On a sunny day in March 1992, a shaggy 2-year-old Appaloosa gelding named Slow Down cautiously stepped off a horse trailer and into my life.
I clearly remember his first few minutes on Texas soil. He stood quietly on our gravel driveway, his eyes adjusting to the bright sunlight, his ears flicking back and forth, as he carefully took in the sounds of his new home?including the good-natured ribbing being lobbed my way from the farm help.
I?d laughed with them as I inspected my new Western pleasure prospect?s appearance. Life in a Tennessee pasture had left his mousey brown coat sun bleached, with burrolike markings on his face and legs. His gangly body gave him an awkward look, like that of a teenager between growth spurts. But I knew from the way he moved on the home video I?d seen?and from his bloodlines?that there was more to this youngster than first met the eye.
And there was?much more. I?d eventually discovered that beneath Slow Down?s awkward exterior beat the heart of a world champion. But on the way to that discovery, I?d uncover something disturbing in his mind. Lurking there was a deadly fear, one that when triggered, would endanger me, my husband, Clint, and our help. It was a fear so destructive, it nearly destined the gelding to an uncertain fate, rather than to world-caliber competition. As Clint would later say, Slow Down should have come with a warning label.
Slow Down first caught my eye in February ?92, when his breeder sent me a video showing the 21-month-old youngster free-longeing in a round pen. I had a vested interest in this gelding?he was by my world champion Western pleasure and reining stallion, Sun Down Q. Sun Down, whom we lost to colic, had been a personal favorite because of his winning temperament and his talent, both of which he passed to his offspring.
Though the tape?and Slow Down?were a little rough, I liked what I saw. The youngster moved around the pen with balance and coordination, able to maintain a naturally level topline at the walk, jog, and lope. While his jog was merely adequate for Western pleasure, his lope?the cornerstone of a winning performer in that event?was exceptional. He would softly step off into it, maintaining a balanced, cadenced stride with very little knee or hock movement. I knew I could improve his jog with proper training, but a horse is either born a good loper, or he's not.
Slow Down?s ability to maintain such a lope on a relatively small circle, without breaking down into the trot or speeding up, also meant he was physically strong enough through his back and hindquarters to withstand the tough training schedule necessary to show in 2-year-old Western pleasure futurities. And this colt was born with something else that added to his appeal: a consistently pleasant, ears-up expression, which not only indicated a willingness to work, but also would present a pleasing picture in the show pen. All that, combined with his $1,200 price tag, made me say, ?yes.?
What's In A Name?
The shaggy brown gelding (immediately nicknamed Brownie) seemed to have taken his Tennessee-to-Texas trailer trek in stride. I gave him a day to acclimate, watching him closely as I groomed and handled him, to see how much time he needed to settle in. He greeted his new surroundings?and me?with a cautious curiosity, revealing a level-headed, but sensitive, attitude. My years of experience in training youngsters told me that Brownie was ready to go to work, but also clued me in that his cautious approach to life meant he?d need a low-pressure training program designed to slowly build up his confidence. Pushing such a horse before he's mentally ready can result in a mental ?blowup,? akin to a nervous breakdown.
With that strategy in mind, I began Brownie?s training program the following day. His previous owner told me she?d ridden him in a round pen a total of five or six times; I?d assumed from watching him on the video that he?d had a solid foundation of ground work, as well. My plan was to tack him up, then longe him in the round pen, before climbing aboard. To be safe, I?d first ride him in a small, confined, alleylike area, where I could quickly steer him into a corner if he acted up. If all went well there, we?d graduate to the round pen, and from there, to our small arena.
Brownie accepted the tacking up and longeing without a fuss. Confident that he was going to stay quiet, I led him to the first small enclosure, and mounted up. He remained relaxed, trying to understand and respond correctly to my simple start-turn-stop cues. After about 15 minutes, I knew he was ready to graduate to the round pen.
Once there, I kept my hands low and quiet, asking Brownie to move away from my legs at the walk, and to follow my leading-rein cues around large circles and other figures. I then asked him to jog, and finally to lope, immediately feeling the balance and cadence I?d seen on the video.
My husband, reining horse trainer Clint Haverty, had been watching us work, and was impressed with my new prospect. He offered to ride Brownie out in the small arena for m, so I could see the natural ability I was feeling. We had no way of knowing that we were about to see Slow Down live up to his name.
Clint slowly swung up into the saddle. To accustom Brownie to his heavier weight, he sat for a minute, chatting with me as he went to light up a cigarette. Without warning, Brownie bolted, heading at a blind dead run toward the arena fence. I watched with a sick feeling of helplessness as Clint quickly recovered his balance, then muscled the frenzied gelding off his deadly path and onto a circle. Gradually he decreased the circle?s size, until Brownie was forced to stop.
My heart was pounding?what had caused Brownie to run off? Neither Clint nor I had heard or seen anything to cause such an explosive reaction. It's natural for a sudden noise or movement to trigger a horse's flight response, particularly that of a young, fresh horse. But Brownie had been worked for almost an hour before Clint got on him. Besides, a flight response generally manifests itself in the form of a ?shy? or ?spook??kind of a jump-away-then-take-a-second-look maneuver. Brownie?s run-through-a-fence terror was, well, terrifying.
As we discussed the eerie incident, Clint sat quietly in the saddle, his hand on Brownie?s neck in an attempt to calm the still-frightened gelding. When Brownie finally relaxed and dropped his head, Clint decided to smoke that much-needed cigarette. As he reached up to light it, Brownie once again bolted, running straight toward the arena fence. Clint repeated the muscle-down-to-a-circle-and-stop maneuver, then swung off the shaking Brownie, handed me the reins, and told me in no uncertain terms that the gelding wasn?t ready to be ridden.
I numbly nodded my agreement, and led the frightened youngster back to the barn. That night, I developed a revised plan: I?d use ground work to build a new training foundation. I?d spend the next two weeks longeing, ground-driving, hobble training, and sacking out Brownie, all of which would enable me to advance his training?and instill obedience?without risking my life. But there was no time to waste if I was going to have him ready for July?s National Championship Appaloosa Horse Show.
The two-week ground-work period gave Brownie and me a chance to get to know one another better. I found myself forming a bond with him that I hadn?t had with any other horse but Sun Down. I spent extra time grooming and handling him?even playing with him in the turnout pen, where he?d follow me around like a puppy. Brownie gained confidence daily; his intelligence and willing attitude made him a quick study. Best of all, there was no sign of his runaway behavior. At the end of those 14 days, I felt he was ready to ride.
As I had two weeks earlier, I reviewed Brownie?s ground lessons before riding him. He was mellow and willing, so I took him to the round pen, and mounted up. He worked like a dream, keeping his neck and head level and steady as he moved with natural balance and cadence. After about an hour, I moved him to the small arena, and continued to work.
One of our assistant trainers, Jimmy Kiser, had been watching us, and was impressed with Brownie?s natural ability. Eager to see whether the horse looked as good as he felt, I asked Jimmy to get on and ride him for me. The young trainer happily obliged, quietly swinging up, and gently settling in the saddle. Then Jimmy reached up to adjust his hat before asking the horse to walk off.
Brownie bolted. My heart was in my throat as I watched Jimmy?caught completely off-guard?scrambling to regain his balance. The more he scrambled, the faster Brownie ran?and he was heading straight toward the fence. Unable to regain his seat so he could muscle the runaway onto a circle, Jimmy managed instead to point Brownie?s nose into a corner, hoping the horse would stop, rather than slam into the fence. Brownie did stop, but Jimmy was hurled to the ground.
Brownie immediately spun around, taking off once more in a desperate attempt to escape his invisible demons. I ran to Jimmy, who was shaken?and real mad?but unhurt. We both watched in horrified amazement as my pleasure prospect tore madly around the arena, bouncing into fences, tearing up my saddle. Finally, lathered and exhausted, he stopped.
Now I had to wrestle with my own demons, for I knew I had to get on Brownie and ride him, so he?d finish the lesson on a positive note. If I didn't, he could associate having a rider on his back with abject terror. As Jimmy looked on, I slowly swung up on the horse's back, gently settling into my battered saddle. Keeping my hands low while maintaining even, at-the-ready rein contact, I focused my attention on the gelding?s head, hoping I?d see?or somehow feel?any sign of impending doom.
After allowing him to stand and calm down for a few long minutes, I cautiously walked Brownie to the arena?s short end, then slowly worked him from corner to corner, tightly turning him back into the fence, rather than toward the center of the arena. Doing so meant he?d always see a fence in front of him?and I?d always have a nearby barrier with which to stop him if he bolted. Once Brownie?s head dropped to its natural level, indicating he was relaxed, I stopped him, gave him a big pat, and dismounted. My heart didn't stop pounding until I?d put him away.
That night, I told Clint about Brownie?s latest incident. Having himself survived two unexplained, back-to-back episodes on the horse, Clint was concerned that Brownie was going to hurt somebody, most likely me. I had to admit that the very thought of riding the gelding made my blood pressure rise. Heck, after today, no one at our facility wanted to ride him. The horse was unpredictable?and dangerous. But what could we do? We couldn?t just sell him to some unsuspecting person. Though Clint knew I?d grown attached to Brownie, he quietly suggested that we might have to consider taking steps to remove the gelding from the Haverty horse population.
But I wasn?t ready to quit. I knew in my heart that Brownie wasn?t a bad horse. He wasn?t trying to hurt his rider?he was running away out of fear. But what triggered that fear? Until I had the answer, Brownie?s future was tenuous.
On the Ropes
Throughout the evening, I replayed my ?memory tape? of the runaway incidents, searching for clues to Brownie?s bizarre behavior. Finally, it dawned on me that each had one thing in common: Just before Brownie bolted, both Clint and Jimmy had raised a hand?Clint to light a cigarette, and Jimmy to straighten his hat. Whenever I?d ridden the horse, I?d kept my hands low and steady?and he?d never run off with me.
But how would I test my theory, without climbing aboard Brownie and risking life and limb? And what had happened to cause his violent reaction to such an innocent gesture? I looked back on his few weeks at our farm, trying to recall anything that could?ve traumatized him. Nothing came to mind Slowly, I began to suspect that Brownie?s fear probably was rooted in his Tennessee past. There was only one way to find out.
With growing excitement, I called his former owner, briefly explaining the dangerous behavior. Naturally, she was surprised that her ?gentle? gelding was terrorizing our farm. But she also was eager to help me find the answer to his behavior?so I would stand a chance of finding the solution.
She recalled no remarkable events during her few rides on the horse, but did remember a time she?d hired an ol? cowboy to come rope her colts, as a part of their ground training. And in thinking back, she remembered that Brownie had been terrified of the rope snaking through the air toward?and sometimes over?his head. To escape both rope and roper, the horse had frantically dashed around the pen.
As she described the incident, the puzzle pieces fell into place in my mind. It was easy to see how a quick, hand-up gesture would resemble a roper?s release?and thus trigger in Brownie the terror he felt that day. His reaction? To fall back on the escape mechanism he?d used to dodge the lariat-frenzied flight.
But Now What?
I shared my discovery with Clint, who agreed with my rope-fear theory. Now, we needed to figure out how to teach Brownie to control that fear, without hurting him?or us. Clint suggested using a hobble-like form of restraint, called side-lines, that connects forelegs to hind legs in diagonal pairs; once Brownie?s accepted the restrain, Clint would gradually desensitize him to the lariat, in a variation of sacking him out.
In experienced hands, side-lines are safe, and more effective than standard hobbles in preventing escape. Whereas a horse with traditional hobbles can either hop or awkwardly gallop away, any attempt to flee in side-lines will trip him up. Once he realizes his flight option has been eliminated, he learns to control his fear.
We began the desensitization program the next day. Brownie was saddled up and led to the soft dirt in the middle of our large arena, well away from the fence. Clint and Jimmy carefully applied the side-lines, ten stepped back. (Had Brownie not had previous hobble training, he would have been introduced to that form of restraint before he was side-lined.)
Brownie quickly tested the restraint device, and just as quickly figured out he must stand quietly. Clint then approached him holding a lariat. Brownie?s first reaction?run!?was stopped short by the side-lines. As the gelding clumsily struggled against them, Clint slowly walked around him, gently slapping the rope against the ground and his legs. Whenever Brownie stood still, Clint would walk up and pet him. Soon, Clint progressed to rubbing Brownie with the rope, working his way around the gelding?s body.
From there, Clint stepped back, gently tossing the rope at the horse. Brownie?s runaway light was flashing, but he couldn?t run away. After he quit scrambling against the side-lines, he hopped around in place, turning to face Clint wherever he went, and eyeing the object of his fear. Clint continued to gently toss the rope, hitting the saddle horn, the gelding?s head, his butt, his legs. Any time Brownie stood quietly, Clint would walk up and pet him, then rub him with the rope.
Jimmy and Clint repeated the side-line-rope-and-pet routine for three days, until Brownie showed no signs of fight-or-fear. Jimmy then took on the role of guinea pig, and swung up into the saddle, rope in hand. He gently tossed the rope over Brownie?s head?and Brownie stood for it. It was time for my pleasure prospect to get back to work.
Ready to Ride
The side-line program was Brownie?s turning point. From then on, his confidence grew daily?as did mine. I once again started riding him, beginning each session with a ground-work review. His progress shot forward?until the day I tried to ride him in a pen where Clint and the other guys were schooling their reiners. Brownie was unnerved by the horses galloping toward and past him. But even this dark cloud of a discovery had a silver lining, For rather than running away with me in terror, Brownie would simply spook and spin around. I knew he was learning to control his fear.
But I had to deal with his fear of crowds, so he could handle warm-up pen and show-pen conditions at a horse show. Clint and I discussed this latest problem, and instituted a three-way, crowd-desensitization plan, utilizing side-lines, ponying, and round-pen work.
Clint would side-line Brownie, then leave him standing out in the arena as he and the guys worked their reiners. As with the rope program, Clint and the guys gradually built up to the point were galloping at, by, and around the gelding, rewarding him with pats whenever he stood quietly.
Before and/or after his side-lines sessions, I?d free-longe Brownie in the round pen with two experienced, nonaggressive horses, to get him used to working on the rail in traffic. I?d then pony him, until he was comfortable working in close proximity to another horse. The plan worked: Soon Brownie was performing with confidence in equine traffic, focusing his attention on me, rather than on the other horses. It was May of ?92?Brownie was ready for his first horse show.
Brownie?s horse-show debut was a success: He took the noise and activity at the small open show in stride, and won his walk-trot classes. He also showed me an area in which he still needed to build confidence: facing oncoming horses in the crowded warm-up pen. Discovering this problem helped me to formulate a strategy we could implement before his next competition (an Appaloosa show in Oklahoma), then use to prepare him for the Nationals in July.
The strategy was simple: I?d continue to expose Brownie to traffic, and get him used to working away from home, by hauling him to neighboring training facilities. We were fortunate such pleasure greats as Doug Lilly, Steve Heckaman, Tom Chown, and Mike Moser lived nearby. The opportunity to haul over and ride with them also allowed me to get their feedback on my gelding?s progress.
At the Oklahoma show, Brownie still showed some anxiety in the warm-up pen. But I discovered he was more confident at the long-trot than at a lope, probably because it was easier for him to balance at that gait. I long-trotted him until he settled down, then worked on slowing him down, and he entered the show pen relaxed and ready. We won the class.
Before I knew it, we were headed to Ohio for the Nationals. Using what I?d learned at Brownie?s first two shows, my plan was to avoid the peak-hours, warm-up-pen chaos by riding Brownie late at night. I also decided that if my horse showed any signs of fear or anxiety, I wouldn?t show him.
The youngster handled the long trailer ride, and the sights and sounds of his first Nationals like a pro. He was working beautifully for me, so I decided to enter him in 2-year-old snaffle bit Western pleasure. We wound up fourth?I was thrilled. I set my sights on the Appaloosa World Show in November.
Brownie kept getting better and better. Before I knew it, November had arrived, and we were at the World Show?the time had come for Brownie to show against the best 2-year-old Appaloosas in the world. And, once again using our long-trot, school-in-the-dead-of-night warm-up strategy, I thought we were ready for them. I showed Brownie in the prestigious Appaloosa Pleasure Horse Association Futurity; we ended up seventh overall. His consistent performance in each go-round earned me the title of high-point lady rider. Still, I knew we could do better?and that Brownie wasn?t the problem, I was.
My friends and fellow trainers had pointed out that while my warm-up routine was ?taking the edge off? Brownie, it also was wearing him out. He was entering the show pen tired?and that hampered his lovely, natural way of going. But we all knew why I was showing him tired: I still couldn?t shake his runaway image from my memory. It takes a lot of trust to show a fresh horse on a loose rein, and I was still building that trust in Brownie.
No More Ugly Duckling
Brownie continued to improve that winter, in both looks and performance. He was maturing into an attractive, balanced-looking youngster, with a beautiful, refined neck, great expression, and a lovely seal-brown coat. Best of all, I was finally learning to trust him, and he hadn?t let me down.
In February ?93, we headed for the San Antonio Fat Stock Show, where I tested my new ?Trust him, Liz? strategy. Rather than warming up Brownie until he was tired, I left him a little fresh for the class. We placed first in both the 3-year-old and junior Western pleasure classes. I used the same strategy at Illinois?s prestigious Railsplitter Appaloosa Show that April. Brownie and I both arrived confident, and it showed. We rode away with two firsts and a second.
At July?s Nationals, I was feeling the pressure of a successful year. I knew my horse could win, but doing so would be tough. My competition in his 3-year-old snaffle bit Western pleasure class read like a who?s who in the Western pleasure world: Gil Galyean, Stanley Ryan, Steve Heckaman.
But Brownie was ready for them. We entered the show ring relaxed and confident for his elimination round, and easily made the finals. By then, my trust in Brownie was complete. During the finals, I put him on the rail?and stayed out of his way. He was awesome, maintaining his fresh, ears-up expression as he worked in both directions without a bobble.
As I waited for the results, I knew we had a shot at winning the class. Finally, the judges? cards were called?we had placed first under four of the five judges! Though I?d won national championships on other horses, this one was special. I?d transformed my little runaway into a Western pleasure national champion! What made the win even sweeter were the comments from the guys we?d shown against. They told me we deserved the win, and that Brownie was good.
We finished off ?93 with a futurity win, and a world championship in ladies? Western pleasure. I'm now looking forward to a successful ?94 show season with Brownie. Most of all, though, I want to keep having fun with him, and simply enjoy his company. I?ve turned down several offers for Brownie, and wouldn?t consider selling him, unless I could find him the ideal home?but I think he already has that.