By Jennifer Osborne
It was October, 2015 when my previous rescue horse, Ben, was adopted by a wonderful young rider who was committed to making a home for him for the rest of his life. So, this meant one thing; I was ready for another rescue. As always I was in search of a horse who had potential but had been counted out by the rest of the horse world. And believe me, there are plenty of those. So I sifted through the 100s of horses in need and in the process I made contact with another horse rescue in Northern California called Neigh Savers.
Ten months prior, Neigh Savers, successfully rescued 14 horses at a thoroughbred breeding ranch where the horses were being starved to death. The horses were on the edge of death with body conditioning scores no higher than three. The man who owned the farm decided to stop feeding the horses and was selling the hay that was donated to him. Neigh Savers stepped in and executed a huge rescue. The horses were herded into a large stock trailer and moved off the premises. There was one little guy caught my eye. Neigh Savers named him Pharrel because he was feral and had not been handled at all. For that reason other trainers were hesitant to take him on for training.
He was three turning four and by all accounts he was a sweet young horse. However, he had never been handled. He was not even halter broke. Most trainers chose other horses but I chose him. I saw this as a journey through complete horsemanship and a true test of my skills as a horse trainer. A bench mark if you will, to test how much I had progressed in the last few years as a trainer. I broke a lot of horses in the past but this was different. I started a horse called Mission a few years earlier that was also untouched, but this would not be the same. When faced with a challenge the doubts always creep in. Could I do it again? Would it end in disaster?
The thing about me is, I don’t embody what people picture when they think, “horse trainer”. I am often overlooked because of, well, the way I look. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love being the underdog that is forever doubted. And this horse was an underdog too. So of course I had to take him on and prove that my timing and pressure release had improved with every horse I worked with. It would also help to show that, “The Method” was the best way I had found to start horses. The rest was easy. I hitched up the trailer and went to go get a feral 3 year old.
The people hosting him were gracious and told me the horse was sweet. They told me they had minimal contact with him and his training was all on me. They did not even halter break him. I decided to start calling him Pharrel Alec Ramsey to pay homage to Neigh Savers and the classic novel The Black Stallion. After a brief meeting, it was time to get him into the trailer. And remember, the horse was not even halter broke. Nevertheless, I was able to get him into an awesome rope halter, to make things easier. The rope halter allowed me to somewhat lead a horse, that had never been led in the past, by putting pressure on the pole and across the nose. So I guess you could say his training began right then and there. He was learning that when he followed me, there was no pressure on him and when he resisted, the pressure increased. Of course I took it slow and was very positive to him so he could stay as relaxed as possible.
Alec and I approached the trailer and his foster family watched patiently to see what would happen. And I was a bit curious myself. I let Alec look at the trailer and sniff it so he could investigate. He was a curious horse which would work to my advantage. I then began to use the rope halter, stick and string, and the 14 foot lead line to approach and retreat with the trailer. I pointed to the trailer with the lead rope and every time he approached I released the pressure. Every time he went to back away I put gentle pressure on him with the halter and the stick and string. The whole time I would rub him when he was good to reassure him that I would not hurt him. First, one hoof went on, then the second and then the whole horse went into the trailer. I then walked into the trailer after him and once again gave him nothing but positive reinforcement. It only took 15 min to get this un-handled horse into a dark tin can for a long journey. No one got hurt and no one even broke a sweat. We were off to a good start.
Alec and I made it back to Vegas in one piece and then it was time to start training. I gave him one day to relax and get used to his surroundings. Then it was off to the round pen with the intention to just start letting him get used to people and to become desensitized to us.
I start all of my horses the same way, whether they are Grand Prix or untouched because consistency is the key to any solid program. Any trainers with any worth will always have a step by step process they use when they work with horses. And the more horses trainers start, the more solid their program becomes. Of course each horse is an individual and the program can be adapted to accommodate any kind of horse, but the core of the program remains the same. For example, Alec was feral and would therefore need way more desensitizing than sensitizing because his tendency was to be reactive. And it is this process that wakes me up in the morning. Starting horses makes any program stronger because it allows the trainer to see the origin of any future problems… and then how to solve them. I always wonder how trainers progress without ever seeing horses through from the beginning.
I made a promise to Alec that I would always be fair to him. I promised to always make sure he was safe. I vowed to treat him with gentle kindness. And most of all, I made a pact to always feed him… With that on the table I knew he would eventually learn to trust and be a willing partner.