Tzeri is one of the two spunky mini stallions I was asked to work with this summer at the Riding Academy of Crete in Karteros (IAKK). The request was made for me to teach them ground manners and to improve their behavior (biting, rearing, kicking). If I had only heard about these two boys, I may have not accepted. But, looking at them---Oh, my dear! Love at first sight.
My first impression on getting them out of their stalls is that, yes, as told, they were evasive, aggressive when unsure, and used to getting their way. Tzeri tried to make a run for it, and Asterix pranced and neighed and acted threatening. The little girl in me looked at them through eyes of love and a desire to connect, and I turned to the budding horse trainer in me to formulate my plan for reaching them.
The old horse trainer me of as recently as a year ago might have been offended by their behavior and focused on getting the two stallions “to listen.” Thankfully, after much study, peer sharing, and experience, the new me took their behavior simply as information. Not information to judge them with (“Oh, they are so misbehaved”), but to understand them (“They seem lost, unsure of what to expect”).
Sure, I got control of them, and got them safely to the arena, but I did not ask or demand much else. I let them free, to run, roll, and buck, and just observed them. They ran as if their lives depended on it and kept far away from me for the most part. These horses were telling me a lot about themselves, their past experience, their current expectations; most of it was not very positive. Immediately, what I planned to do with them changed.
Out was the plan for: “How can I get them to do such and such?” and in was: “How can I help them feel better about working with humans?”
Tzeri, the tiniest horse I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, was a black and white ball of energy. He had the strongest presence and stubborn streak of the two horses. He seemed fearless, but his restlessness also spoke of a deep intelligence that had not been tapped. As I watched him run (and run, and run) with measured steps and grace on day one, I thought “How hard and frustrating it must be for Tzeri to be a glorious, proud Warmblood trapped in the body of a miniature stallion that everyone wants to pet, kiss, and coo over.” Sure, his cuteness was unavoidable, but he was more than just cute. He was smart, talented, and a showman. What a wondrous male specimen he was!
As I began to work with him on day one, he often ignored me or showed me his rump, telling me how used he was to outsmarting or intimidating humans to get his way (which was, to “get away”). He also rolled repeatedly. But why? He didn’t seem scared or worried, so I don’t think he was abused in the past. He might have been coddled too much, but that was not the main problem. What was it?
I got it! Boredom, surely. I think boredom was at the core of his bully-ish attitude. A sort of equine existential crisis---as if he knew that there could be so much more to life, but…what could that be?
“Well,” I thought, “let’s explore the answer to your question, Tzeri!” Getting coddled and pet was not what he wanted, at least, without earning it, so maybe it was time to give him a challenge. Yes, I was sure that this clever, energetic guy needed stimulation, not rote groundwork exercises and commands that he needed to mindlessly follow.
So, on day two, I rounded up some human reinforcements to scour the Riding Academy for anything that could serve as an obstacle in an equine obstacle course. Leonidas, the jumping instructor, dug up a wood plank from behind the stables. Saab, the stable manager, found me a tarp buried under saddle pads. I grabbed a couple of empty buckets.
My true intention with this course was to blow Tzeri’s mind with it and shock him into curiosity. Instead, ‘twas I who was blown away. Unlike day one, when I let him loose in the small, covered arena, and he ran for five minutes straight, on day two, Tzeri ran for about 30 seconds before noticing the tarp. In an instant, he formulated a strategic plan to conquer it, but, first, he needed an audience. So, as he ran in a large arc along the wall towards the tarp, he swerved towards me and shook his lovely mane to to catch my attention. He then stopped at the edge of the tarp, sniffed it, and walked right over it with sassy steps, looking at me out of the corner of his eye to see if I noticed how amazing he was. How could I not? He had me at “Hello!”
I celebrated him verbally and let him roam around some more before he very willingly approached me. I snapped on a lead line and led him onto the tarp again, and then had him stand on a narrow wooden plank. When he didn’t quite walk over it as planned, he, himself, with no cueing from me, turned himself around and lined up at the plank asking me to ask him to do it again. Unbelievable!
Gone was the hyper, self-centered, bored, non-focused Tzeri--he became quiet and engaged, and even stood still for longer than 30 seconds! I found him very communicative from that point on, showing me what he liked, didn’t like, what he was interested in, or not. Oh, if only I had more time. This boy is special!
After those obstacles, I wanted to give him a bit more technical work, so I took him on the line over to the buckets. I asked him for lots of changes of direction, some subtle, some big, around the upturned buckets which I had placed in a flower pattern; he thrived on this work! I could slow down my cues and still get his attention, he could slow down his feet and enjoy the flow, and, because he was moving with a nice bend, he began to feel very good mentally and physically, too.
On days two and three, at the end of our work, I began to test Tzeri. I set him free, and then asked him to engage with me at liberty—come to me, then walk with me. He passed with flying colors. After that, I would ask for this same engagement at the start of our sessions, and was always amazed that he would come in, even if it took him a few proud laps around the ring first! I could see that he now understood that being alone was no longer rewarding, whereas working with his human was.
This new attitude showed up even in his stall; Tzeri was bright-eyed and ready at the gate of his stall after day one. He walked like a gentleman into the ring, ready for fun and stimulus, which I was sure to have ready! Although I only got to work with him a handful of times, our work together just got better and better, and he even helped me teach an intern how to do groundwork with him. I loved the expression on her face when she saw Tzeri’s true self come out from under the layers of perceived misbehavior.
The most satisfying part of it all was when Tzeri and I walked out of an arena, more proud, happy, and calm than when we entered.
Dearest Tzeri, you are now ready to own your greatness; thank you for letting me show you a glimpse of it.