Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Arktikos, Unwrapping the Package

Atktikos working on balance and simple leg yielding. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

Arktikos is in the 2020 Class of the Thoroughbred Makeover, so I untied the ribbon on the package last year to begin preparing. Early on I found an easygoing, curious, young horse with a baby brain. I began working on dressage basics with him. He was quick to respond to the leg and learned to go forward and yield quite easily. We worked on basic transitions and simple leg yielding to build balance, obedience, and suppleness. He was calm and happy for grooming, tacking, and in his work. We traveled with a friend to Alexa Derr’s farm for a longlining clinic and a lesson, both of which went extremely well. We continued to do regular lessons from late summer through late fall 2020.

We had a break over the holidays and then my clever baby managed to get his head in the wrong place and get kicked not once but three times in the span of about six weeks. Thankfully, all his herd mates are barefoot so nothing was very serious. I gave him some time off to heal from the cuts and swelling and make sure his head felt normal before putting a bridle back on. We resumed our lessons at the end of March, again traveling to Alexa's farm, but this time I took him alone in the trailer.

What you first experience is not always what you get. I found another box inside the first one to unwrap. I’m discovering there is more sass in this horse than I originally encountered. I am reminded of Bobby Manchio’s comment that this is a horse of a lifetime, easy to work with but when you flip the switch he goes. A reference to race training but nevertheless an indication that I have two horses in one. 

“R2” was unhappy about leaving his friends and kicked and called traveling down the lane. He settled down on smoother road surfaces and traveled quietly in spite of the pouring rain. He called for friends upon arrival but the resident horses did not answer. Upon taking him into the arena, we walked in hand before going to the mounting block. He continued calling, becoming agitated. I decided to lunge him before getting on. He lunged well in both directions and seemed more quiet. Time to get on ... or not. He refused to stand long enough for me to climb the three steps, let alone put my foot in the stirrup. I tried several times. When 1,100 pounds of agitated horse refuses to stand still, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make it happen. He spun away from the block, backed up, climbed over it. It was clear I was not getting on. 

Alexa was in the arena at this point. We discussed possible reasons for his uncooperative behavior, including discomfort from tack or possibly Lyme exposure. Lyme is possible, and I will have him tested. The saddle has not been a problem so I didn't think that was the issue, although I will check it carefully. I felt this was more an issue of R2 beginning to wake up as he grows up and discovering that he is big, strong, and can say no. This definitely presents a challenge as we move forward.

We decided to do a ground-work session. Alexa uses ground work a lot and I was happy to learn more of her specific techniques for bending, lateral work, and obedience. The exercises really work to ground and focus the horse before getting on. I will use these at home and as we take more field trips off the farm. 

He has been more grumpy in general and I have been observing his behavior, trying to determine probable causes. There are a number of variables that may be contributing factors. Lyme is possible but there are other reasons that come to mind: 

More variety in his work routine to keep him engaged and happy: 

I have been inventing trail obstacles and activities to make training time more fun and engaging. So far, we have worked with a pool noodle gate, a tarp on the ground, an umbrella, side passing over a rail, stepping over a raised rail, and kicking a ball. He is thoroughly enjoying these sessions. Next to come is a teeter-totter bridge, a gate to open and close, and a flag on a pole. 

Saddle fit not quite right: 

I took a very careful look at the saddle fit and found that I was not setting it back far enough, so the panels were sitting over the top of his enormous shoulder blades. A simple adjustment resulted immediately in more willingness to move forward freely.

Perhaps he is feeling tight and would benefit from bodywork:   

As an equine massage therapist, I can provide this for him. 

Changing herd dynamics: 

R2 has been part of a group of four horses since his arrival at White Horse Community Center. They had most recently been living together in a large pasture. One horse was clearly the leader and actively put the other three in their places, even organizing them around their shared slow feeder hay net. R2 and the other two found friendship with each other. About a month ago the lead horse moved to another home temporarily, and the three remaining horses have renegotiated their hierarchy. The new lead horse is a bit more aggressive with the other two, especially over food, and more inclined to be pals with his original pasture mate and not with R2. I am noticing that this dynamic is translating into defensiveness over hay and feed toward people when R2 is in his stall as well as more irritation in general when being handled.

I’m working on regaining his trust and respect as his lead when we are working together. My approach involves a combination of quiet, positive reinforcement of good behaviors with corrections when necessary. Basically, common-sense horsemanship to establish boundaries and reward good choices. I now employ ground-work exercises regularly prior to riding. R2 is showing some improvement in general temperament and he is working well under saddle. I am excited by his potential for both Dressage and Competitive Trail.   

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