In December of 2018, little Huckleberry came to the Colorado Horse Rescue from a private owner as a truly puzzling mare. Believed to be a yearling, Huckleberry had not been halter broke, was extremely shy of people, and had absolutely no fear of climbing over fences if she felt the need to leave. As trainers, Sarah and I were challenged with the task of helping this girl become safe and handle-able.
Once Huckleberry was on the property, it was extraordinarily clear how feral she actually was. Her pressure threshold was so minuscule and sensitive that if any person were to take a step into her pen, she would immediately go into “flight mode”. Bolting away was her go-to method of coping with change, and she wouldn’t hesitate to blindly jump into or over anything she could if it meant getting away from humans. For a yearling, we would have expected youthful curiosity to eventually appear as she settled into her environment. However, as the weeks came and went, she continued to exhibit high levels of fear.
Weeks turned to months of using traditional methods of pressure and release to simply get close enough to touch this filly, but to no avail. Her reactivity was extreme enough to send her into a frenzy whenever I would start to approach. She would madly run away through any pressure presented. With Huckleberry having no interest in being in the same space as a human, I needed to find a different way to communicate with her.
After studying positive reinforcement in horse training, I thought this method was Huckleberry’s best chance. I knew that getting close enough for her to take treats from my hand was going to be impossible with how shy she was. Instead, I started off with a feed pan to toss treats into and would walk away so she felt comfortable taking them. That soon became the spot she knew to go to if she wanted to participate and receive a treat. It took time to get her comfortable with taking treats this way. I was then able to work on building her tolerance of me entering her space and eventually introduce her to taking treats from me.
The process of gaining her trust in this way was sluggish, though highly effective. Her progress eventually allowed our vet to examine her fully. To our surprise, we learned that this little girl wasn’t a yearling at all, she was a four year old pony mare! This discovery helped us understand why her personality was already so ingrained.
Today, Huckleberry is continuing to develop trust in everyone that enters her world. She is beginning to truly enjoy human contact and is constantly looking for ways to engage. With her pressure tolerance significantly increased, Huckleberry is learning the basics of groundwork and enduring change. We have very high hopes to see her advance through saddle training, eventually carrying a rider!
More training updates on Huckleberry are coming soon!