That way he wasn't surprised.
  3. Stick my left foot into the stirrup (From the ground) and immediately get on him from the ground.

Here's a pretty good video that shows all of these steps. It is a good example of what we did over and over and over and over again.  The key to any successful training is repetition. 

Note that isn't me in the video, it's the trainer's friend who was working with Chase briefly before I started with him.  Also, Chase appears very calm because he knew the guy very well.

It didn't take long before I was on Chase and riding a real dream of a horse.  He was just an absolute joy to ride once I was on his back.  It was the getting there that was difficult.  My goal was to fix the mounting problem so it wouldn't be dangerous to try to get on him.  We worked hard day after day to make it better.  I'd drive all the way out to Frederick and back an hour and over 50 miles each way, just to work with him.  I was really dedicated to fixing his issue.  I used to tell friends "Look, I don't drive 100 miles round trip for just anything."  Helping Chase was important to me.

At some point the trainer took me aside and said "Listen, I know you're stressed about the end of the month coming up.  I'm not going to charge Gentle Giants for him being here next month.  There's something very special about this horse and I want you to be comfortable with him before he goes back."  Eventually we took him back for a trial run, so that I could see how Chase would react to doing the same work we'd been doing, but in a a different environment.  It went ok but I wasn't comfortable enough to have the trainer leave him there.  We tried again the following weekend, again it went ok - not great, but ok - but while I was working with Chase, the trainer and head of the rescue talked with each other and decided that it was time for Chase to stay at Gentle Giants.

Lunge work with Chase while at the rescue.  We would do this every day we worked together.  January, 2012.

This was a very hard moment for me.  I was scared because he wasn't fixed yet.  I couldn't get on him without 'the procedure," and he was still really bad about the whole getting on process.  I thought I was going to fail.  I said to myself "there's no way I'm going to put in the time and effort to fix him."  (I used to go to the barn just on weekends to volunteer.  That wasn't going to cut it...he needed nearly daily work and contact).  I didn't think I'd have the patience to fix him but Chase taught me that patience.  I wanted to do right by him, regardless of how long it took.

Chase definitely regressed after he got back to Gentle Giants.  The second time I worked with him after he stayed back at the rescue someone using my camera with rapid fire mode caught one of the best series of photos I have of me training a horse.

We had a bit of a...disagreement. At Gentle Giants.  January, 2012.
This was one of those moments where I really questioned everything.  Was I doing the right things to help him?  Was it even possible to help him?  Was it worth the risk of injury to keep trying with Chase?  I didn't have any answers.  By that point though I was committed to continuing.  I knew him - he knew me.  Neither of us was willing to fully trust each other yet, but we both really wanted to.  

The people in charge at Gentle Giants seemed to think I knew what I was doing when it came to training and helping horses.  I'm not sure why, I rarely ever feel like I have "the answer" that will fix a problem or train a skill.  The truth of the matter is there really is no single right answer.  Something that works for one horse might not work for the next.  So for me, training a horse is a question of trial and error.  Eventually you find something that works and you go with it.  That's what Chase and I did.  Trial-error, Trial-success, repeat, repeat, repeat.

This video was taken after he came back to Gentle Giants.  It's a good quick example of what I had to do to get on him initially.

Our work continued after he got back, and little by little Chase calmed and accepted new things like me getting on from the mounting block or taking my coat off while I was riding.  There is so much I could talk about, but for the sake of a shorter post, I won't here.  Perhaps, if there is a desire, I can talk more about specific things I did to make him comfortable with different things.  As I said before though, it's all just trial, error, and repetition.  I have so many little anecdotes and stories I'd like to tell about Chase.  I'll write a follow up post eventually.

Chase returned to the rescue in January of 2012.  I worked with him and rode him there multiple days a week until May of 2013 when I, along with 3 good friends, adopted our horses from the rescue and moved them to private farms not affiliated with the rescue.  Since then Chase and I have continued to work together, taking lessons,learning from each other, and just being good friends to each other.  .  He is completely comfortable with me, and I've even gotten him to the point where he is comfortable with other riders getting on him.  This was a very difficult thing for me to allow, but he's proven that he can trust someone else enough to let them get on his back.  This means that if, god forbid, anything were ever to happen to me, an intermediate or advanced rider could safely get on and work with him almost immediately.  This is why rescues say that proper training is the best way to save a horses life.

We also occasionally compete at local dressage schooling shows.  We are a great team and we manage to do well at shows when we go.  Judges love him and always tell me what a great mover he is.  Right now we are at a tipping point between Introductory Level and Training Level dressage tests.  (I'll talk some more about that in a later post about dressage, what it is, and why I do it).

First place, Intro Test C.  Would you expect any less from a unicorn?  (and yes, I competed that way.)  October 25, 2015 - By Chance Farm.

You can fault the rider for second place and reserve champion.  I lost out in a tie because I didn't push him through into a wide enough canter circle. Oh well, you live and you learn.  Celebration Farm, July 31, 2015.
I like to say that Chase is the first horse that's ever truly humbled me.  As I mentioned earlier, he threw me twice when I first started to ride him because I was cocky.  He was a horse that had issues and no one was willing to take the time to fix them until I came along.  Two people had adopted him prior to me meeting him.  If I hadn't fixed him, he likely would have been euthanized because he was too dangerous for anyone to work with.  (Note that this is an extreme outcome only reserved for very very extreme cases.  It is not a routine thing at all for the rescue).  I found out later that people didn't think I'd be able to help him.  They thought he was too far gone to be helped; but Chase and I did it, together.  It was certainly a learning process.  One that continues every time we are with each other.  I couldn't ask for a better horse.  He is kind, good-natured, and willing.  Chase taught me that I could emotionally invest myself in my work with horses.  Until meeting him I was just kind of riding for the sake of riding.  After meeting him, everything changed.  Someone once said that Chase "gave [me] a heart."  Truer words may never have been spoken.

Equus with Chase at his current farm.  September 26, 2015.

Chase is a gift.  I am truly grateful to know him, to care for him, to love him with my whole heart.  He is one of a kind.  He has changed me as much as I've changed him.  We're still on our journey together, learning as we go - as we always will be.  The important thing is that we are together.  So to Chase, thank you for being the best horse I've ever met and thank you for trusting me.  I'll always be there for you because you're always there for me.  We are a good team.

A good team.  Forever.


  1. How could you NOT fall in love with this horse.

    Looking at the gentle giants 2012 image . The roman Nose , the kind eye , the fabulous coat - A credit to the owners and feed regime.

    1. Thank you so much for your reply and your kind words.

  2. Wow, Equus. I am humbled at your wonderful story of the love and devotion you have towards Chase. You've done everything right. The way you were mounting him is no different than the way I was taught to mount greenies in my teen years. Of course, a western saddle might have made it a touch easier and quicker to settle into the saddle and find that other stirrup.

    I love the videos. Especially the last one. You WAITED. You waited until he was ready before you got in the saddle. That says tons about you as a trainer.

    Kudos! We have to ride together sometime.

    Mad Mare
    Mad Mare Studios, Aldie, VA