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  • Writer's pictureDavid Jefferson

Getting Used to It

Zimmy stood on cross ties in the alley of the barn, a flap of skin hanging down from his right knee.

“Looks like you were right, he needs some sutures. I’ll go back to the truck and get the surgery kit and some clippers.”

“Well,” snorted Sandy, “you can forget the clippers. He’s scared to death of them. I’ve never been able to get close to him with clippers running.”

“ I was going to tranquilize him first…”

“We tried that once. We TQ’d him, and he did relax, but when the clippers turned on, his head popped up, he took off, and dragged me down the aisle!”

I decided not to fight that battle and left the clippers in the truck. It must have been the noise of the clippers that bothered Zimmy because he was OK with my using curved scissors to cut the hair around the wound and being stitched back together. The episode got me thinking about horses I have known that were terrified about different things. I’ve seen many turned around with good training, and I believe that if you are willing to spend some time you can lick some of these gremlins.

Let me tell you about something I witnessed many times at the old Lewiston Raceway. Today the fairground is a neatly laid out industrial park housing businesses. From the 1800’s until around the late 1980’s there were over 100 racing standardbreds stabled on these grounds year round. They were housed in over a dozen barns on the “backside” of the track. None of the barns were fancy.

The most rickety barns in the fairgrounds were right next to the railroad tracks that ran along the east side of the property. The tracks are set high on an embankment 8 feet above ground level. The old yellow barn was 80 feet long and contained about ten stalls. The long barn was nestled at the foot of the embankment so that the tracks literally loomed over the barn. There was a dutch door to each stall. The top door was always open so the horses could look out and get some air. The back and sides of the stalls had no windows.

Picture with me what happened when a new horse was introduced to his stall in that old barn. After being led in and released, he would sniff at the bedding, circle the stall a few times, and eventually stick his head out the top of the dutch door. Good view of the race track with all the horses being jogged. No problem. No stress. That is, until the first freight train came through.

Remember, that barn was set right against the embankment, and our horse’s head is just a few feet from the train track itself. The first sound was the piercing whistle that was blown just as the train reached the railroad bridge that spanned Main Street. Next were the deep throbbing diesels of the 2 or 3 locomotives hooked together. Finally came the real noise makers, two hundred empty freight cars rattling their way up to Aroostook county to get filled with potatoes. When you hear a train from a quarter of a mile away, it’s a pleasant clickety clack. When it passes just feet from your head, it’s more like BANGETY SLAM, and there are all the other noises: squealing brakes, clanging chains and the cars banging back and forth on their couplings. The old barn literally shook when a train went through. Horses housed there had their backs to the track and couldn’t see the train. All the noise was coming from behind them, and the new horse in one of those stalls was always terrified. They always reacted by tearing around the small stall and sometimes charging the door.

At Lewiston Raceway the horsemen were mostly raised by horsemen. There was plenty of horse sense on the grounds. It never entered anyone’s head to get in the stall with a freaked out animal to try to calm him down when the uproar started. They knew that that within a week, maybe two, despite all the commotion, the new horse wouldn’t even look up from his hay when a train passed overhead. The old timers were right. The noise was just noise, and the horses’ fight or fight reflex to the commotion finally melted away The scientific name for the process is called habituation, or in everyday language, “getting used to it”, or just “getting over it”.

You may have experienced the same phenomenon if you have been in an indoor riding facility with a metal roof in the winter. When the sun comes out and the snow starts to slide, there is a thunderous roar that keeps coming. Horses not used to it often go a little crazy. Some horses never do get over it because it’s not a daily occurrence. For solid habituation to occur there needs to be a flooding, or a more constant stimulus.

Back to Sandy’s horse Zimmy who couldn’t put up with clippers. I learned a lot from Art Wilding of Sabattus. Art had a way with horses, and I miss his common sense approach. I was in his barn late one afternoon. As I arrived, Art had just put a new horse in for training on cross ties. Art’s intent was to clip him. He turned the clippers on when he was a good 12 feet away and walked slowly toward the horse, talking softly. Yikes! Rattlesnake?? The horse’s eyes bugged wide, and then he wasn’t on the ties anymore. Art walked to the end of the barn where the horse was trembling, with the broken chains dangling from his halter.

“Whoops, new experience for you, huh? Guess you’ve never been clipped. ”

Art led him to his stall and let him go. He then plugged the clippers in an outlet near the stall door, and as they were running, ran them through the bars in the stall wall so they hung inside, chattering away. The horse ran to the opposite wall and shook. Then Art turned off the lights in the barn and said, “He’ll learn that they may be noisy, but they won’t hurt him.” We left the barn. Art always claimed that horses learn best if they train themselves. He told me later that when he did night check a few hours later, the horse was completely at ease with the clippers running. The next day, with his usual patience, Art was able to clip the horse who never objected again.

Another trainer that I have always admired is Jenny Wells of Wales. I was at her barn a few years ago and heard a commotion outside. She had taken a willful mare in for training. One of this mare’s tricks was to pull back on cross ties until they broke and then it would be:

“OK! Free again. Works every time! All I have to do is pull back!“

Whoops, not in Jenny’s barn! Jenny, like Art, liked to let them train themselves if possible. For a puller she used what her clients call “The Naughty Tree.” There is a chain wrapped around the trunk of a stout tree several feet up. A strong lead is run from the horse’s rope halter to that chain on the tree. In the lead she had built in an emergency release in case the mare went down. The tree was a lot less yielding than we would be and far more patient. Jenny watched from the barn as the mare tried all her tricks to get free. The second the mare relaxed, the tree stopped pulling. She was literally teaching herself not to pull back when tied.

The point of these stories is that horses can and will get used to about anything. Most fears can be eliminated by exposure. The exposure has to be long and often intense. Of course, there are days when you don’t have the time to do this kind of work, but if it is at all possible, plan it so that the horse is doing the training. Rewards (the release) that way are immediate.

The art and science of habituation is fascinating, and as an equine vet I deeply appreciated being around and working on animals that were well and thoughtfully trained.


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