The day the horse was to be delivered, the shipper called. “Ashley,” he said, “we have a problem. The trainer won’t let the horse go until you sign a paper saying that you, ‘won’t bring the Devil Horse back.’”
I want to tell you all a story ‘bout a Harper Valley Thoroughbred.
In September 2018, I read a post on Amy Lynn Paulus’s Changing Saddles site advertising a three-year-old Thoroughbred. The horse had severe behavioral problems. Amy Lynn described him as a toddler who would throw a temper tantrum when he did not get his way and said that he needed a professional trainer familiar with behavioral problems. I took one look at the horse’s unusual blaze and fierce eyes and thought, “I love a challenge, and I have an open spot in the field.”
His name was Harper Valley after “Harper Valley PTA,” the sassy country song about a mother socking it to a bunch of hypocritical busybodies. When I contacted Amy Lynn about the horse, she said that in her opinion he wanted to be a good boy, but he knew how to terrorize people, and seemed to enjoy it. Undeterred, I hired a shipper Amy Lynn recommended to pick up the horse and bring him to me.
Everything went smoothly enough at first, until I received a call from the shipper, Daniel Boik, on the day Harper Valley was to come home. “Ashley,” he said, “we have a problem. The trainer won’t let the horse go until you sign a paper saying that you, ‘won’t bring the Devil Horse back.’”
I went into crisis management mode, a thing that happens naturally after years as a high school teacher, and responded that Amy Lynn and I already had a contract. Daniel said he knew that, and that he’d get her on the phone with the trainer. Then he said, “you still want the…devil horse…?”
In retrospect I probably should have taken a beat then to pause and reflect. Daniel and Amy Lynn both called me later that day to tell me that Harper Valley had kicked at the haulers and, once loaded, had beaten the bejesus out of the trailer.
Amy Lynn especially wanted to warn me about what could be awaiting me when I unloaded him, because she didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And Daniel joked that he was going to call the divet the horse made in his trailer the “Harper Valley” and mark it with a sharpie.
Harper Valley arrived late at night and settled into a pasture with my other horses. I have to admit that, looking at the diminutive Thoroughbred that stepped off the trailer, I thought, “that’s what everyone was so afraid of?” It was like the scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail where the bunny comes out, and the knights start snickering and say, “Is it behind the bunny?”
The next day he was so calm and relaxed that I started to think that maybe something was wrong with him. I trusted Amy Lynn’s opinion and Daniel’s, but this horse was nothing like what they had described. He seemed tired — yawning, head low, sleepy eyes. He passed the vet’s inspection with flying colors, but she said he seemed worn out from the haul and would probably be back to his satanic self the next day. So I waited…
The next day I saw what all the fuss was about. When I opened the gate to the six-acre field he was in, he came galloping across the field to chase me out. I stood my ground and he reared and struck at my head with his right front hoof. I told him to get back by flailing my arms and shaking a lead rope at him, and he popped up off the ground, a bit lower this time, and tried to bite at my neck.
I drove him back more aggressively, and the little imp turned on a dime and double-barrel kicked at my head. I knew I could not back up or he would just gain confidence, so I threw myself into his hips and avoided being pelted in the head by a fraction of an inch.
Later that week, once Harper Valley and I had established a slightly better method of communicating, my husband came out to the barn with me. I had to walk around the young Thoroughbred to get out of the gate. I was ready, because by then I knew that he was dangerous at all ends and would snap easily, especially if he was eating and didn’t want to be interrupted. So when I felt him start to kick, I jumped and leaped through the mud into his hip.
He double-barrel kicked the wall that I had been standing next to, in the exact spot where my head had been, so hard that he dented the tin siding. I escaped with a bruise on the thigh. I looked at my husband. His eyes were dinner plates. “Ashley,” he said, “he tried to kill you.” And I said, “Yeah. That’s kind of his thing when he is annoyed.” To this day, my husband does not fully trust Harper Valley because of what he witnessed.
It took me from September to November to be able to get Harper Valley to back away from me consistently when I was in the field with him. In that time, I started calling him Riley, after Jeannie C. Riley, the singer who made “Harper Valley PTA” famous.
In early November I started halter breaking him. We went back to basics and I worked on teaching him that he had to back if I asked, walk if I asked, and turn if I asked. Simple concepts, but absolutely essential to have rock solid if you have a horse that wants to attack you.
Later in November he was used at a local clinic as an example of a problem horse. In the course of the clinic he was lead around a round pen by someone other than me. I was thrilled. He did exactly what the clinician asked and exhibited such skills at leading in a rope halter that many in the audience were skeptical that he had behavioral issues.
That was the first time I saw Riley’s intense competitive drive. In front of a crowd, he loves to show off. It’s no wonder he had a decent race record in the few times he was raced.
Once I took him home from the clinic, I started working on trailer loading, which had always been a huge problem for him. And I practicing our leading skills outside of the arena, so I could make sure his basic ground manners were solid before I could finally ride him.
At that time I had visions of finally having a Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover where I put the 15 permissible rides on my horse before December 1st, and then started riding him seriously in December. But Riley had other thoughts. Taking Riley out of the arena and onto the trails showed me two things: there were still some gaps in our training (when he was stressed he would still lash out at me) and he loved being out and about. His curiosity about life really emerged on the trail.
We trail walked from the end of November to February 18th. It took that long for him to be really solid in a halter and for him to start showing me that he was healing mentally and ready to work. In that time, he started learning what pinned ears and snarling nostrils mean, and for the first time his ears started matching his eyes.
His eyes had never lied to me about when he was going to attack, but he had never really understood how to communicate properly before. I see now that his learning how to appropriately tell me what he was feeling was the first step in our forging a bond and a partnership as a team, where we could have some degree of mutual trust and affection.
Once I started riding Riley, he impressed me every day. He is an excellent trail horse, he loves to rein, he enjoys obstacles and he was so obviously happy at the mounted shooting clinic I took him to (of course the angsty horse loves guns) that the clinicians declared it his next career.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been problems and setbacks along the way. He’s made me question myself and my training methods more than any other horse I have ever worked with. Many times I thought, “Am I really going to be able to help him? Or is this how I go?” But he continues to improve.
Our current list of problems:
- He can be extra when he’s in a new situation and can rush and get a bit broncy.
- When handled by someone other than me, he has been known to attempt to attack that person (most notably a very talented horse trainer named Tommy at a recent Richard Shrake clinic. Luckily I had warned Tommy, and he was ready for the double-barrel kick that Riley launched at his head).
- Lately he’s really into counterbending, which I loathe.
But for all those flaws — and as with any green horse, our challenges change daily — he also has some very good qualities. He is exceptionally competitive. He is more intelligent than any horse I have ever worked with (this can sometimes be a problem). He is very in tune with me after our months of working around each other. He listens to my voice, body language and hand signals quite well.
Riley’s personality was revealed in two recent incidents. The first occurred at the Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Show in Lexington, Virginia. I brought Riley down from Pennsylvania to show in Western dressage and it was our first real show, although we’d been to quite a few clinics, trail rides and playdates. I was not sure what Riley’s competitive nature would do to his natural traveling nerves, so I decided to take him to a large venue to see how his mind would take it.
The answer is that we almost killed Tom Mansmann and Lottie Crawford in the warm up arena. I went to get on Riley in the big dressage arena on the hill, and he took off at Tom and his horse, tried to jump out of the arena, spooked at a letter and struck at it (because of course he did), then tracked Lottie and her horse like a laser-eyed velociraptor and kicked as they circled behind him.
I worked him through his nerves, relying on skills I had taught him in those early days. In our three classes (Intro C, D and Basic 1) he trotted confidently into the arena, put down some solid scores and won his classes. That, in a nutshell is my horse. He can go from nervous wreck to old hand in 10 minutes or less and then my job is to keep his giant ego in check.
The second incident happened just this week. I was so ready for our freestyle for the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. I had been confident that I could get him accustomed to people in a T-Rex costume and do a dinosaur themed freestyle — because, who doesn’t love dinosaurs? I was thinking of the dinosaurs as a moving prop, and Riley typically adapts well to obstacles and props. What could go wrong?
The answer is that my way too intelligent horse figured out that the dinosaur was a person in T-minus .5 seconds. And this is a horse who’s great with me and terrible with other people. See any problems? He loves Mama Rex when I am the dinosaur. Put anyone else in the dinosaur costume and the predator becomes the prey. I was left shaking my head again and thinking, “I really should know him better by now! What the heck kind of a horse trainer am I?”
But that’s the thing that I love most about my horse: he has truly become my partner. He challenges me and tests me and makes me better. And I love him for it. I lost my heart horse three years ago, on October 4th. His name was Genesis, he was arrogant and full of himself, but there was never a doubt that we worked well together and improved each other. After he retired, I stopped riding dressage. The sandbox just wasn’t the same without a real dancing partner.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I have finally returned to dressage almost 11 years later (albeit western dressage this time around). For the first time in a long time I have my groove back. I have a bad boy of a Thoroughbred, and the roller coaster ride that is the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover, to thank for it.