It was the one year anniversary of Long Meadow Farm where I board, and Erika (the only other boarder) and I were stumped about what to get Heidi (the barn owner) as a gift. She has two fabulous horses, a tack room of exquisite equipment and the most beautiful barn ever built. It was Erika that finally came up with the perfect idea—one of those giant indestructible balls for the herd to play with! Soon a 40” red and black ball designed like a giant soccer ball became a part of the eclectic assortment of horse training tools that live behind the half wall in our indoor arena.
Rather than toss it out in the paddock and risk the horses being so scared of it they slammed each other into the fences, we carefully planned to introduce each horse to the ball in the safety of the indoor arena under direct supervision. And what better way to encounter a new scary object than with a pal? So we incorporated the buddy system. Erika’s Thoroughbred “Jag” and my Trakehner “Newman” were first.
Scary? At first, especially when it moved, but soon categorized by the amazing equine brain as “another stupid thing my owner makes me do.” Only when we added clicker training and made this the “target” did Jag and Newman wake up and take notice. Then it was “how far can I push this” and “how many times can I bump it with my nose” before I get clicked and treated.
Heidi’s two Trakehners “Tanner” and “Willaker” were not scared of the ball at all when they first saw it. In fact, “Willy,” our “Curious George” of the barn, soon had a front foot on top of it and learned how to pick it up and carry it around (I have to say, these balls ARE durable).
Now for my retired Thoroughbred “Leader.” It’s not that I was putting this moment off. No, I just wanted Newman to be really really comfortable with the ball first, because I knew Leader’s acceptance of the object would depend upon it.
I put Newman in the indoor. I put Leader in the indoor. I rolled the ball from behind the half wall. Newman fell asleep. Leader, however, grew taller and taller, and puffier and puffier, with the whites of his eyes showing. He let out a big snort. This woke Newman up, who looked around, searching for the danger. Upon seeing the red ball, and realizing Leader was snorting at the red ball, he promptly fell back asleep.
For the next hour, I patiently rolled the ball around the indoor, using all my natural horsemanship skills to try and get Leader just to smell it. He didn’t have to bump it or paw it or roll it, just smell it. I tried the ‘advance and retreat method’, I tried the ‘roll it at him when he was facing away and stop rolling when he looked at it method’. I was about to give up when I stumbled upon the ‘roll it under Newman’s belly method’.
See, all this time Leader had been smoothly keeping Newman between him and the ball. So while we were all resting quietly awaiting the next round, I just rolled the ball under sleeping Newman’s belly towards Leader. He smelled it. We quit for the day. Unfortunately, as Leader’s owner for the last 16 years, I know that his brain “reboots” every night while he munches his hay. So I’m quite prepared to do this again tomorrow.