By Jacki Lockerbie-Currington
Seven years ago I received a call from a friend who had a pony that was virtually untouchable. She was ready to send him back to the sales barn. But when she inquired about sending him she was told that he was 3 years old and had been through the barn 4 times already. The pony was considered to be wild and couldn’t be sold as a viable pony. He would go for meat.
Thomas ended up at my friend’s house when she bought a pony for her grandson and when she went to pick up her purchase she was informed that Thomas went with him. She didn’t want two ponies but he was free so she brought him home anyway. She soon realized that Thomas could not be caught, and would escape any chance he could. My friend was at her wits end and her boarders were complaining. She knew he wouldn’t get any better unless someone put some time into him. She asked if I’d like to take a look at him. I went down and she had lured him into a stall with the help of her other pony and some grain.
When I got there he was looking pretty sad in the stall.
“Can I go into the stall with him?” I asked.
“He’s mean and will kick and bite you,” my friend said.
“I’ll take my chances,” and entered the stall. Thomas immediately went to the back corner and stood staring at me in terror. I turned my back to release all pressure and I bent down a knee.
Within minutes Thomas nudged my back. I stood up took out my phone and called my husband. “Dear, could you bring the trailer down?” I asked.
His answer was “Oh no, what have you done now”.
My husband arrived and we opened the trailer doors. To our surprise Thomas literally ran up the ramp and into the trailer. He was so relaxed in there that I had to wonder why. Then it dawned on me, there are no humans in the trailer. Could it be that he feared humans. Hmmm, a place to start.
Once we were home, I put Thomas into a 14 X 14 stall that I use for new horses coming in or if one of the horses needs to be stalled due to injury or illness. I usually sit in the stall with a newbie and just let them get used to me but it seemed to be too much pressure for this little guy. He just took himself to the far corner backed in and stared at me. I moved into the little tack room where I could observe without being seen and he seemed to relax a bit, but I noticed he was making an odd noise. I called my husband out to see if he could figure it out and he noticed that his halter was way too tight. Getting it off was quite a production. We had to muscle him against a wall and cut it off.
This brings us to our first big challenge, getting a new halter on. I would put a piece of crunch (horse treats) in my hand and make a fist then extend my arm. If he came and touched my fist I’d open my hand and he would get the treat. He was so used to being tricked into being caught that he was very leery. It took a couple of days before he felt confident that I wasn’t going to try and grab him. It was time to up the ante. I put the halter on the same hand as the crunch and invited Thomas in to touch and get a treat.
Eventually I could slide the halter up his nose and back down before he got his reward. This continued until he would put the halter on while I just held it out to him. It took 7 days to complete this task, the longest it’s ever taken me.
Now that I could halter him and catch him I felt he could go out into a paddock. Our backyard is fully fenced and smaller than the other paddocks so that would be Thomas’s home for a while. He was quite withdrawn and actually seemed to be shut down. He didn’t move his ears at all. I honestly thought he may be deaf or at least hard of hearing. His eyes seemed to have no life. It worried me but at the same time he was eating, drinking, peeing and pooping so I thought I’d give him time. This went on for over a month and felt I had to do something. I thought long and hard and asked every horse person I knew for advice and decided the best way to treat a depressed horse is to give him a friend. Not that he was alone, the other horses were just on the other side of the fence but he needed some stimulation. I put my Arab gelding, Az, in with him.
Within minutes I could see a difference. Az was the trick. He nudged him and nibbled on him, he pushed him and seemed to bring him around. I kept them together and within days this little pony started to develop a character. It surprised me how quickly it happened.
Thomas was still very cautious of humans though, so I never forced him to do things. I took the time to make my ideas his ideas. He would follow me into his section in the barn and get some feed every night and in the morning, back into his little yard. He was coming around.
It was now time to introduce him to the herd. He and Az had a great relationship but once back in the herd Az put Thomas in his place, and that was at the bottom of the pecking order. Thomas wasn’t concerned he was happy being there. It meant less pressure.
This whole first year was spent watching and listening and trying to figure the pony out. One thing we did figure out was that there wasn’t much that could contain this little guy. If he couldn’t go over it he’d go under it, if he couldn’t go under he’d just knock it down. He broke the split rails, he took down posts. He went under the page wire and climbed over the stone walls. His name should have been Houdini. We put up electric along with the page wire and the split rails. He still managed to escape.
When he escaped he headed over to a young friend of mine who just happens to have Olympic quality Eventers. One in particular was Thomas’s favorite, Tucker. Sandy was very understanding and would call and let me know when Thomas was visiting. Eventually his adventures became shorter in distance and spaced farther apart. Now, if and when he escapes, he just sticks around the house until someone opens the gate to let him back in.
Trust was still an issue. It seemed that for every two steps forward, we took one back. It took me almost two years before I could get a farrier to do his hooves so I used to trot him up and down the road to keep his hooves from getting too bad. Needless to say, this didn’t work great but it was better than nothing and time for us to work together.
Lifting his feet was the challenge. I worked with ropes, for my safety and his. This took months, I was the only one he’d let close to him not that others didn’t try. Every time he had a meltdown we were set back about three months. At one point my farrier was kicked right on the point of the elbow. I thought it broke his arm. He turned to Thomas took the lead line and put his hand on Thomas’s head and said “What has happened to you in your short little life”. I felt so bad. My farrier told me not to discipline him because it would just set him back again. What a wonderful man.
Another big hurdle was needling. It took over two years to be able to get him needled. The first attempt was successful but not exactly how we want it done. My amazing vet did a walk-by-needling. It worked but we had to find a better way. I started pinching Thomas’ neck and when he turned his head I gave him a treat. Within no time at all we were getting him needled as long as he got a treat. It’s amazing what a positive reward can do.
It was now time to start formal training but the trust still wasn’t 100%. I use my own method of natural horsemanship which I developed from watching many of the masters to whom I am so grateful. Just being able to rub him all over took years. Things were moving very slow but you know what they say “Slow and steady wins the race”.
Year three rolls around and we’ve made advances but I just can’t seem to get behind him. After much research, I believe I found previous owner. He was selling ponies at the sales barn and through our discussion I discovered that all the time lines matched up. He got the pony from the Sales barn and returned him there all within the times that we understood Thomas had been there. I asked the man why he didn’t keep Thomas and he said “The Pony was crazy”. In his words “I bring him home, he still stud, I geld him and he no calm down.” I asked what vet he used thinking I may be able to get some info there but the man said “I don’t use no vet, I tie his head to post and I cut”. Now I know why I can’t get behind him. Not that I dwell in the past but at least I understand that there’s a reason for his behaviour.
I decided to take Thomas for day trips off of our farm. This would allow me to get helpful feedback from experienced horse trainers, and expose him to new things and people in order to build his confidence.
First we visited Natural Horsemanship Instructor who worked with his own horse with Thomas and me. As I thought, the instructor’s horse could approach Thomas from behind but a human could not. The instructor showed me how to slowly work my way to standing behind Thomas. He had me stand at Thomas’ shoulder and give him a treat when he turned his head but not his hooves. Then I worked my way farther back. When Thomas turns his head to look at me he gets another treat. This continued until I was at his tail. Every time he turned his head without moving his feet, he got a treat. I then went up to the right side of his head and continued the exercise. Thomas wouldn’t turn his head to the right. We worked on this until he at least turns his eyes to the right.
Well, I went home with a whack of homework and it worked. One thing the trainer said to me was a pony won’t do anything unless there’s something in it for them. I’ve kept that advice and used it. The other thing he said was “Don’t let anybody tell you Thomas won’t pull a cart because he will”. I can now walk behind Thomas and his confidence in Thomas kept me going.
I got a surcingle and started long-lining him. It didn’t go over very well until I put blinders on him. Thomas needed a lot of encouragement and confidence building so we did a ton of rubbing all over and asking him to squeeze between me and the wall or a barrel and using a lot of praise when he did it confidently. We seemed to be getting somewhere but again only with me. He just wasn’t quite sure that he could trust other humans. His long-lining was coming along so well that we decided to go in a local Santa Claus Parade. To my amazement Thomas loved it. I dressed him up with a blanket that said “Reindeer in Training”, attached antlers to his halter and off we went. We were right in front of a band and I thought for sure he’d freak but he just marched along. He loved the kids and wanted to stop to get nose pets. All went well until at the end of the parade. We wanted to go down a street to get to our trailer and a cop jumped in front of him and waved her arms to say no. Well, Thomas took offence to it and bolted. Needless to say it was a bit of a setback. But we managed to get past it and move on.
I bought a harness and decided to find someone to teach us how to drive. I was lucky enough to find a young man who trains ponies for combined driving. He took his time with Thomas and seemed to understand what I’d been going through. I asked him if he felt we had a chance of ever getting a cart behind him and his answer was “anything’s possible”. We set up a schedule and we started working. Regrettably, a couple of months later I became ill and all training had to stop. Thomas got a well-deserved rest.
We are now into year 6 and we’re back with the pony driving instructor. The first visit back shocked him. He couldn’t believe it was the same pony. Thomas’ confidence has grown by leaps and bounds. Thomas has a new friend, Tucker the Super Pony, who travels with us now for training along with his human.
Within a few sessions Thomas was pulling a small cart that I had made out of wheels and a platform. We then progressed to using one of the pony trainers’ carts. Santa brought Thomas his very own cart this Christmas! I couldn’t be prouder. He even welcomes pats from strangers as long as they don’t walk behind him.
My friend’s husband was at a rural auction, where a meat dealer was bidding on a Cremello pony who looked very much like a very young version of Thomas. The kill buyer had a bid in on the pony and my friend’s husband was determined to outbid the kill buyer.
Timothy, as this new pony came to be called, is a good friend for Thomas. Having Timothy around has really helped. Thomas has taken on the big brother roll and it’s helping him work through what’s left of his lack of confidence.
It’s hard to believe that just a year or so of mistreatment could cause so much damage and take, oh, so long to repair. I hate to think of all the Thomas’ and the Timothys who end up on the meat truck because so many people won’t take the time to learn how to respectfully raise a pony because respect begets respect.