Welcome, to start things off, I will tell you a story. You know the old saying, "Never look a gift horse in the mouth."? This tale is about the horse to which this blog is dedicated and for which it is named.
I have been riding all my life, even before I could walk my father would put me on his horse with him and hold me on while she walked around the yard. By the time I was old enough to start showing in 4-H, I was a very confident rider, able to handle just about any horse I was given. I was taught in the typical Southern (Western style) riding traditions, and had taken a few years of lessons at a Dressage barn to help refine my balance and give me a more secure seat and better hands. The horse I will tell you about tested everything I knew and taught me so much more.
I received Darlin', a small gaited mare, as a gift about thirteen years ago. She belonged to some friends of my Dad's who own a large dairy on the state line. Part of their land is in Texas, and the rest is in Louisiana. Darlin' came from the barn that was on the Louisiana side. Because she was not stabled near where her owners lived, they seldom saw her and were unaware that she was being ridden and abused by the hired workers. As a result, I did not know about her problems until I got her home. One of the first things I discovered about Darlin', was her extreme mistrust of people, especially men. The person she feared most was our farrier. Unfortunately, she had a problem with one front hoof. It had been neglected for so long, a rock that had become lodged in the bottom of the hoof had worked its way up and out of the top of the hoof, leaving a gaping hole. This needed the immediate attention of a farrier, but Darlin' was so afraid of him it took us nearly an hour to calm her down enough for him to repair the hoof. She would tremble violently every time he approached her, and if she did something wrong, like pull her foot away, she retreated to the end of the rope, expecting punishment. Also, in those first few weeks, I learned that Darlin' was almost impossible to catch. This was especially true if she was in a large pasture. When she saw me coming, she would immediately take off at a full gallop in the opposite direction. I decided to try luring her in with grain, but when I tried to approach her while she was eating, she would become alarmed and take off. She had obviously learned to associate this with being ridden and abused. After so many years of mistreatment, she no longer trusted humans. The only way I could get near her was to herd her into a small corral and corner her.
Not only was Darlin' difficult to catch, she was also hard to ride. The people who had been riding her rode hard and fast, and they used severe equipment. They ruined her mouth making it was very difficult to stop her, and she frequently became a runaway. I had to resort to more and more severe equipment and restraints to be able to control her. This frustrated me. I do not like to see any animal unnaturally restricted, and it hurt me to do this to her. But at the time, I really didn't know what else to do. All of the "trainers" I asked would simply tell me to go to a stronger bit, or a tighter tie-down. I could also tell from the many scars on her legs and body that she had once been tangled in a barbed-wire fence. There were scars on her face too, probably caused by a too-tight halter. Darlin' was also very “head-shy”, a sign that she had probably been beaten on the head. She expected to be punished for everything. She was absolutely nuts, it was a fight every time I tried to ride her. We would go everywhere at top speed with her head in the air and me pulling as hard as I could. Cripes she was FAST. She was a fabulous barrel horse, but you couldn't STOP her. The more frustrated I got, the more difficult she became. She was a danger to everyone around her. The trainer and 4-H agent told me to get rid of her, that she was crazy and I shouldn't try to do anything with her and that it wasn't worth it. They told me that since she was a gaited horse and not a QH or a Paint that she was hopeless because "everyone knows that those saddle horses are stupid and crazy". We came up against so much breed prejudice, everyone else rode Quarter Horses, and I was told it was a waste of time to try to compete against them. She had so much "GO" and so much heart, it seemed such a waste that she was really unrideable. After a year of fighting her, I was ready to give up, but I couldn't bear the thought of sending her back. For all her faults, I still liked her. There was something special there, I just had to find a way to get her to let it out. After thinking for a long time, and doing a lot of reading, I finally decided to throw out all of the "hardware" and start "reprogramming" Darlin' as if she were a green horse. I began retraining her using far less severe equipment, and since her mouth was ruined, teaching her to respond to voice and leg aids. This took many months, and a great deal of patience.
As the training went on, with rewards and positive reinforcement, she began to slowly respond. She began to trust again. She stopped expecting punishment. With this breakthrough, training suddenly became easier. Darlin' learned quickly and enjoyed every new thing I taught her. Darlin' was turning into a wonderful horse. However, all of the positive steps Darlin' made were at home under controlled circumstances. When she was around other horses and crowds, she reverted to her old behavior. She seemed to feed off of the excitement and tension. This discouraged me, because I wanted to compete in horse shows with her. I had tried entering some speed events with her and she placed well, but she would still become dangerously excited when we entered the ring. This resulted in a major knee injury for me, and another setback for Darlin'. We went back to just riding at home and on trails, doing a lot of schooling on transitions, stopping and turning and remaining calm. She was still progressing, becoming easier to handle and had become an extremely sensitive horse. She would respond to the slightest touch, and faced each new challenge with amazing intelligence. She was fearless, nothing bothered her. We started schooling over small jumps and learning some Dressage principles. She was developing into an amazing horse.
That being said, I had pretty much given up on ever being able to take her anywhere when something happened to change everything. Every year our town has a festival, and I was planning to ride my other, calmer horse in the parade, but a minor injury sidelined him. So, against my better judgement, I decided to take Darlin' instead. To my surprise she made it through the entire parade without mishap. Nothing seemed to bother her, not the other horses, the crowds, the sirens or the floats. She did it because she trusted me when I patted her neck and told her it was all right. After that, I discovered that I could take her anywhere; as long as I remained calm and told her it was O.K. As a result, I was encouraged to enter her in our local horse show. I did this for two reasons: first, there is a great deal of prejudice against Darlin's breed among the horse show crowd; second, I wanted to prove to everyone that it does not take a bunch of hardware to control a horse. I refused to put a curb bit on her for the show, telling the 4-H agent and the judges that she was a rehab case and if they didn't like my loose ring snaffle they could just place me last, but I had a right to compete. Apparently the judge thought it was just fine. Darlin' and I did very well that day, and although we did not win every class we entered we were in the top three every time. Against the people with their professionally trained QH's and their expensive tack. There we were with the same people who said we could not do it, and we did it together with trust and understanding.
Darlin' remains a wonderful, loving, and trusting friend. Though she can be somewhat distant at times, she is very expressive and, at times, seems almost human. I can now ride her completely without a bridle and control her using only voice commands and light touches with my legs. She will never again know the brutality of a severe bit or be beaten for being afraid.
Darlin' is now 27 years old, and is still full of life. She suffered a minor fracture in her right hock a few years ago, and is now fully recovered. Though she is not as young as she used to be, she never shows it, she still gets upset with me if I come home and don’t take her out for a ride. She nearly tore down the fence when I tried to ride her three year old in front of her. She and I have such a deep connection; we have learned so much from one another. Three years ago, she gave me a filly that is her made over. I have great hopes for her, she is as I think Darlin’ might have been if she had been given the chance. Sensitive and full of life, but intelligent and gentle, willing to please. Darlin' has come a long way since those first trying times, we both have. As a result of my working with her, I have developed a deeper understanding of the equine psyche and have learned some useful horse training skills. These skills have allowed me to help other horses with many of the same problems that Darlin' had. Rehabilitating her taught me that nothing is hopeless, and that perseverance and patience pay off in the end.