Charlie: Teaching “Step Up” to an Unattached Horse

Charlie is a 14.1 bay Arab gelding who we’re guessing is about 12 years old. He found himself at a sales barn in Washington, and since he came in underweight and loose with no papers, no history, and no obvious training, he was destined for a long, miserable ride to slaughter in Mexico.

Thanks to Arabian rescue pages on Facebook, however, he caught the attention of a few people and some weeks of fundraising enabled Hooves of Promise to rescue him. After he was quarantined, I offered to give him a home until we could evaluate and train him, then find him a new home.

From the start, Charlie has had good ground manners. He trailered well all three times he needed to be hauled. He seems to have a vague idea what to do with a bit in his mouth and tolerates a saddle on his back ok. And he gets along with his herd mates just fine. So why did he get sold?

Well, of course the circumstances are anyone’s guess. His owner could have died, or moved, or gone to school, or couldn’t afford him, or had too many horses. His owner could have sold him to someone else who simply tired of him.

But you’ll discover the most obvious reason Charlie got sold once you’re with him for five minutes and he’s loose in the pasture, because the people in Charlie’s life couldn’t catch him.

Sadly, the problem of catching a horse — such a simple issue with a fairly easy fix — is one of the top ten reasons for horse abandonment.

And the reason Charlie can’t be caught isn’t all that unique.

Charlie isn’t wild. He’s not afraid of people touching him. He was probably handled when he was a foal and a yearling. My guess, because he trailers so well, is he might have been one of many pretty little Arab colts who were shown at halter by his breeder for a year or two before being sold, untrained to ride.

Charlie might have been someone’s dream horse who lived out in a pasture until his owner had time to get around to training him. Only before that happened, Charlie’s owner or trainer taught him a lesson he’s learned way too well.

You see, unlike a wild horse who simply runs away from a person who enters its pasture, Charlie waits — until you’re just about an arm’s length away — and then he bolts. And he doesn’t run away — he runs in a circle — sometimes a perfect circle — around you. Around and around, without stopping or slowing down. If you walk toward him, he runs faster. The only way you can get Charlie to stop is to turn and walk away. And then he stops and looks at you, confused.

Charlie does this circling behavior so consistently that it’s obvious he’s doing what he’s been taught to do. In other words, Charlie is doing exactly what he thinks people want from him, a by-product of a horse who has been round-penned or lunged too much.

Now don’t get me wrong — I use lunging and round-penning for many reasons. But after a decade or more in the Arab world, I’ve seen far too many cases of horses lunged too much. Trainers will lunge a horse to warm —  up their muscles before a ride. Then if the horse is “hot”, they’ll lunge the horse to calm him down. Or they’ll lunge a horse to show it who’s boss. Maybe the trainer doesn’t use a lunge line — maybe the horse gets worked in a round pen. Monty Roberts has had great success as a clinician promoting his method of “Join-Up” to train a horse. I’m not knocking it because I know Monty Roberts doesn’t advocate spending hours and hours driving a horse in a circle.

But that is exactly what was done to Charlie and apparently, it’s one of the few things Charlie knows really, really well. Why did he learn it so well? Because for him it worked. Every time. If he ran in a circle, he didn’t get caught. He never learned Robert’s Join-Up. He never became attached to a person. I know that because if he had, while he was circling me, I would be able to make a move with would slow him down or even tighten the circle in towards me. Heck, I would be able to at least slow him down to check me out if I shook a bucket of oats. But no, once Charlie goes into his circle routine, he doesn’t stop until the person actually leaves.