major malfunction; meltdown inevitable

I made a miscalculation this (Monday) morning that led to a major meltdown and malfunction from Murray the likes of which I haven’t seen in at least a year.  It was… something else.

I was tacking up and, per my new goal, trying very hard not to let Murray get away with wandering, wiggling, or generally being poorly behaved during the exercise.  I thought we actually had a pretty good thing going: I had put the square pad on very crookedly at first and didn’t catch it until after I got the saddle on.  So we were on our second try and Murray was being pretty responsive to my requests to stand and was not constantly turning back and demanding treats from me.

I often hold the dressage girth against his belly for a moment before I try doing up any buckles so Murray isn’t confronted with the cold girth + tightening buckles sensations all at the same time.  He had a funny response when I did this, standing still for a few seconds and then suddenly scrunching up his abdomen and then trying to scoot away from me.  I didn’t really understand what was going on, but since that’s how Murray typically responds to girthing pressure in general, I thought he needed a little longer to get used to the sensation of the cold leather.  He was still for just long enough before tensing and scooting that I thought he might have exceeded his limit for patience and was trying another strategy to get treats (wiggles = distraction treats = reinforcement for wiggles).

The first time I held the girth against his belly he actually managed to writhe away from me, which I wasn’t going to accept, so I tried again.  I held the girth against his side even as he tensed and then bulged his side in to me, and after he settled I gave him a piece of carrot.  I then quickly moved to buckle the girth up on the 4th hole which, when Murray’s abdomen is at its fattest, tensest, and most absurd just touches the skin, and once he lets the air out there’s a good half inch of space between the girth and his skin.  I managed to get both billets buckled and was just patting Murray when he sidestepped forward-ish.  I told him no — I’m trying not to be baited into rewarding him for bad behavior — and he stepped sideways, more directly towards me.  I warned him with a “hey!”, but he blew sideways into me with his hindquarters, actually knocking me to the side.  (The first time I’ve actually been knocked aside by him, as I usually get out of the way quickly but I’m also trying not to teach him that he can move me around with bad behavior.)  I marched toward the tie ring to unhook him and really give him a piece of my mind; alas, the meltdown was already engaged.

Murray skittered sideways and back at the end of his lead rope, never giving me enough slack to unhook him from the blocker tie.  (I always put him on a blocker tie ring but I’ve recently taking to knotting the lead rope about 30″ down so he can’t pull himself loose and end up with ten feet of rope to wander around with while I’m grooming or not paying attention.)  He pulled back and got his front feet off the ground a few times, though he never really reached the point of sitting, and his halter held.  At one point I could see the bottom of the halter sliding over his lower lip and up in to his nostrils and I wondered whether he’d be able to get out of it entirely. It was all legs and slipping feet and burning hoof smell and sparks in a ten foot radius around the post we were tied to, and the whole time I was trying to get just a few inches of slack so I could unhook him and get him under control myself.

He reared and couldn’t get all the way up and just… came down.  At one point his knees started to buckle and his pasterns folded and he started to lay down and half of my brain actually thought “why am I not filming this?” and I put my hand in my pocket to get my phone out, then decided I’d better have two hands on me.  The other half of my brain was thinking “please, YES, please just lay down,” because if he gave up and lay down it would indicate that he chose to yield to the pressure, and would have been a major step forward in his problem solving process.  I’ve seen Murray get to a really similar point where he’s about to crumple to the ground before, with my barn manager when she was very understandably disciplining him for something, and that was the moment in the discussion where he turned reasonable.

Instead, Murray leapt out of the half-crouch-thing and hit the end of the rope again and the meltdown continued.  (I mean, you should see all the skid marks on the barn floor after this morning…) Since the “hoooo, hoooo, easy, settle”, deep, soothing voice wasn’t working I tried yelling and growling at him in turns to absolutely no effect.  He wasn’t even registering me.  We finally got to the point where he was part-ways in a downward dog stretch — front legs splayed out toward me, leaning back on the rope as far as he could, just staring at me.  I kept talking to him while I tried to pull myself out a few inches of slack so I could unhook the lead rope, and then had the bright idea to offer him some of the remaining carrot bits I had in my pocket.  I was well beyond trying to avoid rewarding bad behavior at that point.  But instead of responding to “cookie” he jerked his head to the side, snapped the lead rope, and skittered off down the barn aisle.

I managed to get my hands on him before he left the barn and he was truly beside himself.  I walked him back up to the tie ring and he wanted nothing to do with it.  Obviously with only two and a half feet of lead rope left attached to him I wasn’t about to tie him, but I made the decision then to just continue to insist on good behavior.  Ignore the meltdown (so to speak) and insist that he continue to behave like a rational horse beast.  Since Murray was still in panic mode and unable to even think about what I was asking him to do I had a bit of time to catch my breath and think.

I slowed myself down and managed to avoid crying, though if anyone had tried to talk to me just then I probably would have.  Murray would stand for a minute or so and then start to skitter sideways/into me and I reminded him that the exercise we were working on was just standing still where I told him to stand the fuck still.  Nothing too aggressive, but not rewarding the bad behavior by walking off with him, and not acknowledging his distaste for the area by letting him stand somewhere else.  I thought about how much I hate this horse sometimes and why I ever think that I can improve or change these absurd, deep-seeded, irrational instincts.

Murray kept trying to yank me to the side or pull his head around to get a look at what was going on elsewhere in the barn or… wherever.  I was more than a little sick of him at this point and yanked him back to look at me and just stand.  I thought about what, exactly, I had done wrong to induce this particular meltdown, and how I could have avoided it, or snapped Murray out of it while it was happening.

While we were standing there thinking, Murray threw his head in to mine and instead of ducking (which I usually do), I threw my hand into his head and yelled “REALLY?”  He chose to fly away from me backwards at that, so I took him up on the offer and marched him backward, at which he promptly slammed into and tried to sit on a trash can, scared the shit out of himself, flew backward out the barn door, and then tried to sit on my trainer’s truck’s front bumper.

Since we were already outside I decided that we would try to walk it off (the stupidity of this is just now dawning on me since I only had about 3 feet of lead rope to hold on to), and after he settled a little we stepped into the barn.  A friend held him while I found a replacement rope, and then we walked back to the tie ring to start over.  My barn manager came out and commiserated with me a little and Murray proved that he couldn’t even he just couldn’t even while she was standing there, trying to run in to me (because he knew he isn’t allowed to run in to her).

I ultimately tacked him up two more times (not tied, but still insisting that he stand relatively still), he was relatively good, I lunged him and he was great, and we called it a day.  Because when it takes 75 minutes to get your horse groomed and tacked up you quickly run out of time to ride.

In some ways this meltdown indicated major progress for Murray.  In the past he would have hit the end of his lead rope one time, felt the pressure, ripped right through it, and disappeared.  So the fact that he was feeling the resistance and not automatically increasing the pressure by an order of magnitude (just continuing at the current level of freak out) just to get free is progress.  And he did come back to me and, though it was a struggle, did eventually figure out that he was expected to just stand still in front of me (and only somewhat invaded my personal space).  He was so reasonable during his freak out that I think he might be ready for a rope halter — IMAGINE THAT! Graduating TO a rope halter. Hah.

But the meltdown itself was over nothing.  I mean, yes, it was about being scared and tied, but the trigger to being scared was… what, being asked to stand for one second longer than he thought he could tolerate? Not getting a treat or being ale to walk off the instant he wanted to?  Sure, I could have avoided the whole thing if I’d just not asked him to stand for that one second, but was the ask really that unreasonable?

I managed to keep myself calm too, and handle it, and not beat the living snot out of him after the fact.  So that’s progress for me.

We will see how Tuesday goes I guess.

I do so desperately wish I’d gotten video.  Dangerous, unpleasant, and indicative of poor training and upbringing as the meltdowns are, they are also ridiculous and absurd and, in their own way, funny.

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14 thoughts on “major malfunction; meltdown inevitable

  1. You know your horse and I don’t. He’s definitely not one I would have chosen to take on, so I probably don’t have anything useful to say.

    But.

    Imho, there are certain boundaries that must be set. Being tied up is being tied up. You NEVER use your head as a weapon against me. You ALWAYS respect my space.

    Your day sounds very unfun, but it also sounds like the two of you are starting to hash things out, which is awesome.

    One semi-unrelated thing: Courage ties like a champ. I’ll tie him to a trailer at a show and walk away (as long as he’s not tied with a mare) and know 100% he’s fine. BUT. There’s this one washrack at our barn–slick mats on top of sloped concrete. He HATES it. HATES. One day, we had it out. He broke two halters and a lead rope and spent an inordinate amount of time running loose around the barn. We ended up coming to this understanding: in the scary, slick wash rack, Courage will stand in one place facing an odd direction, but he’s ground tied and stock still. Aimee will not tie him and she will not ask him to face a more logical direction. And that’s that.

    No idea if your grooming area might be a similar thing to Murray (sounds like this is an everywhere thing, not a “i hate this footing” thing), but if it is, it might be worth picking your battles.

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  2. I probably would have been on the verge of crying as well. Good on you for having more patience than you would have before. It’s hard enough being patient with something that makes zero sense to us humans

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  3. Disclaimer: Sorry for the long story ><; It's just that I can relate so much to this.

    Fiction used to be a serial crosstie breaker. Something would set him off (who the fuck knows what), and he would almost flip over backwards to get away. So I started ground tying him. This solved the 'breaking crossties part' but not always the freaking out part.

    I know exactly how you feel. Over three years I *hated* my horse. I couldn't figure out the problem. I had numerous vets out. I treated him like a baby, always expecting a blow-up. It was like walking on eggshells around my own horse and I *hated* it.

    It was until I changed barns that I realized the previous barn must have been a hell hole for him. All the behaviors solved by moving to the new barn include: no longer psychotic on trail rides; no longer even blinks at crossties; no longer terrified of movements around his head; no longer runs away from me in the field; no longer bolts when I try to halter him; etc. etc.

    When he was acting psychotic under saddle, I treated him for ulcers and that solved the issue.

    Now he's capable of handling pressure. Before he wasn't. I had to change a lot of aspects around his life for us to get this far. I don't know why Murray is behaving the way he is and I'm sure you've tried everything in your power to figure it out. You have the patience of a saint – it's a great quality to have when dealing with a sensitive horse. I hope you two can get these struggles sorted out. I'm glad there was some silver lining to the whole incident (like him coming to you).

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    • This has definitely crossed my mind. Often Murray does well away from home (not the first day of a show or outing where all people and horses are super amped, but definitely settles in after just one day away and we’re going on three years living here), and he often does well if I have to tack him up OUTSIDE of the barn. So there’s definite food for thought there.

      I know for a fact there’s a lot of stuff he absolutely hates about our barn. He hates the guy who feeds, and his wife, and absolutely everything that guy does (move anything, touch anything, breathe, etc.), and he hates the tractors the guy uses, hates the wheelbarrows… I mean, it’s like anything this man has touched is poisoned. He LOVES the little wagon flyer that our barn manager uses to bring supps — that’s not a problem. Literally one time he freaked, reared, and snapped the cross ties because the feeder had the temerity to WALK PAST HIM. (Murray is a huge fucking racist.)

      If it’s a claustrophobia/inside of barns thing… we’re going to have a big problem. Because most barns kinda have the tack up areas inside, and if it’s raining/snowing/whatever I want to be inside. If it’s a particular person/this particular barn, that particular area thing…I can try working on it outside and see. Everything else Murray does suggests he’s happy here (runs to me in pasture, plays with friends, sleeps flat out in his stall and in his paddock etc.), so maybe it’s really just being inside THIS barn.

      It’s complex. I appreciate your insight though, it’s really good to know that these things CAN and do change! Even for certified bad boys. 🙂

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  4. Are Gina and Murray related? Are they secretly emailing one another with advice on how to best behave like dingbats on the ground?

    Gina will often be set off by some unknown-to-me thing and will pull back with a vengeance. She sits, she slips, she half-rears, etc. etc. She broke at least half a dozen halters before I finally switched to a rope halter; that hasn’t totally fixed the problem, but it hasn’t broken yet. I know exactly what you mean about these meltdowns being sort of funny. After putting up with Gina’s for years, all I can do is roll my eyes and laugh at her antics.

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    • Right?! Like what am I supposed to do?! You aren’t responding to anything I’m doing so I can’t get you free or talk you off the ledge, so let’s just wait for you to…. Work it out I guess.

      No more secret letters you guys. No more!!

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  5. ughhhhhh Murray wtf bro. sorry that didn’t go at all the way you imagined it would, it sounds like he was basically trying everything in the goddamn book (while simultaneously not having a clue what he was doing lol). i liked the part where you started yelling and threw your hands in his face and backed him up haha. like. buddy. keep your freakouts the fuck away from me!

    i’ve often found with some horses (esp ottbs) that they think best when their feet are moving. so when they’re having trouble being still and chillin out, i’ll move them around this way and that – starting with basic leading, then maybe asking for a step back here and there. if they know how, maybe i’ll ask to move just the shoulders or haunches sideways. just a step, really. anything that gets the horse thinking about each individual foot, and putting that foot where i ask. like getting control of the feet to start asking for the feet to be still.

    not sure i’ve ever had to experience a horse like murray tho haha so idk if that idea would have any bearing at all on him. good luck and keep fighting the good fight!

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  6. Murray on the ground is Bobby under saddle, and honestly I much prefer to dealing with that shit under saddle. I can’t do bad manners on the ground. Cannot do it. I feel you in the “Why am I doing this?” department. Stay strong!

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    • I am thinking of investing in one of those little leather collars for him, like you have for Bobby. I don’t know why I think it will help but maybe it can say things like “dangerously unstable, do not get wet and do not feed after midnight” etc.

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  7. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. As I think I’ve mentioned, my Ginger mare used to be equally as dramatic. She’s been on her best behaviour for over a year now, either she matured or she loves the new barn/trainer….or she’s plotting something huge. On the plus side, if you stayed patient through all that, you’re probably good to go for any future ridiculousness. (but, let us hope Murray learned a bit from his misadventures and future ridiculousness is less…ridiculous 🙂

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  8. B used to be super reactive like this. I honestly can’t pinpoint what helped him most and when he changed, but I def treated him like glass for over a year. I think he just started to trust me in “scary” situations and would freak out less and less over things. It can be SO frustrating so I totally get this

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  9. This kind of behavior is the absolute worst and is so very frustrating! My TB mare Lily broke halter after halter and crosstie after crosstie until I simply started hard tying her with a rope halter, which eventually taught her (for the most part) that she can’t pull and break away. (She still does it every once in awhile, but more like twice a year instead of twice a week!) Changing her stabling situation was the most life-altering for her though: she is most definitely a Type-A kind of horse and can be a compulsive worrier. She’ll give herself ulcers when stalled and will stress if whomever she sees as her buddy in the stall next door is taken away. The stress/attachment behaviors become even worse when she is in heat. A turnout schedule worsened the problem further: she would not let me catch her in the field when she was turned out because she didn’t want to leave her friends, and God forbid I try riding her out of sight of her buddies. My solution was to put her on 24/7 turnout: she lives outside all the time. And this, more than anything, gave her a brain. She still gets a little herd-bound when in season but nowhere near to the point she would before, and the rest of the time she is the most even-keeled horse I have had the pleasure of working with. I don’t think we would have been able to venture into endurance if it hadn’t been for that one change. This mare used to literally be terrified of her own shadow and couldn’t make it 10 strides down the trail without a monumental argument that involved spinning and bucking. And here she is doing 50 mile rides on unfamiliar trails with pricked ears and a steady happy trot.

    You have the patience of a saint. And I hope you can figure this one out! ❤

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