The Fearful Rescue Pony

About six weeks ago we adopted a beautiful little bay Shetland pony mare (we guess to be in her teens). She was rescued from an auction two years ago. She was in rough shape and the new owner nursed her back to health. The new owner didn’t do much with the pony (training) and she was bred and had a foal this year. The foal was weaned (at the right time) and we have since adopted the mare.

As it turns out, this little mare is so afraid of people. She was delivered to us, and put in a stall. We cannot get anywhere near her. We have four other horses that are turned out together every day and brought into their stalls at night. We don’t dare put the little mare in with (any of) the others – not until we can hand
le her and catch her. Our stalls are (each) 10 X 20 and made up of panels, so she can see out. The other horses come into the barn often during the day to visit her. She is fine in her stall – calm, secure and safe. Once a week I put her in a new stall so that she has a different view of everything (I herd her to move her).

Every couple of days I shut the back door (so the other horses can’t come in) and let her trot around inside. She trots around me in a circle, and even hops a small x, and when I say ‘whoa,’ she stops on a dime. Then I slowly try to approach her, but nope – she runs away.

We talk to her and crouch down so that we don’t look so big and scary. I spent three hours with her in her stall: I sat at one end and read a book. She stood at the other end the entire time. She watched me and whenever I looked at her, she would quickly look away. She will slowly approach me when I kneel down with a bucket of treats on my lap – but only if I don’t look at her. She will poke her neck out and reach for a treat, then she’ll hop away to eat it, and then repeat this process until all of the treats are gone.

She appears to be in good health, which is a really good thing because there is no way to halter her for a vet check. It is so sad to see such a beautiful animal so afraid of people. Something happened to her before the auction. We have no intention to ever ride her – we just want to offer her a wonderful rest-of-her-life. I just wish I could tell her that. She likes the other four horses and the dogs and cats. She will receive everything she needs (worming, shots, etc) but we will have to be able to catch her.

Apparently once she’s haltered, she’s fine. That’s great but it’s been six weeks already and we can’t even pat her, never mind halter her. Her feet look good but her forelock is full of burrs and her mane is way too long and totally matted. We have done nothing that should scare her. We only want to love her, brush her and let her have a nice life. She’ll just be a farm pony and hang out with the other horses.

Last night my biggest fear happened – the pony had an emergency and needed help. We returned home from work and went to the barn to do the chores and put the horses to bed – the usual. The pony was lying down and didn’t hop up when I opened her gate. She couldn’t – her hind leg was caught in her dread-lock mane. She must have lifted her hind leg to scratch her ear (area) and the leg went through the mane and she couldn’t free it. Whatever the case – she needed our help. Judging by the lack of manure in her stall, she was down all day. I hoped desperately that the back leg (or any leg, for that matter), was not broken. I was absolutely amazed that she laid still and quiet while we put a tub of treats in front of her and she ate while we cut the mane to free her leg. We put a halter on her no problem and we cut the rest of the mane to a safe length. She let me rub the leg and after a while she hopped up.

She was stiff (no doubt!) and hungry and really had to go to the washroom, but seems all right. We kept her haltered for about 2 hours – we brushed her and got rid of the burrs and patted her and spent quality time with her. I simply could not believe that she allowed us to help her.

Well, today is the next day and she won’t let me near her again. I’m confused – surely by now she knows that we won’t hurt her? It is a bit frustrating – but I don’t want to (ever) give up on this little pony. What is going on in her mind? Can you please help us? We really need some tips and advice. Maybe it’ll just take a lot of time? We plan to keep her – there’s only one other place that would likely want her, and I will never let that happen. We need to gain her trust (I thought we did that last night). We sure would appreciate any advice.

Thank you in advance.

Marianne Fraser
Box 41
Belle Plaine, SK
S0G 0G0

This month my article is in response to an e-mail that was forwarded to me. I am going to qualify that I have not seen the horse so I will make a few assumptions and this is just my opinion. I think that there are a few different things happening with the mare. Since the mare was rescued from an auction in poor health we can assume that there was neglect of some kind. If her rescuer did little with her except breed her there was physical healing that occurred but not emotional or spiritual healing.

If this mare has been let down in the past she will not be quick to trust the people in her life. As a herd animal she depends on the security of a herd for protection and comfort. If she has had no herd or an unreliable herd she will be more defensive that she should be because she feels that she has no one to protect her. She will be much more wary and quick to remove herself from stressful situations because she is always in an “on guard” position mentally.

In order to help this mare overcome the unwillingness to trust there will probably need to be a couple of things that need to happen. The first thing is not to coddle her. The second is to establish and re enforce boundaries in regards to ground manners.
There is a very strong inclination to pour love and affection on them because of what they have been through and we feel sorry for them. She needs empathy not sympathy. If we coddle her too much she may appreciate the affection and enjoy the treats but we will have a much more difficult time establishing the respect we need to start rebuilding the trust that we want. She will eventually become spoiled because she will see our kindness as weakness and she needs a strong leader. She does not want pity she wants encouragement, support and someone that can prove to her that they can and will look out for her.

If we do not have established standards for behavior we will allow unacceptable behavior to become acceptable. Don’t be afraid to hurt her feelings. If she needs scolded it will do more harm not to and if you are sincere she will know that you do not have malicious intentions. Without defined boundaries she will know that there is a lack of discipline and that she will get what she wants without having to give anything for it.

There is another scenario that I will add to the one I have described. She is an intelligent little pony that has become a con artist. The initial trust issue is still there but she has learned how to dine and dash. She knows that she is not in danger anymore but would rather take advantage of her new situation than become one of the family. She likely has poor social skills because she has been emotionally alone for a long time but she has also learned how to make the system work for her. When she was caught she behaved just fine because she needed your help and she does not want confrontation. If we are a little more assertive when trying to catch her she may give in. If we quit trying when she gets worked up she will get herself worked up faster so we will quit trying and the cycle will continue. You essentially need to call her bluff and expect more from her. Do not accept less than a sincere effort from her and she will start to believe you are worthy of respect. Be a reliable leader to her and do not try to be the dominant horse. If we come across too strongly it could initiate more fear based reactions. Have confidence in everything you do with her, if you believe you can catch her she might believe you too. Do not try to prevent her from making mistakes. If you protect her from dealing with her issues you shouldn’t be disappointed when she never overcomes them. Expect her to be the horse you want her to be and she will be. It is always a slow process to rebuild respect and trust. If you take a long term approach it will be a rewarding process, there will be frustration and disappointment but success is only a matter of time.

© 2006 Will Clinging