Rescue Report

Saddle Up

August 10, 2015

Mirlo, the little black mustang I worked with at Colorado Horse Rescue, taught me as a much as I taught him. His training process often led me to “think outside the box.”

I’d gained a great deal of Mirlo’s trust through ground work — so much so that I decided to try saddling him. He’d been saddled and ridden before, but that was while he was being abused. He learned to associate the process with pain and abuse.

I needed to make the saddling and riding experiences pleasurable so that Mirlo would see that he could trust me and enjoy being my trail partner.

Saddle fit is key to keeping a horse comfortable and pain-free as you ride.

“The way your saddle fits is the key to his comfort and soundness,” notes expert horsewoman Jessica Jahiel, PhD, in 10 Saddle Fit Tips.

Mirlo was only 14.1 hands high and narrow. In the past, he’d worn a large Western saddle that was too much for his small frame. With help from an experienced saddle-fitter, I was able to find an all-purpose English saddle that fit Mirlo well.

The gelding didn’t mind actually having the saddle on his back, but he was very fearful of having the girth tightened. When I reached underneath him for the girth, he’d squirm and shake. Often, he’d try to get away as fast as he could.

Mirlo was more than worried about being cinched. I was sure that whoever cinched him before he came to the rescue caused Mirlo a great deal of pain.

The only way a horse can communicate pain is to resist. We tend to label resistance “bad behavior.” But the horse isn’t disobeying; he is trying to tell you something. It’s in the horse’s best interest to make sure there are no major physical issues before riding him.

I knew Mirlo had been abused, but I also wanted to make sure he wasn’t suffering any back pain, so I decided to make an appointment with a reputable equine chiropractor for an evaluation.  

The chiropractor noted that one of Mirlo’s ribs was out of alignment. She also found some vertebrae in his sacral region that need to be adjusted. Mirlo was very nervous during the appointment, but bravely accepted the exam.   

The chiropractor said both problems could’ve caused Mirlo pain when the girth was tightened. She said she could give Mirlo a chiropractic adjustment that might help resolve the issue.

After his chiropractic treatment, I gave Mirlo a couple of days off. Then we went back to work. I did some ground work with him, then placed the saddle on his back, reached underneath him, and slowly pulled up the girth.

It was amazing. Mirlo was completely relaxed. There was no tension, no squirming, no trying to get away.  He was completely relaxed for the entire saddling process!

I longed Mirlo with the saddle on his back. He was relaxed and happy. Nothing left to do but mount up. 

Good Intentions

June 16, 2015

Intention. What does that mean? What does that have to do with horse training? Merriam Webster dictionary defines intention as “the thing you plan to do or achieve; an aim or purpose.”

Horses are instinctual animals, they rely on subtle nuances, such as your body language and energy, to determine what you want. If you’re not clear on what you want from your horse, your horse can’t possibly be clear either.

Mirlo, the little black mustang I worked with at Colorado Horse Rescue, was always clear on what he wanted. He wanted to be left alone. During his initial training (see last blog for progress), Mirlo had been a nervous mess. This was mostly because he’d lived in the wild and was then abused.

My intention was for Mirlo to become a relaxed, willing trail horse. However, I soon realized that I’d need to scale back the big picture and focus only on what we were working on each day. Primarily, I needed Mirlo to relax.

I pictured him being relaxed and content with me around. This meant that I had to be relaxed. Horses feed on our energy.

How do we stay relaxed when our horses are nervous? It can be scary when they swell up and stand rigid or dance around on the end of the lead rope.

What helps me to stay calm during those tense times is to ground myself and breathe, feeling my feet on the ground and breathing deeply into my abdomen.

I’d do this whenever Mirlo became tense and scared. I just slowed everything down. Miraculously, he’d calm down, too.

As he calmed down, Mirlo would sometimes just take one deep, shuddering breath. I’d realize then that he’d been holding his breath. He was grateful for a chance to take it easy.

This relaxation technique can help when you ride on the trail, too. In her article in The Trail Rider, “Calm Rider, Calm Horse,” internationally known trainer/clinician Linda Tellington-Jones noted, “A calm, relaxed rider leads to a calm, relaxed horse.”

Tellington-Jones recommends taking several deep breaths before getting on your horse. She also suggests: “Before you mount, visualize how you’d like your ride to be.” This means to get clear on your intention. Maybe that’s a calm, relaxed horse and ride.

My practice of having a clear intention and staying grounded enabled Mirlo to become more relaxed and engaged.

However, the trails were still a long way away. Our next goal was saddling up!

Building Confidence

April 29, 2015

Sensei grazing, showing off his Bureau of Land Management brand.
Have you ever had a horse that was fearful of humans? Mirlo—a little black mustang gelding I worked with at Colorado Horse Rescue—certainly was. (You can read about his wild, abusive past in this blog entry.)

          Mirlo was a strange mix of fear and bravado. He was scared, but had learned to be defend himself, if pressured. He could even be dangerous. He’d puff himself up and dance near me, as if to say, “See, I’m big and tough. You should be scared.”

As I’d gently groom him, he’d stand rigid, ready to depart at any minute. He never let down his guard; he kept his senses alert to my every movement.
          I always worked with Mirlo slowly and gently. I’ve found a horse that has been abused appreciates a slow, gentle hand. There’s plenty of time for rapid movements later, when trust has been established.

          I began a series of ground-work exercises with Mirlo to teach him to use his body correctly and build his trust. (See below for more information on ground work.) 

I’d do these exercises in the same order each day to help give Mirlo something he could rely on and to create a feeling of consistency. A horse that has been abused has to learn to trust humans again; a wild horse has to learn to trust humans, period.

          Mirlo was so different from any other horse I’d worked with before. His ability to read my energy was uncanny. He’d lived in the wild more than in captivity and was still a wild animal.

          We began working in the round pen. I stood in the center of the pen and asked Mirlo to walk the perimeter around me. At first, I found it difficult to get Mirlo to slow to a walk. I realized I had to completely relax. I dropped my energy as low as possible and constantly backed away to create space for him.

          Eventually, Mirlo dropped from a trot to a cautious, quick-stepped walk. He stayed wary, but at least he’d walk.

During the first month of our working together, I rewarded any sign of relaxation. I released any pressure as soon as Mirlo relaxed his body in any way, or even took a deep breath.

In time, Mirlo slowly began to soften in his body. He didn’t stand quite so rigid when I groomed him. The walk came a little sooner in the round pen. Trust was starting to grow. But, how long would it take?

          To begin work under saddle, he’d need to be relaxed and trusting in me completely. It’d take a lot of time and patience to reach the trails together. So the journey continues. 


Hindquarters Control with Clinton Anderson


Lateral Flexion with Clinton Anderson




How to Get the Right Horse From a Rescue

December 09, 2015

A horse leaving the rescue for his forever home.
Readers ask me for tips on rescuing a horse—here’s what I’ve learned from working at a rescue, and adopting two rescue horses. 
In my next blog installment, I’ll explain how to shop for a horse at a rescue and a bit about the adoption process.


Do Your Homework

First, be honest with yourself, and set out specific guidelines and goals. As you begin and rescue process, and as you proceed, keep track of everything in a dedicated notebook.

Step 1. Calculate costs. Adoption fees are usually low, as rescues are more interested in finding the horses a good home than making a profit. But, of course, the cost of owning and caring for a horse is ongoing.

Create a budget that includes all horse-related expenses. Include boarding, feed, tack, training, veterinary care, and supplements.

Also prepare for unexpected expenses. Costs can add up if your rescue horse becomes injured, or needs corrective shoeing or expensive supplements. An owner’s lack of preparation for the unexpected expenses likely led to the need to surrender your rescue horse to a rescue in the first place.

Step 2. Evaluate your riding-skill level. Be honest. It’s better to have a horse you’re comfortable with than one you’re frightened of. For example, if you’re a beginner, start with a horse that is well-trained and confident, versus an untrained, or newly started horse.

Step 3. Know what you’re looking for. Be clear on exactly what you want to do with your new horse. Do you need a horse to ride on occasional short rides? A second horse to put friends on? A pasture companion for your existing trail horse? Or a solid trail horse?

Choose a Rescue

Now you’re ready to find a respectable rescue. One place to start is A Home for Every Horse (

If there isn’t an accredited rescue near you, head to the nearest rescue, and ask the questions listed below. Set up a tour, if possible. The answers will help determine whether it’s a responsible, legitimate rescue.

A well-run rescue will be open and friendly, the animals will be well cared for, and the enclosures will be safe and clean. Staff members will be happy to share information about the horses and their organization.

Write down the answers and your impressions in your notebook, and make a list of any concerns you might have, so you can address them with follow-up questions and firsthand observations before you start choosing a horse.

> Is the rescue a registered nonprofit organization? If so, is there a board of directors? Are they willing to share their financials with you?

> Where do the horses come from? Does the horse rescue only take in horses that are removed from neglectful situations, or does it take horses from auctions or individuals? Local animal control organizations will usually only work with reputable rescues.

> What does the facility look like? It should be clean, well-organized, and have safe, effective enclosures for the animals.

> Will the rescue share the horse’s health records with you? Can you talk to their veterinarian? A rescue with nothing to hide will happily show you the horse’s veterinary records.

> Does the rescue have a good reputation in the community? Ask local horse owners, veterinarians, and farriers.

> Will the rescue give you a tour of the facility? How do the horses look? Are they well-fed? Are their feet in good condition? Are they fed good-quality hay? A rescue does take in horses in poor condition, but the majority of the residents should be in good health.

Start Shopping

When you’ve chosen a rescue, you’ll start the adoption process by filling out an application. This will help staff members determine the type of horse to show you.

Most organized rescues’ websites feature the horses ready to be adopted. But they’ll likely also have horses not yet on the website, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see your dream horse right away.

Also, almost all rescues have waiting lists comprised of horses waiting to be admitted. Often, their owners are struggling financially or have a horse that doesn’t meet their needs. Your dream horse could be on one of these lists.

If you’re a beginning or intermediate rider, arrange to bring a professional or a very experienced horseperson with you to your adoption appointments. This person will notice any exceptional behavioral or health issues that might be too much for you to handle.

Also, this person may need to ride the horse first to make sure the horse is a good match for your skill set.

When you see a horse online you think might be a good fit, schedule a visit. Before you go, review your written goals. Seeing all the horses in need of a home can be overwhelming.

Ask to be shown only horses that meet your criteria. By sticking to your goals, you’ll find a horse that best suits your needs.

When you find a horse you’re interested in, find out everything you can about him. Here are some questions to ask:

> Do you have the horse’s medical records?

> How did the horse come to the rescue?

> How long has he been there?

> Has he been in training?

These questions will help you determine whether the horse is right for you. They’ll also give you valuable information about how to handle the horse once you take him home.


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