Cato landed on Halloween 2014. He was supposedly a lightly back, rising 5 connemara gelding about 15h.
He was actually JUST 4, we strongly believe he was hunted as a 3 year old, he had damage to his back, he was terrified of humans, he was hard to catch, he would hold his breath and tense his entire body when caught, he would sweat bucket loads in abject fear when handled, he would try to kick your face off if you tried to handle his feet, he would go from a standstill to flat out bolt on roads and was generally a total mess.
The dangerous behaviour started after a couple of weeks when he started to emerge from what is known as a ‘shut down state’. A shut down state is when the animal (or human) knows resistance is futile and will cause them more suffering, so they simply go along with whatever is asked of them as that is the safest way to avoid pain.
To maintain a shut down state, the threat of pain needs to be constantly there, and the handler willing and able to follow through on the threat.
I wasn’t using bits or whips or threats, so after a while, Cato started to come out of his shut down state as his fear of what I was asking him to do was greater than his fear of me.
I stopped trying to ride him when it finally got through my thick skull after about 3 months that we had serious issues. It was very dangerous, he once jumped a metal gate over 4 ft tall on a road during a bolt, we could have both been very badly hurt.
There was a period of nearly a year where I entirely gave up the idea of ever sitting on Cato safely or with him being happy about it.
As well as pushing me to look at alternatives to saddles, Cato’s condition prompted me to look into alternative ways of working with horses.
Yet again because of Cato, I ended up going down a rabbit hole- and this one led me to discover fully positive reinforcement (you might have heard it called clicker training) and force free horsewomanship.
With the help of what I was learning, I went back to basics with Cato. It became apparent he hadn’t been taught a single thing, simply pushed, pulled, yanked and beaten into doing what was wanted.
When around humans, he was just waiting for the pain to start.
Understandably, he had zero trust in us at all, so that needed fixing!
It was a long process and we never stop learning and growing.
Cato is now an exceptionally handsome horse. He is calm, relaxed, happy, confident, and my friend.
He shouts to me when he hears the back door of our house open, I no longer have to catch him, he catches me!
Hoof handling is a breeze, he puts on his own tack, he lines himself up at anything for me to get on his back, he’ll even do it when I haven’t asked him to. He was once scared to his core at the idea of being ridden, now it is truly something he enjoys with me.
Cato is a one in a million horse, from being scared to even think of sitting on him, I can now ride him with no tack at all on open moorland, and feel safe, knowing that we have a bond of trust with solid foundations, that he is my friend, I am his friend, and we look after each other.