The first horse that got me interested in doing therapy myself was a Quarter Horse mix of unknown breeding. Aquiles (the Spanish spelling of Achilles, from Greek mythology) was owned by Jaime, a very good Mexican friend of mine, whose young son (8 years old when I first met them) rode him. They were having trouble getting Aquiles to pick up the right lead, even though he would consistently take the left one. It didn’t matter who was riding him – even the trainer at the farm couldn’t get him to take it. I hadn’t seen this horse under saddle before, but Jaime mentioned the problem to me one night when I was at the farm feeding my horses dinner. Aquiles was in a lesson right then with Jaime’s son, so when Jaime asked for my feedback I went over and watched with him. I asked the trainer if they would try something since they were struggling, and I asked them to have Aquiles bend to the right at a walk. He couldn’t do that, either – and since a jumper-type horse can’t pick up a correct canter lead if they can’t bend their neck and body in that direction, that was why Aquiles “wouldn’t” take his right lead. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to or that he wasn’t trying to; he physically couldn't do it!
I talked to Jaime some more, and offered to get some massage books and try to help Aquiles so that Jaime’s son would be able to keep him and compete with him. I got the books and started doing basic massage and stretching techniques every other day, and riding Aquiles myself on the alternating days, asking him to stretch and bend under saddle. After two weeks, Aquiles was able to consistently bend right under saddle, but still evaded picking up the right lead. I continued massaging him two days a week, and worked with him six days a week in tack (either riding, lunging, or long-lining) to help strengthen him and build his confidence. After four more weeks of work, Aquiles was finally picking up his right lead consistently with very clear aids, and had begun to realize that he no longer had a physical restriction that kept him from taking the right lead.
It was incredibly rewarding to work with this exceptionally willing horse who was dealing with a learned mental block that was originally caused by pain. Even more rewarding than the improvement in and true gratitude from Aquiles, was how happy Jaime’s son was when he was able to get his horse to take the correct lead. It was amazing to be able to work with the two of them together and see them develop into a partnership over the next couple of years. They’ve been jumping up to 1.10 meters (just over 3’7”) since Aquiles became flexible enough again to pick up both leads and do flying lead changes in the middle of courses.
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