My horse, Solomon, is nearly perfect. He's incredibly kind and wants nothing more than to do things right and make me happy and proud. He will go out on his own on the trails and rarely spooks. He bravely leads in front of other horses but is willing to take a back seat and follow. Solomon can match pace with almost any horse of any size and has a super smooth gait. His ability to tolt and fly pace for an Icelandic horse comes easily. He is truly a dream to ride.
Solomon's Journey of Overcoming Fear
However, his one fault is he hates water from a hose. He'll walk through a stream or play and swim in deep water, but the sight or sound of water coming from a hose makes him panic. If water is coming out of a hose anywhere near him, he will break all his ties, bolt, and run away. I've lost Solomon in multiple Georgia forests, played 'dodge the halter' weaving throughout the barns, and he's run away several times here in Florida, all due to his fear of hose water.
After this summer, dealing with a smelly, sweaty horse constantly rolling in black sand and rubbing against trees, leaving dark pitches embedded in his fur, I'd had enough of his ridiculous fears. I knew I lacked the expertise in timing, pressure, and training to help him overcome it, so I hired a trainer.
Building Trust and Confidence
I put a request on a Sarasota Horse Facebook page for someone to work with Solomon, and I found Samanta. She responded quickly and honestly shared her story. She had studied equine training but wasn't a certified trainer yet and was looking for experience. She seemed earnest, dedicated, and patient.
She came out for a trial run, and after spending an hour on groundwork with Solomon to establish her leadership, she went for the hose to see what he would do. But just as she bent down to grab it, Solomon bolted. She held onto the rope as he dragged her, scraping her arm, until she let go. Not a great start!
Samantha didn't fire us and consistently worked with Solomon three days a week with him and building trust. Slowly, we saw progress each week. She first got him to walk near the hose, then to step over it. Eventually, he began walking around the hose and stepping onto it while it was running. It took time, with many minor incidences of jumping, rearing, stomping, and general resistance. Finally, Solomon could do it with confidence.
Gradual Steps Towards Overcoming Fear
Next, she moved him into the wash rack—the very place where the deed is done! Initially, he wouldn't walk through it without bolting. But finally, with the use of flags, wheelbarrows, training sticks, and a great deal of patience, she eventually got him to stand relaxed inside the wash rack.
He was brushed, groomed, and stroked, creating new pathways in his brain; the wash rack meant relaxation, no work, and enjoyable petting. The ruts in his brain about water and hoses, previously entrenched in his brain as deep freeways signaling danger and run, were beginning to change. Now, they were starting to fill up with the grooves becoming more shallow.
It's been three months of patient, consistent work to reprogram his brain, to renew his mind with new experiences, and to build new pathways of trust and comfort. Just last week, I watched Samantha as she approached Solomon with the hose. She taught me to bring the hose close and then pull it away to show Solomon that it was not a threat. I watched her start to shower his legs, gradually bringing the water up to his shoulder and onto his back while he stood tolerating it.
A Breakthrough Bathing Experience
Then it was my turn. I had never successfully given Solomon a bath before. Holding the hose, I looked at the floor, not daring to make eye contact. I brought the hose near him and then moved it away over and over. I splashed his feet with water, pulled the hose back, then splashed his feet again. He stood bravely, hoping he could trust me.
I could feel his eyes watching me as his heart pounded. Slowly, I brought the water up his shoulder, across his belly, and then to his back. He began to relax, and his eyes softened. As I bathed him and soaked him with water, he started to lick his lips and accept what was happening. I could feel him melting into it, growing confident in his new mind.
We soaped Solomon up, watching the dark sand fall off his body, leaving him shining and white. I wanted to cry, laugh, and leap for joy that I finally gave him a bath – cross-tied in the wash rack like a real horse! Such a triumph of patience and love. It was a true testament to faith and belief in his ability to overcome his fears. I knew he could get there with the right help from the right people. The work isn't over yet; we still have more to do to build deep trenches in his brain of positive bath experiences until getting a bath becomes as dull to him as standing in his stall.
Faith, Patience, and Love
This experience has taught me incredible wisdom about the brain and the mind. I, too, have default brain responses that aren't healthy or pleasant. I get triggered and default to unhealthy habits. Watching Solomon's progress has inspired me to resist the temptation of wine, unhealthy food, and sweets. These cravings are just pathways in the brain that need new grooves.
I've realized that I can enjoy myself in social settings or eat a steak without red wine. I can set an intention and stick to it. I can commit my heart to a goal and see it through. Whenever I feel weak or lack confidence, I can imagine Solomon's eyes transforming from fear to trust. It's a triumph of faith, patience, and love.