Every Horse Can Become Great (Even the Damaged or Difficult Ones)

brown horse with white stripe on face

The wonderful, and impressive, thing about horses is how quick they are to learn. It's both a blessing and a curse: when a horse creates a bad association with a person, experience or piece of tack, that association lasts for a long time. Likewise, good or pleasant associations can be stored in memory and can even be taught to replace the negative ones over time.

I adopted Gracie from a rescue in 2015. She had sustained permanent back injuries, starvation, and a great deal of trauma, and even after recovering physically had developed a nasty habit of biting people. Unfortunately that made her a poor candidate for adoption, and she was largely overlooked and avoided by people. I was determined to give her a chance, and I'm so glad I did, because she turned out to be my heart horse and we had a wonderful 5 years together before she succumbed to liver failure.

At the time that I adopted Gracie, I had many years of riding experience under my belt and had owned one other horse. But nothing had prepared me for the challenges that lay ahead with an unrideable, crabby chestnut mare. She was truly my crash course on horse psychology, way before I even started my formal studies. In the beginning, I followed my intuition, mostly: approaching her slowly, gradually getting closer in proximity and stopping whatever I was doing whenever she started to get irritated (grooming, etc. -- and her threshold was only a few seconds when we first started). At the time I didn't know about habituation, sacking out, desensitizing, positive reinforcement, etc., but somehow we muddled through. I am certain that I made mistakes and sometimes pushed too hard, too fast or used more pressure than necessary -- my broken toe can testify to that -- but in the end the previously untouchable horse stopped biting people and started licking complete strangers' arms over the fence. What's more, she had become quiet, contented and dare I say, happy, which was such a wonderful thing to behold after her terrible history.

Gracie is a testament to the fact that every horse, no matter how damaged or difficult or challenging, has potential to be a great companion or mount. Riding wasn't in the cards for Gracie because of her permanent injuries, but she was the first horse I introduced my infant son to, and my absolute pride and joy for several years. And she still is, because she proved that love, patience and compassion can overcome bad experiences, abuse, neglect and most levels of trauma. She is the inspiration needed to give other horses like her a second chance.