Rags in Rescue
Last summer, I lost my precious Morgan of 23 years, and knew that I needed another horse to help me deal with the grief. I wanted a rescue horse, one that would need me badly. I found him. "Rags" was a case of starvation and the most horrific physical abuse, who luckily landed in rescue before the "owner"--whom, as I have reason to believe, was probably a dealer who tried to break his spirit--managed to kill him.
When he arrived at rescue, poor Rags was almost too weak to walk. IV fluids were poured into him, and weeks passed before he could leave the barn. By the time he grew stronger, the rescuers discovered that the horse they had posted as "greenbroke" was nearly psychotic from his ordeal, and would lash out in terror at the smallest unexpected movement or noise. His profile on Petfinder was removed, and serious work began.
Under kind hands, Rags made steady progress in trust. He learned to stand and be handled, and started to come to people in the pasture. But before his formal training could begin, his handler experienced a personal crisis that required her attention--and she knew that Rags could never deal with a 60 day program from any outside trainer who didn't know him. That meant another year of pasture time--which was, in its own way, good for Rags.
Then, I found his new profile on Petfinder.
When I went to adopt him, I found the rescuers rather vague on the details of where and how they found him, but clear enough that he would always need special handling, and care. His training would be my responsibility from now on. I knew that as a rider with thirty years of experience, I could work with him.
Let me say now that I had no idea.
Neither, I think, did they. Perhaps, if they had tried to advance Rags to saddling and riding, they would have discovered his real issues sooner. Instead, they knew him as a sweet baby who loved to come for his supper, and enjoyed kisses and petting, one who would always be fearful and need patience. His sudden, violent explosions lay in the past.
Fortunately for Rags, and for me, I decided to start him over from the very beginning. Halter, lead rope, stand, tie, brush, pick up feet. He seemed to have little training of any kind, but within a few months, he improved with everything but feet. That took much longer. He began to follow me around his paddock, and learned to love carrots. He seemed to be happy. Then one day, I put my arms over his back in the stall, and leaned on him.
In an instant, Rags shied sharply. I thought it was a fluke and tried again. This time he bolted in terror and slipped and fell in the stall. When he got to his feet again, he was trembling, with a horrible blank look in his eyes. I touched his forehead, talking and soothing him--I admit I was crying; I couldn't believe what this horse had been through. Rags seemed to calm down, but when I approached him on that side again, only to touch him, he swung around and squared off with me, and stood there shaking. I don't believe he wanted to hurt me. I believe if I had moved at that moment, I might not be writing this. And even then, I still had no idea of the depth of his fear.
I've been learning it over this past year, through farrier visits and vet visits, unwanted medications and slow, slow, slow daily work. People who look at him can't imagine his problems. The memories, the hypervigilance, the authority issues, the panic that surfaces at the most unexpected moments. I love him beyond words, and I'm thankful to God that he landed in no one's hands but mine. For a young 4-H rider, a teen who wants to train and show, or even a kindly person with some horse experience, Rags would be deadly. At the moments when fear overcomes him, he can, and still does, erupt like a volcano--instantly. He does not understand that people are breakable. He does not understand that he needs to obey. He cannot be taught these things by any normal methods.
As of this writing, I've stretched far beyond anything I ever thought I knew about horse training. Rags has a great heart, a beautiful form, and promising athletic ability. If, in rescue, he had looked the way he does now, a dozen people would have wanted to adopt him. The odds are very long against the chance that he would have been suitable for any of them. In fact, it will be some time in the future before I can ride him. I will never be able to trust him to another rider.
Rags is happy, and so am I, but each day brings the faint recognition, that yes, today is the day when he may seriously injure me, accidentally, without malice. I have every hope these days will pass, and I pray we'll both survive happily into Rags' old age. I'm re-reading what I've written here, and wondering: does it sound strange that I should love him so much? Or persist? Maybe I wouldn't, if he didn't love me--or if I didn't see such fantastic potential in him. But Rags is going to be a great horse.
To put no finer point on it, though--if you cannot afford to risk a horse like Rags, try before you buy. If you take an unbroken horse from a rescue, make sure that they will allow you to return the horse at any time. Proceed with caution. Do not make assumptions that the horse knows everything it should. With a halter and lead rope on him, Rags was presumably halterbroke. He wasn't, and he didn't know how to lead, either. (He does now.)
Expose a horse to new stimuli carefully. More, if you ever (I didn't) decide to send a horse to a trainer, investigate that trainer first! Rags and any formal program would (still) be a disaster of magnitude. Talk to your trainer about how they will handle disciplinary problems and make sure their approach squares with your own.
A horse from a legitimate rescue is not a guaranteed problem-free horse. His real problems with authority didn't surface until months after I got him. As he grew more comfortable with me, it became apparent that not only had his will never been mastered, but he didn't see the smallest reason to obey--and he knew by now that nobody could make him!
I did say this was turning out happily, didn't I?
Because love and prayer and patience do work wonders. Last night, for the first time, nearly a year since his fall, I threw my arms across Rags' back and leaned on him. He stood there quietly, eating his supper.
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