My Autistic Unicorn, Felix
I chose my horse, a PRE named Felix when he was nearly 2 years old and still a colt living with his breeder in the North of UK. He was afraid of people when I met him as he had not been handled but he had lived a nice life with his breeders’ other colts. I am not set up for stallions and I had 5 mares here so I asked for him to be castrated before he was transported to me.
It was immediately clear that Felix was very afraid of being touched. He was sedated to travel to me and as soon as he was unloaded and turned out, he was untouchable. I noticed that even as his confidence grew with me, he was especially afraid of being touched on his upper forelegs – long after he had become happy to have his feet picked out and lower legs brushed. He was also very afraid of water, so could not be washed with a hose as this made him terrified. Both the sound and the feel of the water seemed to frighten him a lot. I bought a hot horse shower and his whole attitude to water over his body changed!
I had already begun learning about using AAoR training concepts for a while before I bought Felix and Fiona, and their early training work was entirely using Positive Reinforcement, mostly at liberty in an open area and always using no force and the work was the AAoR style. I think this is just as well as I feel he could have become quite dangerous otherwise due to his very high anxiety levels
He is hyper specific, hyper sensitive, hyper observant, hyper sensitive to sounds, does not generalise easily, very intelligent and focusses well, a gentle sweet natured horse who enjoys solving problems but is a slow thinker and a bit dreamy but a fast reactor with a quick body. He seems unable to multi task and cant cope with two people working with him at once and is always very shy with new people – some more than others, but more especially if the people want to touch him, or come into his stable with him.
He was amused and not afraid of having odd things placed on his back, big pieces of plastic, old towels and rugs were all fine. I always do this kind of thing at liberty so the horse can walk away if they need to and I am confident he was not afraid as he didn’t need to walk away. He seemed to enjoy the novel objects and liked to walk on, pick up or paw at the things when they fell off. So perhaps no surprise that saddles – including girths never worried him at all.
We began the process of backing him about 2 or 3 years ago, working with me as his ground trainer and Florence, my daughter sitting passively on him at first and gradually taking over riding him alone, but he was very inconsistent with his anxiety levels and after too many explosions putting her on the floor, she has understandably lost all trust in him. I thought of him as my frightened Lion who could not find his Roar, but to try to rule out pain, last summer I had his spine X-Rayed and this revealed very slightly closer spiney processes in Thoracic vertebra – right under where the saddle would sit – but the Vets’ opinion was that they were not likely to be causing pain as they were not close enough to actually impinge on one another, and he showed absolutely no sign of pain at all when palpated in that area by either the Vet or me, and showed no pain responses along any other area of his spine. He does not drop his back or lift his head high and has no under-neck development, so is not a hollow moving horse, but he moves very wide and stiffly in his hind legs and always has done, so is clearly he is weak in the hind quarters and Psoas muscles – which will impact on the flexibility of his back of course. His feet are kept in good balance and his teeth are checked regularly and show no imbalance either.
So all last winter and this year I practiced Equine Touch regularly on him as I was training up to Level 3 in ET and at first it frightened him a lot! I did expect that response with him, so always worked alone with him, untied in a large stable so he could be free to leave if he wanted to as this always seemed to calm and empower him when he was a younger horse. Gradually after a few ET sessions he began to show some signs of release of tension and after a few months of regular ET he definitely loved it He now stands still with happy anticipation as soon as I begin the “branding” at the start or his sessions. I think the ET was a HUGE turning point for Felix.
I had already decided to think of him as my Unicorn and not worry if he was ever ridden or not – I have other horses I can ride so no problem there – but I have an intuition that he actually does want to be ridden. I decided to let him take as long as he liked and try to help him truly overcome his own fears of being mounted by breaking the process down into tiny micro steps and not rush him. I used Clicker Training and he knows there are no consequences for saying “no thanks not now.” I always worked on him alone with no ground helper as I knew that the actual action of mounting was the real problem, and he has shown in the past that he is often confused if two people work with him at the same time.
I spent all of last winter breaking down all the components of mounting into tiny little step by step elements. Every tiny micro stage was rewarded well and well established in confidence before going on to the next stage and if he seemed worried we went to back to earlier easier stages to reassure him. I then could mount and sit on him breathing with him and relaxing softly, standing still for many minutes at a time, and one day he tentatively offered to take one single step with me sitting on top – I let him try it out and clicked, praised, fed a food reward and got off. Then a few weeks later he offered me 3 steps in a row. He seemed to appreciate being part of the decision-making process. Then one day he chose to offer me a series of 3 steps, and we stopped and I didn’t get off and he stood a while then offered me 3 more steps, and in this way he walked about 10 metres with calmness and confidence. It was a long process, but he just could not seem to proceed any faster than this without getting anxious and to press him to do it faster would have been very destructive for his fragile confidence, I know.
This summer I worked on his Groundwork, he already knows all lateral movements, in walk and trot, and is lovely to work in hand, lunge or in Academic Groundwork, and super to long rein. I have been using an exercise in Groundwork where he was asked to frequently change his bend from QI left to QI right after only a few steps in each – which was suggested by Monika Sanders when she was here, plus we incorporated more canter transitions on lunge – also suggested by Monika, both to try to release his stiff Sacro iliac joint. I also use larger circles on lunge, incorporating straight lines, squares and ovals, and some collection and extended work on lunge in walk, trot and canter. I sometimes use raised poles too.
I can now mount him from the block in a cavesson bareback or with a soft bareback pad and just recently I have started to use a saddle. He can make many circles to the left or right now and be corrected in falling in or out with his shoulders, make Shoulder In steps and Quarters In steps on a circle. He is still needing to straighten a little more, but is improving and his hind legs are getting stronger and held closer together, little by little.
Personally, I think ALL horses are what we humans call Autistic – but Felix is a long way further along the spectrum than most. Time, patience, Equine Touch, Academic Art of Riding, R+, quiet and calm reassurance, no force and some sympathy for his fears have all played their part.
Felix is my Autistic Unicorn, and all I want is for him to him to find his Lions Roar and feel truly OK, while I work on improving his mind and body.
He does not have to earn my love. It is unconditional.