aka Zobird, Zazu, Zozo, Zo, and Bean. Also Bean-burrito. And leetle ladie. Ok, I think that’s it lol(:
Zoë was born on March 19th, 2011. She is now an impressive 16.3 hands high, bay, off the track Thoroughbred mare with more personality than most! She is expressive, affectionate, intelligent, talented and, above all, the best partner a girl could ask for. She has crooked ears and cow print feet. She is a carrot fiend, and really loves neck & rump scratches. Zo keeps her stall clean like a proper lady, only doing her business on one wall of course. She is pasture mates with her half sister, and they are two peas in a pod! She’s competed through Training level in eventing & couldn’t be a more talented jumper. She is my shoulder to cry on, my partner to lean on, and the one who’s taught me the most in this world. Zobird, you rule.
Zoë began as another project for me in 2014. I’d ridden a few OTTB’s at that point, but none like her. She was quick, sharp, and had more talent than any horse I’d ever sat on—which the first time I did, by the way, was at a local Hunter/Jumper show no more than a few days since her last race. I took her over a few cross rail courses, and she acted like she’d been at it for years. Her owner/breeder offered me the ride on her at her first event; we kept it to trotting logs and x-rails in the starter division since she was still so young. I didn’t get to ride her the weeks leading up to the show due to a hoof abscess, but she went sound a few days prior, so off we went! We ended on her dressage score, placing 6th with no added jump faults!
Our working relationship progressed after she was sold to a woman who allowed me to keep the ride on her. I took her to shows, clinics, and spent most of my time dreaming of the endless possibilities with her as my ride. We competed through Beginner Novice level in eventing before the circumstances finally allowed me the opportunity to take her on as my own horse. I would finally have my upper level mount to take me to the top. Little did I know, what I actually bought on August 1, 2016 was my heart horse, my greatest teacher, my best friend, and I had no idea what I’d just signed up for.
We began competing at Novice level, and even placed high a few times! Due to our dressage tests never really going according to plan, we tended to come in at the bottom of the pack. I decided that dressage wasn’t going to get much better, and that maybe she just needed a more challenging test to work with as the lower level tests were simpler with long time frames with no change. So, we moved up to Training. This was a huge milestone for me. With Zo’s move up, I had officially competed three horses up through Training level. Three horses that had never done it. I was ecstatic to say the least. Zo’s dressage was improving all the time, her jumping was always phenomenal, and the shows seemed like they were in the bag. But, (I know you saw this coming) when we moved up, the scores still weren’t there. We lost every show, but I had a great time doing it. Zo was a powerhouse in the cross country phase, agile in the show jumping, and decent in dressage, but something felt a little wrong.
As thrilled as I was to have finally moved up with her, I knew she wasn't happy. Every time we went into that 20x40m ring with the tiny white fencing, she was stressed. Her back was tight, her tail might as well have been a boat propellor, she swapped leads in the canter constantly, and she never would take a breath. I tried every bit and every equipment change to try to assuage some of her anxiety. Meanwhile, I battled her perpetual ulcers, her weaving, bobbing & other anxious behaviors, and the dreadful task of leading her around the show grounds as she ran sideways in front of me or on top of me. It was an utter mess. But “she’s just a hot horse,”or “she’s spicy,” and “she needs a chain,” and “I should reprimand her for that behavior,” or the more casual write-off, “she’s a mare.” Full disclosure, I did. I tried those things, and I said those things. I tried to correct her with punishment, but it only made the problems worse. I tried natural horsemanship and the join up method (You know, aggressively chasing a horse around a pen & hoping they’ll like you after?) and forcing some movie miracle to happen, but again, it only got worse. She became more stressed and agitated, bolted the second I removed the halter, and even harder to ride than before. We were both completely spent and at a loss with one another.
At the start of the 2018 Summer, I was slammed with two difficult college courses, and didn't get much time to ride her nor did I really want to. Her saddles didn’t fit and she was honestly just a source of frustration for me. I couldn’t even manage a “relaxing” trail ride without us both panicking. She was cantering in place, swapping leads and throwing me off balance, rearing, bucking, and doing anything she could to tell me what was going on, but I couldn’t listen. I had my own ideas about how she should feel and thought I could just make her “get over it.” I had no idea how to listen.
As my classes finished and the summer began to fade, a horrible incident occurred. I got a call that Zo had gotten cast in her stall & was colicking. My dad and I rushed the trailer to the barn to find that a vet was already there for another horse. He worked on her & said it was a mild case, that she should be okay. I spent hours with her that afternoon, grazing her. She was eating & drinking normally, so we left. At 8 pm that night, the farm called again. She was going down in her stall. They were walking her. We needed to get her to the vet. So we grabbed her and took her to our vet who’s an hour away. They did bloodwork, put her on an IV, and said they’d call with updates. So we went home. The next morning they called and said she hadn’t pooped. She was urinating & her blood was normal. Their plan was to trailer her around the block to try and break up her impaction. After an excruciatingly long deciding process, I couldn’t wait any longer, hooked up the trailer and drove my trainer with me to the vet, loaded Zo, and took off to Louisiana — the nearest surgical facility as, of course with my luck, all of our local vets were out of town. Three painful hours later, we finally made it. I unloaded Zo & she immediately tried to go down on the asphalt…she was in so much pain. They ultrasound, and decided to go through with surgery. The vet said another hour and we’d have lost her. She had a twisted everything (real sciencey, I know). He said her colon was so distended, he feared it would rupture in his hands during the operation. But, she came out alive. She had recovery there for a week. Then, I brought her home.
Prior to her emergency, I had transferred colleges for the fall and planned to move onto Zo’s breeder’s farm to work as an exercise rider. I had moved into my tiny house for the most part, but really kicked things into gear after her surgery. I wanted to bring her home & live on the same property to keep a careful eye on her. So, that’s what I did! I moved out, brought her home, and now walk out to see her off my front porch. It’s the dream.
But the story doesn’t end there.
She was out for the fall show season, I knew that much. I wanted to give her the time to heal completely before even thinking about showing again. During her time off, I remembered that with my last horse, I’d tried liberty and trick training work when he was recovering from a Keratoma removal surgery. I wanted to give that a shot being older and able to comprehend more (20 years old versus 14 haha!) My knowledge of liberty when I’d worked with my previous horse was all that of the Heartland TV show. I knew nothing. So, I began reading. I wanted to know exactly how to do this tackless, free, bonded, *insert more magical adjectives* work. I found accounts on Instagram that introduced me to positive reinforcement (+R) and clicker training. I proceeded with caution as it looked like lame, hippy, witchy voodoo stuff, and little did I know that +R training would change my philosophy as an equestrian and my relationship with my horse.
With the research I had done, I decided to teach Zo to smile. Then, I reached out to Adele Shaw @ TheWillingEquine.com. We talked for hours and she theorized why I was experiencing the issues that I was with Zoë. It all finally made sense. It’s simple operant & classical conditioning. For a psychology major, I should’ve thought of it before!
So! I bought a clicker, a treat bag, and a slew of books and articles to read. I wanted to know everything I could about this new way of training. I watched videos (here’s a link to a playlist I made for +R training), and read as much as I could. I taught Zo to target objects, and then to not search me for treats, and then to follow that target, and then to follow my hand. I was amazed at how quickly she picked it up. I had clicker trained my horse! Beyond that, she was totally interested and happy to learn! When her stall rest was over, I worked with her more in a wide open arena. She was free to come and go as she pleased, but after a few weeks of +R sessions, she never left my side. She comes up to me in the field, leaving her hay, buddies, and freedom from human interaction behind. She wants to play because it’s her choice now.
She chooses yes because she knows she can say no, and she never could before. I used force and pressure and trained her to constantly search for a release, to get away from my hand on the rein or my legs on her side or my body in the round pen. She was always trying to avoid the pressure, pain, irritation or fear that I brought her. But now, there is no reprimand for not doing what I want. Training is fun and pleasing, because there is no pressure, only reward. No positive punishment, only patience. She has a voice, and I respect it. Because of this, she wants to work with me. She no longer whips her tail, she is loose in her back, she is relaxed to handle, she doesn’t require a halter to be lead in from the pasture, she stays right at my side, she takes her oral medication (think wormer tube) on her own, and she comes when she’s called. This mare screamed at me for years, from 3 years old to 7 years old, to stop forcing her to do things that hurt, that she was afraid of, and that she flat out didn’t want to do.
She has changed my life completely. My ambition now is to help horses like her who are labeled hot, crazy, mareish, spicy, or otherwise to live in peace and harmony with their owners. She made me realize that all animals learn the same way; that they deserve to be heard even though they cannot verbalize in a way that we, as humans, can understand; and that an animal’s emotional state is real. Zoë showed me how powerful it is to be heard and have the freedom of choice. Now, she is an Autonomous Equus. She can choose. Her ideas, wants, needs, and desires are loud. And…
Now, I am listening.