For two hours, Native Kitten pranced around like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.
Head flung high in the air, the shy mare refused to approach her new owner, no matter how she was coaxed.
She would draw near, and then prance away. But her new owner would not rush her.
It would be important to take as long as the flighty mare needed for her to start to trust people; after all, it hadn’t been that long since the gorgeous, 15.1-hand ex-racerhad been rescued from the slaughter pipeline.
So Allison Gaereminck waited. This was her first horse, and it was also her first shot at learning to work with horses, so she would exercise patience; she let the mare come to her.
Eventually, Native Kitten would feel the safety of kindness, and take her first tentative steps towards Gaereminck, rewarding her new owner with the softest, lightest brush of her muzzle against the young lady’s open and outstretched hand.
“I felt like I was doing something really right to be wanted by an animal who needed someone as much as I did,” says Gaereminck, recalling the moment of connection. “She trusted me.”
Race name: Native Kitten
New name: Annabelle
Sire: Kitten’s Joy
Dam: Native Belle
Foal date: May 2007But before Native Kitten had stretched her neck way out, (literally and metaphorically) she had been rescued by a network of Thoroughbred advocates, who discovered she had fallen into the hands of a Louisville, Ky. kill buyer.
In July 2011, Thoroughbred advocate Deborah Jones of California and Gail Hirt of Beyond the Roses Equine, a national nonprofit charity, were alerted to the plight of 15 horses who were in danger of going to slaughter, according to Hirt.
Of the 15, eight ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, including Native Kitten, were located and rescued. And Hirt’s nonprofit rescue made room for all of them.
After waiting for two months of quarantine to pass, Gaereminck, a family friend, began pestering Hirt for a chance to buy the horse.
“It scared me a little because I knew she had no knowledge of horses,” Hirt says. “I put her off for a month, and then I made an agreement with her that she could have Kitten as long as I would remain part owner for a year.
“But, after a few months, when she made amazing strides with her, I said, ‘She’s all yours.’ ”
Upon hearing those words, Gaereminck decided that the best approach for a non-rider such as herself, and her first horse, was to learn [Parelli Natural Horsemanship techniques] to build a trusting partnership.
Beginning with a series of game-playing methods, Native Kitten was taught to stop biting and, over time, to ride at all gaits without a bridle or saddle.
“I’ve learned so much from her,” Gaereminck says. “One thing the natural horsemanship methods do is make you take a look at yourself, and consider how you’re affecting your relationship with your horse.
“Early on, I learned I was asking too much from her, too fast.”
Once she started reflecting on how her horse was handling certain elements of training, she was able to fine-tune her approach and has made tremendous leaps forward.
“She’ll circle around me now and do her flying lead changes on the lunge line. I’ve also taught her to rear and lay down on command,” she says.
And as she has cemented her bond with her horse, her own personality has blossomed.
When Gaereminck started with her horse, she was deeply insecure and lacking in all knowledge about horses.
She decided to start riding lessons after taking a trail ride and receiving a compliment on her natural seat. Little did she know what lessons she’d learn.
“In my life, I’ve had a hard time communicating with people. I used to get made fun of a lot, and I never felt comfortable talking with people my own age,” Gaereminck says.
“Through my horse training, I’ve learned to communicate with my horse, but I’m also different and I’m more confident. I can talk to people now.”
“Talk to people,” and maybe to horses too. Allison Gaereminck listened to her equine companion, and found her own inner strength in the process.