Friday, November 12, 2010

The Ziggy experiment

Haflingers are a breed of horse named for a village, Halfling, that's now in northern Italy, although it used to be in Austria and most of the people who live there speak German. Things like this happen in Europe--I read once that the Dutch national anthem, "Het Wilhelmus," declares allegiance to the king of Spain.

Anyway. I bring this up because, for the past three weeks, I've been doing groundwork with a rugged, clever Halflinger named Ziggy, full name Sigmund Freud. Ziggy is a school horse, and like a lot of school horses he has some issues with the way he is ridden and handled--he is  nibbly, pushy, a pain to lead, and unfortunately knows his own strength, which he uses to snatch at hay bales and get in some unsponsored, stubborn grazing. Even for fairly skilled people, he's a major pain in the neck to handle, and a few years ago he dragged an inexperienced handler out the barn door and broke her collarbone.

His endless, anxious chewing means his reins are a slimy, toothmarked mess, and he's probably munched any number of cross ties down to a frayed nubbin. Plus sometimes when he's asked to pick up the right-lead canter he runs away, very fast, and scares the bejeezus out of his rider. 

But I can't help it. I like him. He is obviously intelligent and has figured out how to make his life easier with his rapid-fire resistance and his heavyhanded leaning and shoving. It's hard for me not to admire his resilience and his commitment to results, since one of the main outcomes is that no one really wants to ride him. He gets to loaf, which from his perspective is a pretty good arrangement.

But there's also more to Ziggy than I knew: Groundwork has let me feel and see his ferocious anxiety about whips and his defensive posture toward people in general, but at the same time I can also see he wants to trust, wants to be a contributing partner in a horse-to-human relationship. I think maybe he trusted once and still remembers--when I use ground exercises the right way and can get his attention and admiration, he becomes soft and yielding and instantly beautiful. We trot together, halt together, pivot, back up, set our safe boundaries, fool around with poles on the ground, and generally talk about what to do with pressure and how to make pressure go away. He's in the game and interested; I am convinced that Ziggy sees the point of the experiment and the value of what I'm trying to explain.

Today, about halfway through my session, my groundwork coach, Betsy, suggested that I could try gently manipulating Ziggy's tail while he was resting between exercises. I've never really monkeyed much with any horse's tail except to braid, so I carefully felt under his dock and noticed right away how tucked and stiff his whole tailbone was. With help from Becky, I slowly loosened the muscles around the bones so his tail actually arced slightly away from his haunches. As soon as this happened, he dropped his head, mumbled, and then made that little flutter noise that horses make when they have let go of something that worries them. 

Good boy.


  1. Interesting. I never knew that horses sometimes "tuck their tails between their legs" when anxious the way dogs do.

  2. Neither did I. Apparently the tail is an organ of emotion in a lot of critters.

  3. He sounds like my dog in a lot of way--fearful but hopeful, stubborn and pushy, and he's figured out how to keep people in their place. But we're making progress.

  4. and they're both very handsome, too

  5. I just wish he were a little bigger--Halfies are usually half a horse high and two horses wide. He feels big when you're on him until you notice you're an inch off the ground.