Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Desensitizing Halo Carlos to Distractions

Lynn Sullivan with off-track Thoroughbred Halo Carlos. (Images courtesy of Lynn Sullivan)

Well, March sure passed by us quickly! It is now April and spring is in full force. Although I am happy for warmer weather to work in, there are a few challenges with spring that we are dealing with. The biggest challenge this month is deer!

That’s right, deer. The deer population in my neighborhood is rising, and now the small family of three that usually shows up every evening has grown to about 10.

My horse, Halo Carlos, is a nervous, insecure, hot mess. He wants so badly to do the right thing, but sometimes he just can’t seem to get his head in the game. I know he looks forward to our training sessions because he begins with such a willing attitude, but all it really takes is a family of deer to show up and he loses all ability to pay attention! And this deer family shows up just before sunset to graze close to the arena. Then, our entire training session revolves around me working to draw his attention back to me.

During the week, it’s well after 5 p.m. before I can tack him up to ride, so the deer family is already lurking in the trees. I don’t believe in working him in a quiet enclosed space where there are no distractions. We need these distractions to progress toward the well-rounded individual I know he can be. For the past two weeks, I have been trying to desensitize Carlos to the deer that have chosen to use the south end of my property as their favorite dining spot. This has rattled poor Carlos a bit. The deer seem completely uninterested in what we are doing in the arena, but Carlos can’t seem to get past it. He knows where they usually graze, and even if we ride in the morning or middle of the day … he is always wary of the south end of the arena because he is so sure they are watching and just waiting to get him.

Since our last blog, we have been on trail rides and taken lessons off the property. He is always so nervous that he gets a little difficult to handle from the ground. Once I’m in the saddle, thankfully, he settles down. I know he needs a lot of trailering to new places, so we have a plan to work away from the farm at least two times a week for now. At home, we work mostly on softness and lateral control as well as introducing him to new obstacles. He’s actually pretty brave about stepping into water and other things I have asked him to go over, so I’m hoping as he gains confidence with his routine, these distractions won’t be such a big deal for him either.

When I tell people what my plan is for him, they just look at Carlos and ask “Why him?” My only answer is: because he deserves it. Halo Carlos deserves to be given a chance to do something not all retired Thoroughbreds get the chance to do. I realize that several gorgeous, eligible horses go through my program here at Thoroughbred Athletes every month that look like they could be top prospects for most disciplines, but then there is this difficult, little, plain red gelding that would probably be overlooked by most potential adopters, so it’s my job to make him a desirable and trusted mount that has some skills in a show ring in order to secure a good future for him. That’s my plan anyway, and in all honesty, he has come a very long way. He is learning to trust me and not be so grumpy … and I think he may even be starting to like me just a little, because he no longer tries to kick me when I’m grooming him. I actually think he may even be enjoying this a bit, and that in itself is a very big thing!

I have about six months to get this guy confident enough to perform amidst hundreds of distractions and a lot of activity. And all this after a 12 ½-hour drive to the Kentucky Horse Park. It’s not an impossible goal, but it is not an easy one either! I did not even start regularly riding him until early March. We had been dealing with some issues such as ulcers and weight gain, but we are on track now with him and he is doing so much better.  The next few weeks we will be working on his transitions. He’s pretty consistent with his leads but he still needs a lot of work, especially in downward transitions.

At times I feel as though we are way behind in his training, but once he has all the basics solidly in place, we will be able to move much faster. I just know that he will get past all his quirks and insecurities, and once he does, everything will fall into place. To start pushing him into performing before he can mentally handle it would not turn out well for him (or me), and I honestly believe this is the very reason he was a bit of a problem child when he came off the track to begin with. He is not the type of horse that can mentally handle being rushed, and this is the reason I am so careful to stay consistent and not move on until he is comfortable with all the basics.

I’m really quite proud of the changes and small improvements he has worked so hard to accomplish. As his primary handler, I can see him trying, and that alone is a very positive thing. It’s actually all I can ask from him at this point. The best thing now is that he greets me with a nicker and meets me at the front of the stall, or at the gate when he sees me — a big improvement from when he first arrived!

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