Goldstar Alliance—Lance for short—arrived at Flintrock Farm on a gray Monday in late January. The liver chestnut Morgan was tightly wound, as you might expect of a two-year-old colt in a brand-new, mare-filled environment. His owners, Lynda Shackelford and Betty Thacker of Goldstar Morgans, had entrusted him to James for a short colt-starting session.
Lance sprinted around the small arena, fueled by nervous energy, barely acknowledging the cowboy-hatted figure attached to him by a rope. James calmly observed him, pointing out his tendency to be “right brain,” or reactive. His quickness, high-headedness, and tension indicated a fear-based personality.
James gradually made himself more present to Lance, using herd-based body language to move him forward and change his direction. He rewarded Lance with “comfort” by shifting his body language to neutral, welcoming the colt into his space, and rubbing his face and neck. The message: Fear and running will get you nowhere. Relaxation and thinking will bring you comfort.
Lance started to crowd James once he recognized him as a leader. “I’ll escape my fears by sticking close to this dude,” Lance seemed to be thinking. “I call that space invading,” said James. “If I had him in training for a month, that’s the first thing I’d work on.” He nipped this dependency in the bud by pushing Lance out of his space.
Slowly, almost infinitesimally, Lance let go of his wild-eyed ways. He still had plenty of inattentive moments, fueled by nearby mares and distant whinnies. Never impatient or punitive, James simply brought the colt’s attention back to the task at hand. A bond began to form between them, and Lance showed fledgling signs of trust and respect toward this two-legged herd boss. Head dropped, body relaxed, Lance followed James around. “It’s amazing how powerful leading a horse can be,” said James, “because they want something to follow.”
Lance’s increasing trust allowed James to lightly fling the lead rope across the colt’s back, around his legs, on his neck and rump, getting him used to unexpected body contact. James also jumped around and waved his hands in front of Lance’s face, teaching him to work through his fear instead of bolting.
When James took out the progress stick and string, Lance reverted briefly to his early rip-snorting ways. His fear settled down faster, however, and he bravely stood still as James rubbed the stick under his chin and flicked the string across his back. The colt was thinking his way through it, not blowing up and freaking out.
“If I can convince him I’m as intelligent as he is, he’ll go a long way with me,” was James’ appraisal.
Next he asked Lance to flex his neck from side to side, move his hindquarters, yield his front shoulders, back up, and lower his head. Both flexing and head lowering promote relaxation—key in all horses, but especially in a braced colt.
Finally came the mounting block and acclimating Lance to pressure and weight on his back and sides. The colt was understandably edgy about this new turn of events. He circled around the mounting block while James performed a cheerleader-worthy split, laying one leg across Lance’s back and pivoting on his grounded leg. Once Lance settled down enough to stay put, James declared an end to this initial training session.
“I don’t want to overload him,” James said of the little colt, who was softer in his demeanor—and a lot sweatier—than an hour and a half before. “I’ve given him a lot to process.”
Despite the intensity of the session, James looked as fresh as when he started. Shouldn’t he be exhausted? “You get to the point where these kinds of sessions energize you,” he said. “I feel good about what we accomplished.”