Online Extra

Learning New Tricks

August 12, 2011

How a blind therapy horse learns to negotiate a new trail obstacle.

By Christine Hamilton for America's Horse

Jody O'Brien and Magic. Journal photo.

At first, “Magic” sounded perfect. The bay American Quarter Horse gelding had jumped, been a pony horse at a polo barn, showed dressage, been trail ridden and had his breed’s classic kind temperament.

His owner, Jody Lynn McBrien, described him to Gail Clifton of the Sarasota-Manatee Association for Riding Therapy in Bradenton, Florida, hoping to donate him to the therapeutic riding program. Busy with work as a college professor, Jody didn’t have time for him any more and wanted to find him a special home.

“And then Jody said, ‘Well, I need to tell you the rest of the story,’ Gail recalls with a smile. “‘He’s blind. … He has no eyeballs.’ ”

Read the September issue of America's Horse magazine for more on Magic's transition to a therapy horse. And below is the rest of the story about how  his training continues:

Jody, Magic’s former owner, still takes time to teach Magic new skills during her volunteer time at SMART. The facility’s small obstacle course arena provides great opportunities, and Magic has already mastered the sand bunker, the bridge, the ditch and the mailbox post.

To show how much confidence Magic has, Jody lets us watch her introduce Magic to the challenging seesaw bridge for the first time. She never works alone. Here, Samantha Toomey, SMART barn manager, assists her.

She works with Magic just as you would any horse – taking it step by step, building on what he knows, being patient and confident, etc. – but Magic’s blindness puts a different emphasis on the process.

“For one thing, I have to try to anticipate the sound because he can’t see, and his hearing is very sharp,” Jody says. She brings him to the bridge and gives her “up-up-up” command to ask him to step onto the bridge. That part of the sound and feel is familiar to him.

The hard part is the feel of the seesaw, a challenge for any horse, but especially so for one that doesn’t have sight to help him understand what he’s feeling.

“I knew that once the bridge started to tip, and he couldn’t see what was happening, that was going to be scary for him,” Jody says.

Jody and Magic have one big advantage in meeting this obstacle: their relationship. A seasoned trail horse, Magic is familiar with following his rider or handler’s lead, especially when it’s his old friend.

Though he hesitates – and she pauses to allow him to experience the feel – he follows Jody over the bridge as she walks on. She’s able to lead and ride him over the seesaw just a few times, and there’s a horse cookie for him on the other side.

“I got him over (while) riding once, and the second time (riding) he was resistant,” Jody says as she untacks Magic. “I wanted to end with success, so I hopped off and led him over. This was good for the first time!

“I think it’s good for him to keep learning things,” Jody says. “I don’t think it’s unfair to ask him to face something new.”

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