With the recent EHV-1 outbreak, we’re more or less on lock-down here waiting for the all-clear. Two of the confirmed cases are within 30 miles of us and with half the equestrian world saying “well, I don’t have cutting horses so I’ll be OK” it doesn’t fill me with confidence that people are taking the situation seriously. So for now, we stay home.

Normally I wouldn’t mind so much. Giving Uno time off between rides is part of our usual protocol. But we’re due to do NASTR 75 on June 4th and I was hoping to do that ride a little faster than our standard putzing-along-at-the-back speed – which would mean conditioning a bit harder than usual to ramp him up for that. My reason for wanting to go faster is that the NASTR ride was to be our last test before deciding if we were going to sign up for Tevis this year – which is six weeks after NASTR. …Well, best laid plans and all that. I’ll just sit tight and see how things develop and keep repeating the mantra that “a well-rested horse is better than an over-conditioned one”.

So this weekend saw me with some unaccustomed time on my hands and I turned my attentions to “Project Horse” Hopi.

Hopi grazing on the lawn in 2010

Hopi slightly less fat than he is now (but only slightly)
grazing on the lawn last year.

Hopi came to us when we were horse-shopping for Patrick back in the fall of 2007. He wasn’t suitable for Patrick, being too green, but I loved the horse, saw so much potential in him, and he has a walk to die for (something I always wanted in a horse). I reasoned that since Roo was going so well and Jackit was too young to ride, I could buy Hopi as something to play with in the interim. A week later, we acquired Uno and after he dumped Patrick four times in a row, he became my project horse instead. So Hopi has stood in the wings, #4 horse in line for the last three and half years.

Hopi is the most peculiar mix of horse. Once you’re on top of him, he’s actually very solid and doesn’t feel like a green horse at all. But on the ground he’s a mess. Despite living with us all this time, he’s still convinced we’re “out to get him”. He’s difficult to catch because he doesn’t want you near him. He is very thin skinned so doesn’t like to be touched or brushed. He’s explosive and doesn’t like to be contained in small spaces or constrained – say by being tied-up or cornered. He will run right through or over you if necessary. He is uncomfortable having his foot gripped between my knees to trim him. He’s scared of anything you bring up to him – never mind if it’s a small brush or a large blanket. If you duck under his neck while he’s tied to the trailer to pass in front of him, he’ll pull back in alarm. The first time I fitted an Easyboot on his foot, he took one look at it and reared to get away from it. He’s frightened of people walking towards him on the trail or in the arena. As a result of all of the above I’ve been run over, kicked, and stood on. Needless to say, he needs work – and lots of it. But through it all, you can see he tries. He wants to be secure. He wants to have the attention. And he has a nice soft eye. So he’s still here and still holds the “Project Horse” title.


Because of all this and despite my best intentions, trimming Hopi is one of my least favorite tasks (see above re. being run over, kicked, and stood on) so his feet become woefully long. I usually enlist Patrick to hold him and every foot is a struggle involving dodging and manipulating, trying to do the best job possible in the shortest amount of time (i.e. the nanosecond Hopi will hold his foot up and be compliant). The saving grace is that he has really good, round feet so even when they are long, they grow out nice and evenly without any weird distortions.

So there we were on Saturday, no Patrick in sight but Hopi and his way-too-long feet standing in front of me, so I decided to spend some quality time with him.

To begin with we played “Softly, softly, catchee monkee” involving pretending to catch Uno and Fergus, all the while keeping up a running commentary to Hopi about how awkward they were being and how wouldn’t it be nice if they’d just stand still? Not being the object of interest, Hopi stood in the way and surprisingly accepted some butt scritches and tail tugging. He would move out of the way, but wasn’t his usual explosive self. After about five minutes, I haltered him before he knew what had happened and took him up onto the driveway for some groundwork refresher.

One of my biggest weaknesses is lack of consistency – which is probably one of the things Hopi needs most and probably why we haven’t progressed very quickly. But he does respond to groundwork when I manage to do it with him. During this 20 minute session, I insisted that he kept his attention on me, asked for some backing, asked for some gives, worked on asking him to move his butt away from me, worked on giving to the rope from the wrong direction (i.e. walking all the way behind him until I stood on the other side and put gentle pressure on the rope), etc. Satisfied that he was at least somewhat primed, I took him down to the barn.

I trim all the other horses in an empty 12 x 12 stall in the barn – place a hay bag in front of them – accessible from both sides of the panel – and they cheerfully hang out with their buddies – and I often trim them loose. On the other hand, trimming Hopi in an enclosed space is not usually something I’m comfortable with. I’d much prefer to have as many escape routes as possible by which to vacate the area when he has one of his frequent melt downs. But I figured I’d give it a go.

Rather than embark upon trimming right away, I decided to go for extended grooming. He looked a mess with much of his shedded out coat still clinging to his body in fluffy clumps, so out came the furbee – the perfect de-shedding tool. I ran it all over him very, very carefully so as not to poke or pull in an unpleasant manner. A few times I hit one of his sensitive spots and his whole skin rippled with discomfort, so I knew to be more gentle. At the end he looked a lot better and seemed relatively relaxed and comfortable, so I decided it was time to start trimming.

We began with the right front. First I brought over my hoofpick and hoof knives for him to inspect. Predictably he snorted at them, looked alarmed, moved away from me, and acted like something very bad was about to happen. So I stood there waiting for him to conclude that they weren’t actually torture implements and once he settled down, I picked up his foot and kneeling on one knee next to him, propped the foot on my other knee. That way I wasn’t constraining the foot or alarming him unduly with my hoof-stand. This went very smoothly and I was able to progress to the nipping stage – again, introducing him to the nippers politely by allowing him to sniff them and stand quietly for a short while with them in sight before starting the torture, uh, I mean trimming.

With that part done, I needed to work from the top to remove extra toe and any flare. The [evil] HoofJack was going to be necessary. The normal modus operandi for the hoofstand is I get his foot up on it and start to rasp. He tolerates it for a short while before rearing up and pulling back (thus he is always tied on a Clip). This then spirals into a a “you will behave” battle of wills. But this time around, things went much better. He only removed his foot once from the stand and did so relatively politely. One foot done, three to go.

Half-way through the right rear, things started to degenerate in the usual way. He’d tolerated propping the rear foot in the cradle and I’d trimmed about 80% of it before he decided he’d had enough, removed the foot (and having been kicked in the past for having the audacity to hold onto the foot to prevent its removal, I wasn’t going that route again) and then refused to pick it up again. No amount of pushing and pulling resulted in compliance. Hmmm. Time for more groundwork.

Off we went, up to the driveway again (not much flat on my property, so the driveway is usually the groundwork location of choice). This time I asked him to turn tight circles around me, stopping every so often and asking him to pick up the rear foot. If he didn’t, then he’d be turning circles again. After a short while, he got the idea, so we went back down to the barn whereupon he promptly forgot the lesson and ignored my “foot up” requests.

O-kay… I guess we’re going to be trimming on the driveway afterall. I took all my tools and him back up and had him turning tight circles around me and the equipment. Again, fairly soon he got the idea and decided that maybe he could allow his foot to be worked on.

And here was the great part. Once he’d concluded that he was going to have to do something unpleasant (turn small circles) if he wouldn’t allow me to pick his feet up, he also realised that standing quietly and being compliant might be the way to go. I was able to trim both back feet, using the cradle on the HoofJack with him standing basically ground-tied and relaxed while I did it. Nice!

Once we were done with the back feet, I rewarded him with a short grazing session and then we went back to the barn to finish up the last front foot. At the end, I had a nice relaxed horse, neither of us were at the “argghhh” stage and his feet looked really good. Yay!

To finish up, I gave him a haircut (he’d rubbed the middle part of his mane off on the fence, so had long sections top and bottom and a short section which stood up in the center) and (courtesy of quarter of a bottle of ShowSheen) brushed out his tail which was a felted mess containing quite a bit of gravel and twigs.

And then off we went up to visit Patrick up in his shop, still relaxed and contented, allowing me to lean on him, scritchle his nose with enjoyment, and generally hang out.

This is the best session I’ve ever spent with Hopi and I was so very pleased at the end. Hopefully this will be the shape of things to come – maybe we’ve finally turned a corner and he will actually start to enjoy being interacted with – in turn making interacting with him a pleasure – and thus breaking the cycle of us avoiding each other.

Hopi and Jackit playing. Jackit started it and soon realised he'd bitten off more than he could chew.

Hopi and Jackit playing. Jackit started it but soon realised he’d bitten off more than he could chew. (see how athletically Hopi can rear!)