Mystic has a new pasture mate, a soft-eyed black Tennessee Walking Horse named Mo, who arrived at Fiore Farms two months ago. The two of them have become as close as Frick and Frack despite their opposite coloring.
Like Mystic, Mo has an uncertain past that speaks of some hard handling. Mo’s caretaker, Alicia, found him five years ago among 20 horses crowded onto two acres at a horse trader’s spread near Fayetteville.
“As a show horse in the Walking Horse world, things were done to him that have changed who he naturally was. He was trained to push through the bit, to go, go, go. But Mo has a huge heart,” says Alicia. “Even after being abused, he wants to be with people, and he tries so hard, even when he is scared. “
James began working with Mo in February, tackling some key basics: desensitizing him to the stick and string, rubbing him with a noisy plastic bag, putting obstacles in his path to interrupt his thought pattern, introducing him to the big green rubber ball. Mo’s response tended to be push-button panic, which typically translated into running in frenzied, sweaty circles. “Just asking him not to panic was a big thing,” James explains. “He’d had a life of hanging on to anxiety. He had to learn a new way of thinking and feeling.”
As the weeks progressed and James patiently built trust with Mo, the tenor of their sessions shifted. Mo began to learn that he could look to a person as a leader and that his fear didn’t solve problems. James spent a number of sessions in the saddle, teaching Mo to moderate his gaits rather than accelerate when keyed up and anxious.
Alicia did her own quiet work with Mo, building on her five-year relationship with him. “The biggest challenges for me have been his fears—understanding they aren’t personal—and learning how to help him overcome them,” she says. “Getting him to properly join up was a big breakthrough, and now we are working on impulsion without fear.”
A mid-April training session showed how far Mo has come since February. As James twirled the stick and string with helicopter speed over Mo’s head, he didn’t flinch or budge. James worked him on a 22’ line, bringing him from walk to trot to near-canter, then down again, all without signs of panic. Kate, who was watching from the grandstand, commented, “He’s changed so much—I can see him thinking a lot more. His head carriage has softened and his movement is more relaxed.” Alicia, who also sat in the grandstand, watched silently and proudly, her love for Mo as palpable as the clear blue sky overhead.
James decided to close the session with a bareback ride. He slid onto Mo’s back with the easy, long-legged vault of a cowboy and talked his way through the experience. “He’s not afraid of a rider. He’s afraid of thinking and moving at the same time. “
Horse and rider circled, with James softly flexing Mo’s neck to remind him to yield. “It’ll probably take a year for him to get over his fear. But he gets over stuff a lot quicker now. If he gets worked up, he comes right down.”
James dismounted after a few relaxed turns around the arena, then offered one of his trademark analogies: “The bread’s in the oven. It just needs to keep cooking.”