AUTHOR’S NOTE: Take a Chance on Me – A story of rescue and rehabilitation
is available now on Amazon both as an oversized paperback and as a Kindle ebook. The official launch was on Canada Day (July 1st
), which is fitting because it tells the story of my foster horse Benson. All proceeds go back to the Canadian Horse Rescue and Rehoming Society.
Benson is a Canadian Horse. Canadians are the country’s National Heritage Breed, from which, it is reported, other breeds of horses developed: the Morgan, the Standardbred (for harness racing, so named because they must trot or pace at a standard speed) and the Saddlebred (the high-stepping horse of the show ring). They came to Canada in the 1700’s, brought over on ships from France and other European countries and mixed with native breeds already here. They were known for sturdiness and hardiness, having long lives with fewer health issues and great temperaments that made them ideal for farmers, who needed to plow, ride and drive their horses.
Now, however, this beautiful horse, part of Canada’s heritage, is endangered, and its preservation is the reason the Canadian Horse Rescue and Re-homing Society was formed. The Society’s specific mandate is to rescue from auctions horses whose bid-price is low enough to attract kill buyers (those who slaughter horses for meat), or to help owners who need to re-home their Canadians.
Benson’s story begins in 2015, when five yearling Canadians were discovered in a kill buyer’s yard. Rescuers snatched them from death that was only 24 hours away and placed them in a foster home in Alberta. The colts were all feral and unhandled; the foster home in Alberta worked to get the colts accustomed to a halter and to prepare them for new homes. When homes were found, the colts were all adopted.
Unfortunately, Benson’s adoption lasted only two weeks. The cowboy trainer he was placed with brought him back and dropped him off saying he needed a bullet in his head. After those two weeks, Benson had became worse. He had been returned skinny and with multiple scars and marks on him. Wild and fearful, he evidently had crashed through walls in his frantic efforts to escape.
The Society was unsure what his fate would be. Fortunately, they somehow heard about Deb Harper, a trainer who uses Natural Horsemanship techniques. Natural horsemanship is a philosophy of training/working with horses that is based on the ways horses communicate with each other, rather than force-based methods, which might work faster but do not become part of the horse’s own ways of thinking. NH methods do not aim to make the horse do anything but rather to create a situation in which he wants to learn as a willing partner with his trainer.
The Society decided to send Benson to Deb for help, and in October 2016 he made the 14-hour trip from Alberta to British Columba and arrived at her farm. And that is where she unleashed her unique and special training aid, Liam the Kerry Blue Terrier horse therapist.
The following is an excerpt from my book (reprinted here with permission):
During that first weekend, I introduced my dog into the program. I have used my Kerry Blue Terrier, Liam ("Kingael's Renaissance Man") to help me with traumatized foster horses on three other occasions. Normally a high energy dog, Liam seems to sense when a horse is mentally shut down and when invited, he will enter the stall with a profound uncharacteristic calmness. If I am patient I will observe a miracle -- I don’t know whether it's because of my dog’s curiously curly wavy coat or his demeanor when he’s wearing his “therapy dog” hat, but it WORKS!
I have witnessed Liam just mosey around the stall, seemingly totally uninterested in the horse while he waits for the horse’s natural curiosity to prompt it to seek him out, usually by smelling his butt: “Who are you and why are you in my stall?” Then Liam will look over his back and with tail wagging will turn slowly and offer his side to the horse for a closer inspection. Instinctively he averts his core, which would be a predator’s move. Horses are prey animals, while dogs (and humans) are predators. If Liam had faced Benson straight on, it would have seemed aggressive.
Liam does not make the first move to approach the horse. Instead, he waits. He does not get in its face, nor bark or jump, nor even move fast. I marvel at Liam’s body language! That’s usually my cue to approach and stroke Liam softly while he stands under the horse’s neck. Sometimes I can connect with the horse in a one long sweeping stroke as I touch the dog.
In Benson’s case, with his history of kicking, it was important to keep the Liam close to me and not let him wander in the stall. The other foster horses my dog helped were miniature horses: Benson weighs four times as much they do and takes up most of their small stalls. With Benson, the first meeting went well as introductions go, although Benson didn't appear to be too interested, which was fine since it showed that his anxiety was being reduced.
Later that afternoon I took Liam out with me into the horses’ field while I sat on a log and waited and watched. I had Liam on a flexi-lead in case I had to reel him in, but it was fascinating to watch him walk out to the end of the lead and turn his back on the horses to invite them in. One of the horses, Baron, was comfortable with dogs (his owner Melinda Soeten has two German Shepherds), so he had no apprehension to approach first, but I was pleased to see that Benson was right behind him.
After several approach-and-retreats, Benson was confident enough to visit with the dog on his own...
All this all may seem odd to you, (that I use my show dog; coming and going into the field frequently) but as far as I am concerned anything that helped Benson realize that no one gets hurt on this farm is important and anything that helped him “connect the dots” in his training was important. Everything he was being introduced to was calm and friendly and had his best interests at heart.
Deb did not know at first that Liam could be such useful assistant. She had of course observed his behavior with her own horses but never planned to use him with traumatized horses. Liam is an intact male and a high energy terrier: Deb says she’s never owned one so fast chasing a Frisbee or such a lethal rat killer as he on her farm. By contrast, Liam is amiable enough to live with three cats and another small rescue dog, and last summerone of Deb’s co-workers was hospitalized and his two small Shih-Tzus stayed on the farm with Liam for a month, as one big happy family.
The breakthrough moment for Deb came when a miniature-horse foal named Dart was brought to her sick and abused. Deb wasn’t getting anywhere lying down on the floor with Dart, but finally it occurred to her that Liam, being the same size as the mini, might be friendly with Baby Dart. So she took a chance on letting Liam in with Dart -- and it worked! Then she tried it with other abused horses, watching Liam develop his pattern of moseying around the stall, ignoring the horse until the horse touched him first – and then and only then turning his side to the horse and maybe moving under its neck.
In her book, Take a Chance on Me, Deb goes on to explain the journey she had with Benson and Liam over the course of sixteen months, from a horse that ‘needed a bullet in his head’ to Benson’s being adopted into a wonderful new home. If you want to learn more about them – and benefit the Canadian Horse rescue efforts – look for the book on Amazon.com.