When Peregrine was about four months old and beginning to fill out, he started fussing when I groomed him around his belly and hind legs. This was a decided change in his behavior, and I was worried.
I called my vet out again. When he got to the barn, Peregrine popped his head over the stall door to say hello. The vet turned his back on him and walked away. The other horses were due for worming. This was still in the dark ages when tube worming was the routine way to control parasites. I had a lot of questions to ask, so we left Peregrine and his mother to the end. Big mistake. The horse in the stall next to theirs was a big, broad chested thoroughbred. He hated being wormed, and he fought hard against the vet. I waited with Peregrine in the adjacent stall. We listened with growing concern as the horse spun around the stall, crashing into the walls until the vet finally succeeded in trapping him in a corner long enough to get a twitch on him. Worming was a necessary evil, so in those days you used whatever methods you had to to get the job done.
He was the last horse to be done before Peregrine, but now Peregrine was afraid. Instead of going up to the front of the stall to greet the vet, he hid behind his mother. The vet made no effort to greet Peregrine or to help him feel more at ease. He went into the stall and walked straight up to his hind end. He put his hand directly onto Peregrine’s stifle. Startled, Peregrine cow kicked his hind leg up against his belly.
The vet pulled his hand away and announced that there was nothing wrong with this horse. He was just bad mannered. He was a spoiled, backyard foal. I needed to stop coddling him and make him behave.
The words stung. What a horrible, horrible thing to say. If he had waited, if he had asked, he would have seen Peregrine coming up to me and letting me put his halter on without fuss. He would have seen a foal who stood well for handling, who willingly and easily picked up all four feet, but who was now showing concern about being handled in one particular area.
A week after this incident I saw Peregrine’s stifles lock for the first time. He tried to take a step and his leg wouldn’t bend. There had been a reason for his behavior. It had nothing to do with his manners, and everything to do with physical discomfort. Because this vet was convinced that I was spoiling this foal by handling him, he couldn’t see past his own biases to the physical issue that was brewing. That was the first of the many thousands of times I would see Peregrine’s stifles lock. For the next eight years his stifles haunted our training, turning even the simplest of tasks into a struggle.
I said in my previous post that I learned many important lessons from that vet. Actually, I should say I learned them from Peregrine. I learned that Peregrine was always right. Whenever he protested and resisted against a training request, I always discovered that there was an underlying physical cause. It might not be obvious at first, but when I stopped trying to make him do something and instead listened to him, I would find that he had been right. He really couldn’t do what I was asking.
That lesson has carried over to other horses. In my teaching I’ve found that whenever someone has been struggling for a long time with a persistent behavior problem, once we scratch below the surface and do some detective work, almost without exception we find there is an underlying physical cause.
Peregrine and that vet taught me that every horse is a study of one. We need to treat them as the individuals that they are instead of lumping them all into one category. That vet saw horses as livestock. He handled Peregrine in a way that was consistent with his world view. Peregrine showed me the value of treating each horse as an individual. And clicker training gave me a way to free up his voice so I could really hear what he needed to say.
Happy Thirtieth Birthday Peregrine. Sometimes the gifts you have given me have been hard ones, but always they have been worth opening.