How to tame the beast? As you'll recall, "Hawk" was a massive ex-racehorse and a confused one, too, who was given to biting, kicking and jumping out at his stall door. Inside, however, we saw something worth saving.
Our first step was to outfit him with new shoes. Hawk was a bit long in the toe, so we got him on the road to being fixed up. Our second step was to make sure there were no expectations to his daily routine. In a sense, we wanted to make his life boring.
He was at a new farm and the only regular schedule on which I kept him was his feeding schedule. I purposely rode him later in the day, and on some days in the morning, but never at predictable times. If I rode him in company, it was with a pony or horse who was very relaxed and didn’t challenge his dominating will-to-win mentality. Pretty soon, tacking up for a ride was not tough; it was a thing that he did because I asked him to, but he no longer seemed to really mind it.
Because Hawk did know how to walk/trot/canter/steer(like navigating a barge)/stop I gave him basic navigational requests daily and kept everything so simple that it too became boring and not stressful. In a couple of weeks, I wasn’t getting the cow kicks while grooming and tacking up, but the stall behavior was one thing that hadn’t changed–-and this troubled me.
Yes, he might have been "stall-protective," but was that all? Or was he protecting something else? Was he used to that stall being his only place for "Hawk time," the time after training each day when the grooms are gone and the racehorses are resting their muscles and joints in preparation for the next day's training? Was Hawk sore somewhere? One of the brilliant things that separates Thoroughbreds from horses of other breeds is their incredible ability to be as tough as nails. They are the warriors of the horse breeds and would sooner pretend everything is okay rather then tell you something is wrong. So I made an appointment with my secret weapon: the chiropractor.
I didn’t get Hawk any farther than out of the stall and up to the chiropractor before she knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Hawk had spent the better part of his life "internalizing" his pains and fears. As we helped Hawk feel better, he would hopefully start to realize that we understood, that he didn’t need to be tough anymore.
On that first visit, Hawk only allowed the chiropractor to work on half of his body. He was biting and kicking and stomping, but then all of a sudden he settled. We arranged for her to come back in a few days and try to finish the rest of him. Almost overnight we could walk in and feed the beast, we could put his halter on and lead him without fear of losing body parts, and he even started putting his head out of the stall–to be petted. After his second visit we didn’t notice much difference except we had the knowledge of how his body was working and what areas he was protecting, and we continued to see him mellow out. In a week's time I noticed a huge improvement through riding him. I could ask him to stretch his head, bend his neck, go forward and come back, and there was no initial resistance. I started to recognize how tough this horse really was. He had merely been tolerating me.
With a fresh start, the training began. He was happy to be in training; he loved having a job. Because it was winter when he arrived, nearly all of our riding was indoors, which was different from my usual spring, summer, fall training that goes straight out to the woods and fields. I was asking Hawk to get excited about learning through going around the indoor ring at The Covert.