Blushing ET was brought to Flag Is Up Farms in November of 1997. He was a beautiful, athletic, chestnut Thoroughbred who had been banned from the track due to a violent phobia against starting gates, and a deep-seated distrust of humans. I was sure that I would be able to get him back to Santa Anita for the start of the racing season on December 26. When I began to work with him, I realized that I was dealing with a new dimension in troubled horses.
Blushing ET dived at me with teeth bared when I went to put the protective blanket on him. The first few days were devoted to securing the blanket and getting him to enter an ¬enclosed area. Getting him into the gate itself was absolutely out of the question. Despite daily visits to the gates with his work rider, Blushing ET showed no improvement. In the stable he was kind, agreeable, and allowed himself to be groomed, bandaged and blanketed. Anywhere near the gates, he became dangerous. If we put anything like long lines around his hocks, he exploded. I was convinced it was the side-rails that had started this phobic behavior; however, I was astonished that using the blanket, and hours of work had not produced the hoped-for effect.
One evening, I was watching a football game on television, when I realized I barely knew who was playing. My mind was fixed on Blushing ET. I decided to tackle the problem. I enlisted some help and drove to the round pen. I saddled up my Quarter Horse, – Dually, checked the reins back to the saddle, and left him standing in his stall. To this day I do not know why I did that – perhaps subconsciously I knew I might need Dually’s help.
I then saddled Blushing ET, but left the stable blanket on. I did this to lessen the effect of the long lines near his hip and stifle. Once in the round pen, he was just as violent as he had been without the stable blanket. As I worked, his anger increased. Teeth bared and ears back, he flew at me. My assistants opened the pen door letting me out. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the abuse he had received because of trainers’ attempts to cope with his natural aversion to the starting gates had only compounded his phobia.
The harder they whipped him, the more terrified he became. I tried another tack and tied bits of cloth onto the stirrups so that they dangled along his sides. His behavior worsened. The cloths were soon ripped to shreds by his violent kicking. Every time I faced him with the long lines, he became violent, almost nailing me with his deadly feet. I decided it was time to enlist the help of Dually.
I rode Dually into the round pen, and from his back, carefully attached a long line to Blushing ET’s halter, and began to drive him with one line. The kicking continued with extreme violence. When the long line was put over the hips and allowed to drop to the hock, he kicked, bit and struck out with his feet, twice making strong attacks on Dually. Each time I jumped Dually forward, I would throw my arms up to avoid the charge of a very angry Blushing ET.
I continued astride Dually, and very gradually, Blushing ET began to learn to stop kicking. When he got quiet, I took off the long line, thus rewarding him for his good behavior. With his adrenaline gradually going down, he could assimilate the information I was giving him that the line was not a whip, and was not going to cause him pain. That evening marked a turning point in my work with him.
We continued with the routine at the gates with considerable improvement. However, he was still so phobic about them that he rushed to get through as quickly as possible, and was still a very dangerous horse to handle. Up to this point in my relationship with Blushing ET, ¬every episode proved dramatically that he was bent on going into what he perceived to be dangerous pressure. He would then make every attempt to kill the attacker—long lines, side rails and even me. It didn’t matter.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Blushing ET provided me with the information I needed to come up with a new device, and thus a solution to slowing him down upon leaving the gate. I call it “the hallway.” It works on two principles. Repetition is the heart and soul of learning and herd animals find comfort from moving in circles. From overhead, this device looks like a miniature racetrack. An oval with two short straightaways and two small turns, the whole device is no more than 100 feet (approx. 35 meters) from start to finish.
The track is defined by 7-feet-high panels (approx. 2.5 meters) and the horse enters the oval through one such detachable panel. The riderless horse is led, typically counterclockwise, around the track. At one point on the oval stands the inner stall of a starting gate; the outer stalls sit outside the hallway. The gate is left open and the horse walks through the gate and continues around the hallway and back through the gate again. While the protective blanket was still critically needed, Blushing ET taught me the value of this new training device in adjusting his outlook on the starting gate.
We spent hours there. Days passed. I eventually added a saddle, then long lines and finally a rider. Progress was slow, but it was progress. Blushing ET finally did get back on the track and became a high-level winner. Working through Blushing ET’s phobia about starting gates was like attending an “equine university” for me. The hallway has the chance to become a tremendous asset to the racing ¬industry.
I have now successfully used the starting-gate blanket on over 100 horses throughout the world. I did not patent this invention and I have encouraged people to have them made for their own use. Thousands of horses have benefited from using the blanket, continuing careers that, without it, most likely would have been cut short. It should be said that the Dually halter was an extremely valuable tool with all horses that I have trained at the starting gate. It is effective when used in the same fashion as described in the section “Loading,” in this From My Hands to Yours book).
It is my hope that this chapter on into-pressure will serve to inform trainers the world over of a phenomenon rarely discussed before. I believe that it is among the most important facts I have used to my advantage throughout my career. Failure to understand this characteristic is likely to result in the use of techniques that are counterproductive when educating our horses. The examples that I have given are only a few of the areas where into-pressure affects the relationship of humans and horses. The reader should use these suggestions to explore issues critical to the various disciplines.
The diagram below shows the device Monty calls “the hallway”.
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