Gracie is an older grey mare who lives at the rescue. No one knows her exact age, but she’s probably around 18. Gracie was rescued in 2007 from a feed lot in Nevada where she was on her way to the slaughter house. When Gracie was rescued, she was absolutely terrified of people. She was probably mistreated and abused in the past, as her light grey coat shows plenty of signs of old injuries and scars.
Gracie Was Completely Untouchable.
I met Gracie in the early months of 2009 when I first started volunteering at the rescue. I was warned to be careful around her, as she was extremely afraid of people. She was known to kick if she felt threatened. Gracie was wearing a blue halter when I met her. A vet had put it on her while she been sedated for veterinary work, but no one had ever been able to get close enough afterwards to take off the halter.
First Tries at Friendship.
I first tried befriending Gracie and working with her in the spring and fall of 2009. She was interested in treats, but was usually too skeptical of me to come close enough to take them. I tried sitting with Gracie and letting her get comfortable with my presence. She never did.
The progress we made was one step forward, three steps back. I wrote several posts where it seemed like we were making headway. However, the next day she would revert back to her old ways and would be as skeptical and standoffish as ever.
Can Food Overcome Fear?
Gracie was still terrified of us. The treats tasted good, but she was still very fearful and cautious.
Food is usually a great training tool. However, for issues of severe fear or aggression, food can sometimes be a hindrance. The animal learns to approach to get the food, but is tense and still has little interest or curiosity in the human. Gracie wanted the food, but she could not get over her fear of people.
Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT)
This past winter I started doing CAT with Gracie in short sessions. Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) is a procedure originally developed for aggressive dogs. However, it also works great for fear issues. CAT uses low levels of negative reinforcement (pressure/release) to build curiosity, interest, relaxation and engagement. The CAT procedure treats emotions as operant behavior and uses negative reinforcement and extinction to shape a new repertoire of positive emotions.
I would approach Gracie in the pasture, but stop at any sign of tension or unrest. I would would wait (sometimes awhile) for any signs of relaxation or curiosity and then retreat.
By February, she was showing A LOT more interest and was beginning to act like she wanted to engaged. This youtube clip shows her total shift in attitude. Instead of approaching to snatch a treat, she was approaching me because she was interested and curious.
When I first added treats back into the mix, we made some progress, but ended up backsliding again. She was still too uncomfortable with me near her head and neck. So, we went back to CAT until she was more comfortable with me standing very close to her shoulder and head.
This summer, Gracie has finally gotten comfortable enough with me to allow me to pet her. I started in tiny amounts, scratching her once then giving her a treat and walking away. I made sure to always watch her body language for tension or stress. Sometimes I’d do to much and accidentally scare her or startle her.
Gracie Gets Her Halter Off
Just this past week or so, I’ve been able to touch her cheek. I also started touching and gently moving the buckle on the halter. She needed to be pretty comfortable with the halter moving, as the buckle was going to be hard to undo. After several days of this I was finally able get the halter off!
Gracie has come a long way in the past year. She’s a lot more curious about people and is starting to accept being petted and scratched. We would love to get her confident enough that we could train her to cooperate with basic husbandry tasks such as vaccinations, blood draws or having her feet trimmed.
Gracie also needs to learn how to be comfortable around a variety of different people. We will have to be careful about doing this, as certain situations or movements can still startle her and scare her.
Recently, she let Dawn, who owns and runs the rescue, pet and scratch her for nearly 10 minutes. Gracie has been here three years it was the first time Dawn had been able to pet her while she stood still, calm and relaxed. Dawn was completely overjoyed and Gracie was more than happy to get some scratches and treats.