Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Mindfully Retraining Shanghaied

Courtesy Mellissa Perrin-Keithly

April is here and the snow has finally melted in Maine. Last week my amazing husband Oliver skimmed the round pen of mud, manure, and frozen patches. Now I can commit to my full-time training program with Shanghaied. It starts with the basics: manners, body conditioning and working with a 6-year-old Thoroughbred mind that has a bright spirit.

Shanghaied was a champ this winter: He grew a very fuzzy winter coat and endured countless blanket changes with the snow, ice, wind, and rain. He managed to wrangle out of his wardrobe weekly. I would find his blankets in a heap in the paddock, all buckles fully clasped. I swear he must have taken the whole blanket over his head and stepped out of it like full set of footy pajamas.

Shanghaied’s stall manners were less than favorable: He was very mouthy when he came home to the farm, to the point that it made me wonder if he and I would be able to work together safely. Shang was like a shark, testing my jacket, arm, gloves, halter, and lead rope with his teeth. It was not malicious, but more curious and attention-seeking. It still hurt when he got me and a bite is a bite: It’s not acceptable.

Shanghaied's grooming tools (Courtesy Mellissa Perrin-Keithly)

So this winter when it was too icy and cold to be turned out, I spent stall time with Shang grooming him. I wanted him to learn to trust me in the stall without being haltered or tied and stand respectfully while being groomed. It was a challenge at first — he would pace the stall and circle around me. I would just wait it out with my brushes in hand. A dandy brush and a mane brush, the kind which is more like a human hair brush with quills. When he would stop and stand he would get brushed and scratched on his shoulder blade. I would ask him to keep his head straight ahead, sometimes he would whip his head around and get me with his teeth; he was so fast.

I promised myself when I began training Shanghaied, I would only train him mindfully and instead of reacting to his actions I would observe, think, regroup, and retrain.

One night I observed him grabbing the lead rope off his door hanger. He whipped it around, shaking it, and the brass snap hit him in the forehead. He acted surprised and dropped the rope from his teeth immediately. I was in the aisle-way watching and said out loud, “You did that, goofball.” He stared at me. I re-hung the lead rope on the door and he just left it alone.

A light went off in my brain. He did that to himself and then he stopped. How could I replicate the same action and reaction when he bites? It needs to be his idea to stop biting.

I knew I did not want to react to his biting with conflict as this would only instigate more biting, so I got smart. The next few days, I just continued to brush him and move around him in his stall with confidence with both brushes in my hands. When I was on the right side of him, the dandy brush was in my right hand and the mane brush in my left, held up with bristles pointing out. I would brush with the dandy on his body and if he flung his nose and teeth around I would hold my ground and his nose would hit the spiky bristles of the brush ... his action, not mine. The first time he struck twice; not liking it, he curled his lips inside out. It took a couple of nights of this practice on both sides before he stopped biting while being groomed.

Shanghaied tested his shark biting while being saddled. It only took one day with the hair brush to remind him about my space while saddling. Now, I just have to hold the palm of my hand open and facing Shanghaied’s neck. It is my mudra, a hand gesture which shifts his energy into a positive experience. I don't trust the behavior is completely gone; I expect in stressful times he will resort to what he knows, but I am aware and will be there to reinforce the positive. After all, it is practice.

As a yoga instructor I try my best to incorporate my yoga practice into my horse training — what I call living a mindful equestrian lifestyle. I have been working with horses for over 40 years and have made some big mistakes: I have lost my cool, yelled, cried, amped up my horse’s energy, put horses back in the stall, and stomped away and gave up for the day. I recognize these behaviors that arrive in times of stress and fear are just like Shanghaied’s biting and are not acceptable.

When the energy gets unbalanced, I remember the ultimate goal is to build a safe partnership with Shanghaied on the ground and under saddle for me and my teammate “Pop-Pop” Oliver.

I am grateful the snow is gone. We are back under saddle three to five sessions a week, moving closer to our goal. We are excited to be riding in an upcoming clinic with Tik Maynard, May 4-5 at Durgin Farm in Standish, Maine.

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