A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

On Picking Up Starfish (Starhorses?)


Last month, I wrote about my friend Tom, who, after doing much to bring an end to the killing of homeless pets, finds himself involved in horse rescue and rehab – one horse at a time. Tom had sent me an e-mail about his latest rescue, Spartacus, an 18-year-old Peruvian Paso who had had a horrible life, “abused with ill-fitting saddles and ridden very hard at gaits that were injurious to his back.”

Last month, Spartacus had just had a visit from a chiropractor who had pronounced Spartacus “fit to ride” – mainly walking and exercising as he gets his health back. Here’s an update from Tom on how Spartacus is doing a month later:

The chiropractor came today. He says Spartacus is in even better shape than last time and I should definitely ride him — hard! As though I knew how. I’ve borrowed a saddle from a friend. It seems to fit him. At least he doesn’t pin his ears and slap me with his startlingly heavy tail when I put it on him.

Ride him hard? Hah. I tend to get crippling back pains and hang on to the saddle horn at a trot. The only way Spartacus knows how to go is running fast. Not exactly running, pacing. That is an uneven gait (tadaa — tadaa — tadaa — tadaa) that can be smooth for the rider but which causes gaited horses to break down. Spartacus is no spring colt. Actually, he’s younger than I am in horse years, but he’s the one on the bottom.

Tom with Hootie, an earlier rescue.

So, with my teacher’s help, I am training him to walk in the round pen.  Of course he knows how to walk, but after a few steps he takes off. Either he is really eager to go fast, as Peruvians often are (they are famous for their “brio” which means “fire” or “spirit”) or he doesn’t believe yet that walking is acceptable because previous owners have thrown a painful saddle on him, jumped on, kicked him and said “let’s go.” Many people ride gaited horses that way, and they often don’t last very long. I really have no idea about his previous owners, of course, but this is the wild west. It is possible that they wanted to use him for barrel racing and calf roping, as though he were a quarter horse. That would be like asking a greyhound to pull a coal wagon. Spartacus’s stylish bred-in gaits are built for trail riding and parades. And, as I’ve mentioned, he shows evidence of having been allowed, or forced, to pace at high rates of speed. It’s probably better not to know.

I can’t wait until I can ride him out on the trails. We go trail walking now, especially uphill, to strengthen his muscles. But “walking” means we both walk. Sometimes I lead him; sometimes he drags me. Sometimes he steps on my foot. So far I’ve had bruises and sprained toes, but nothing broken. Yet.

Now we’re walking in the round pen with me actually on his back. Circle after circle. Today he went all the way around once (about 180 feet) at a walk. That was a first. I couldn’t tell if he was resigned or proud when I rubbed him and gave him a carrot. You see, the normal way of training horses is called negative reinforcement. That means doing something unpleasant or frightening to him and then removing the nasty aversive when he complies. As a clicker trainer of dogs, I learned the opposite: to reinforce him for good behavior rather than punish him for bad. Some of the old cowboys around here speak quite contemptuously of me, I hear. They don’t know how popular clicker training of horses is becoming. They do know what a tenderfoot I am, and that’s not a reference to my getting stomped on.

In Spartacus’s small turnout area I have put down a course of six-inch poles in various patterns for him to walk over. Going over obstacles like that help him walk squarely — i.e. not in an uneven pacing walk which leads to the faster running pace which is a bad habit to break. We walk over the poles and his job is not to step on or kick any of them. Like dogs, horses usually don’t know where their rear feet are, so it’s a difficult exercise for him. When he does kick one with a hind foot, I say “oops” and we turn out of the track and go around in a small circle to try that obstacle again. We’ve done it so many times that now, when he kicks or trips over one and I say “oops,” he automatically begins to circle back to try it again without my steering at all. He’s a very smart horse (Peruvians have that reputation), and I can just hope that he’ll continue to forgive me my poor training techniques and hang in there with me as I gain a few skills.

He loves it when I rub lavender oil on the gum above his upper teeth. It seems to calm him. Now that I’m pretty sure he won’t bite me, it calms me too.

I’m not a horse person, and you may not be, either. But it’s always good to know that there are people like Tom who are giving the likes of Spartacus a new life that makes up for whatever went before.

P.S. One reader wrote to me saying that the correct term for starfish is “sea star.” Thank you for the correction, even though I’ve used “starfish” again here since it’s still the word that’s generally used in the story of the old man who spends his time picking up sea stars on the beach.