Amanda’s New Year’s Revenge

One of my mother’s favorite holiday traditions was to play a practical joke on someone. It usually was Dad. One year she knitted him a cap that she decorated with tinsel and ornaments in the form of plastic animals; a pink walrus, a sheep, and others, that swung around his face. Mom was multi-talented and she could knit beautifully. I always wanted her to make me a granny square afghan, but she delighted in making things she could use to torment Dad.

Dad was the favored target, but no one was ever sure who the next victim would be; or, in fact, who would instigate the joke.

Around 1997, I selected Amanda.

The youngest of our eight siblings, Amanda spent summers with me downstate where every year I would buy her a new wardrobe to wear to school. We loved shopping together, although she didn’t always appreciate having to try things on. I picked out cute tops and flattering pants for her. But she liked wild colors, leopard prints and flashy materials, and dramatic styles with lots of pockets. Her interest was piqued every time we went to the mall and passed the leather store. Amanda wanted a black leather jacket in the worst way. She had aspirations of looking like a biker babe. Unfortunately, like most people with Down syndrome, she is short and her body is soft and pudgy. Her figure was not one to handle the narrow-waisted style of biker jacket that she yearned for.

One summer, she stayed with me for about six weeks and after a vigorous diet and exercise program, she had dropped a significant amount of weight. When shopping, she spotted a leather jacket she liked and tried it on, and it did fit her. But although I was seriously tempted, I opted not to buy it for her, as I knew she was going to gain the weight back when she got back home and fell “off the wagon” of daily walking and careful eating habits.

As Christmas rolled around, I was in a convenience store and I happened to notice a keychain that had a perfect miniaturized version of a black leather jacket, complete with zippers and snap buttons and pockets.

I got the key ring and wrapped it in a large box. On the tag, I wrote: “To Amanda. Here’s something you’ve wanted for a really long time.”

The box sat under the tree for a solid week, with its sparkling ribbon and tempting gift tag. Anyone who lifted it up and shook it would have easily deducted that it wasn’t heavy enough to contain a real black leather jacket. But Amanda’s hopes were soaring.

“What’s in that box?” Dad roared.

I leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Say, ‘A black leather jacket’ really loud!”

“A black leather jack-“ his yelp was smothered when I clapped my hand over his mouth.

Amanda’s dark blue almond-shaped eyes crackled. She rubbed her hands together. That sealed it. She knew she was finally getting the jacket of her dreams.

When Christmas morning dawned, she made a beeline for the tree, and with trembling hands she tore open the gift and ripped through the tissue paper. She pulled out the keyring, the mini jacket too small to even fit a Barbie doll.

“WHAT IS THIS?!” she screamed.

The family howled!

“Some sister, eh?” Dad yelled.

“Yeah!” she snapped. “Some sister I got!”

She whipped her hand back and flung that keyring. It flew across the room and struck me squarely on the temple. The room was in an uproar.

“You thought you were getting a black leather jacket?” Mom said.

“Yes!” Amanda shouted.

“Oh, Manda, you’ve gotta be out of your orb,” Mom said.

Amanda couldn’t help laughing. But she said, “Gol darn you, Nancy, I’m gonna get you for this!”

Christmas passed, and Amanda finally got her jacket, although it was a swing coat more suited to her figure than the biker babe jacket she had picked out. I didn’t think too much about it. But several weeks later, in January, I received a package, with a note that said, “Dear Nancy, here’s something you’ve wanted for a really long time.”

I tore open the package. Inside, I found my granny square afghan, carefully hand knitted.

It was attached to a key ring, and it was only one square.

Amanda Makes A Wish by Nancy, watercolor and colored pencil.
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Decking the Halls

One of the best things about the Christmas season is tradition, and every year the Novi Pet Expo kicks it off for us. Even though the pet show happens in mid November (always falling on my birthday weekend), for years Clifford the horse has ushered in the season at the big event, posing with Santa, sporting his elf hat, and painting ornaments.

I was pretty sure Christmas just wasn’t going to be the same without Clifford. But his understudy, Kerry 7th Gen, known fondly as the Junior Horse, had spent the summer polishing up his tricks in order to step into the big hoofprints. He has learned to do a lot of Clifford’s tricks including nodding “yes” and “no”, showing his teeth, counting, and bowing and he had even added the Spanish walk to his repertoire.

One thing that JR couldn’t do was paint. I hadn’t attempted to teach him to push the sponge around. We were slated to go to the Expo under Clifford’s contract, and what the contract promised was a painting horse! In the middle of the Expo offerings, birds and reptiles, llamas and goats, agility dogs and rescued kitties, was a horse who could paint with a sponge and non-toxic pigments.

Thanks to my friends, Lyn and Harry Alban, JR got a ride to Novi from their home near Grand Rapids. They even brought a folding table for him to work on. I had packed all the necessary gear: sponges and neon colors, a thick pad of multi-purpose paper, and the essential star-shaped wooden Christmas ornaments.

JR’s great-uncle Clifford had spent over twenty years promoting literacy and empathy, as well as promoting the Morgan horse, a breed I now learned had become an endangered species. It was, I thought, due not so much a lack of interest in the Morgan, as a growing lack of space. People no longer had acres to live on, and the cost of hay was skyrocketing. Horse ownership was becoming a thing of the past. It was becoming more important to promote horse ownership, the equestrian sports, riding lessons for kids, and the Morgan breed in particular as the horse who could do it all: He is the perfect equine athlete, proficient in eventing, reining, dressage, and virtually anything the larger, more high-maintenance breeds could do. Plus, he was smart and personable. He was a terrific therapy animal and could excel at meet-and-greet events such as the Novi Pet Expo.

With this in mind, it became more important than ever to show that JR could handle the job of painting; that these odd behaviors were not quirks exclusive to one silly gelding, but instead trained tricks to prove the affable nature and intelligence typical of the Morgan breed.

When we first approached the table, I had the sponges already soaked in paint and the paper laid out. I simply said those words I had uttered to Clifford so many times over the years, “Touch it.”

Being a typical curious Morgan, JR took a swipe with his nose and was rewarded with a piece of red licorice.

It didn’t take long for him to catch on. It turned out that he loves to paint. He swirled those sponges so hard he was sending them flying. Little kids crowded around to laugh and stare and pick them up again.

After the first session, every time he came out of the stall, he made a beeline for the painting table. He was more than happy to be involved.

I could not help being a little verklempt. After all, JR had stood by and watched Clifford work at the painting table, over five years’ time. Was he simply waiting for his turn? Did he understand that it was up to him now, to carry on this odd Christmas tradition that made everyone laugh and caused such a stir among the visitors? For sure there was a glimmer of Clifford’s ancestry in his pedigree; might he have captured a bit of that whimsical spirit, as well?

I wasn’t sure. But as the Expo drew to a close after a long and hard-working three-day weekend, when he was still fresh and eager to greet people, and I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a grateful hug, I swear he winked at me.

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Precedent, Not President

Things have not improved. Amanda continues to flail along under the hyperreligious, desperately misguided sacks of greed. I have not forgotten you.

Diary of a Misplaced Yooper: Cliffy's Mom's Blog

The election of Donald Trump has shaken a large (perhaps the majority – since more people actually voted for Hillary Clinton) part of the population.

One faction affects me personally — Hillary had promised to be a champion for people with disabilities. (Trump makes fun of them.)

I watched the voting numbers, while my hopes of talking to my sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome and is basically being held hostage by her guardian, sank into the sea of despair.

(Full Definition of hostage. 1 a : a person held by one party in a conflict as a pledge pending the fulfillment of an agreement b : a person taken by force to secure the taker’s demands. 2 : one that is involuntarily controlled by an outside influence.)

I admit I joined a legion of folks who spent part of Wednesday in tears.

I recently watched an interview…

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Be the Change – Freya the German Shepherd

Loki, the dog with ears like the Flying Nun, has a new sister. Freya is a German shepherd that was picked up on a road somewhere. She was thin but obviously a well-bred shepherd, rich red and black in color, with the conformation of a working show true German line. After a month’s time and a hard search, the rescuer didn’t find the owner and Freya became available for adoption. My friends went to see her and decided to bring her home, to learn that besides the looks, Freya had the pushy German shepherd attitude, too. Even though the dogs weigh about the same, Loki had to fall back when the treats came out. She would shove her way between him and the new owners to snarf up the cookies. The same thing happened with his toys: Freya would just grab whatever he was playing with and carry it away. If Loki chased her or tried to get it back, Freya would run into her crate with the toy, guard it, and growl.

When I showed up that day to visit and see the new addition, the adoptive dog parent Lyn said, “I’m not sure we are going to keep her. Loki just isn’t himself when she’s around.”

I looked at Loki, his ridiculous ears at half-mast but still standing flared out from his head like a character from a Gremlins film. His eyes showed resignation. I held up a treat. He looked at it sadly. I offered it to him, and in came Freya like a furry missile: CHOMP! And it was gone.

“No!” Lyn shouted, “That’s for Loki!” But Freya just smiled with her happy pointed teeth as she crunched down the cookie. Crunch, crunch.

“Loki just seems so sad. I don’t think he is happy with this addition at all,” Lyn sighed.

It wasn’t too much later; perhaps an hour, that I heard a bunch of thumping and growling in the living room. I looked around the corner and Loki was rassling with Freya in a waggy-tail tongue-lolling happy-dog-match.

Evidently, things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

Lyn handed me a box of treats and the dogs came running and sliding to plunk themselves in front of me. Loki hung back a little.  I held up a treat. “Freya, wait. This is for Loki.”

Freya lunged for it. But the treat disappeared into my closed fist. “You have to wait,” I told her again. She sat back a moment in confusion, and I said, “Good!” and gave it to her.

Loki stood by watching while Freya had a lesson in patience. Again and again, I asked Freya to wait, and when she sat still and just watched, I awarded her the treat. Finally, it was Loki’s turn. I called his name. He was reluctant, creeping forward as Freya restrained herself. But he earned one. “Good, Freya!” I said, immediately giving her one of her own.

The name recognition game went back and forth for awhile. Pretty soon Freya was so tuned in to her own identity, and Loki’s, that when she dropped her treat and Loki grabbed it, she looked at me, aghast! That was HER treat. She earned it! She received two as a bonus.

Just through this gentle reward system, Freya learned better manners in only one session. She learned to sit quietly and wait her turn. She was even waiting at the door.

It happened just from waiting for the good behaviors, and focusing only on those. When putting energy into positive results, the negative ones fell away.

It occurred to me that maybe I could apply this theory to all things in life.

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Murder on the Intrepid

Over the course of the past several weeks I have learned a couple of things about myself.

  1. I crave violence in entertainment.
  2. I like things to stay the same, and if they work, I don’t get tired of them.

I use the term “violence” loosely when it comes to entertainment. What I might really mean is, “action.”

My play, “Murder on the Intrepid” is a comedy/murder mystery, set up as a dinner theatre. The show takes place on a cruise ship, whose characters are a cross between Star Trek and The Love Boat. The show first staged by the Brighton Players about ten years ago. The cast centers around a couple enjoying their 40th wedding anniversary. I named them Sam and Donna Ledy, as an inside joke to my parents, because the Ledys were their best friends and I was sure my folks would attend the stage premier of one of my plays. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it.

However, my sister Amanda did. She was righteously offended by my characterization of Donna, because I wrote her as belligerent and unkind, the polar opposite of the real person. “Donna Ledy never acts that way!” Amanda hissed at me during rehearsal.

Anyway, in the show, Donna is mean to everyone and ends up getting offed. Unfortunately she has been so rude to all the other cast members that there is no immediate suspect. The cast includes, among others, Captain Kirk and a couple of goofy lounge singers named Sunny Delight and Chiquita Banana. And there are the Ledy’s adult children, Scotty, and Cindy, the seasick daughter who wears an orange life vest in every scene.

When my friend Anne approached me about a group for a Livingston County Nonprofit called the Second Chance Support Network doing the show, I pulled out the script and looked at it for the first time in years. Reading the lines took me directly back to the original cast so clearly that I could hear their voices shouting the words.

To my surprise, in the first few minutes of the show, I had my Donna Ledy character getting into a fist fight with the Chiquita Banana Mexican Belly Dancer. I mean a serious fight! Rolling around on the floor, Donna yanking out a big hunk of Chiquita’s hair, the whole shebang.

Later, Scotty grabs his sister and tries to yank the life jacket off of her. “Why are you wearing that? You look ridiculous! Take it off! Take it off right now!”

In the Second Chance rehearsals, I thought all these encounters were way too tame. I wasn’t the director, I was only there to support the group. But I found myself yelling, “More violence! More violence!”

The original script is peppered with bawdy humor, and since a church group was taking over, it was heavily redacted. I was kinda uncomfortable with this. I thought it wouldn’t be as funny… It was just way too tame. Not enough violence, not enough sleaze, and Donna wasn’t nearly mean enough. But this group was comprised of people who weren’t actors. They were just regular people meeting to help a cause. So I kept my opinions to myself.

However, I secretly thought the show wouldn’t be very good. I yearned for the original Captain, my friend Paul Rice who could emote William Shatner like nobody’s business. I longed for the dancing talent of my original Woodchuck character, Matt Moore. And of course, I was the first Sunny Delight. I had written her for myself; a washed-up lounge singer, holding on to the last shreds of her youth, who actually couldn’t carry a tune.

But to my surprise, the new group pulled it off. They put their own spin on the show. They even added some new jokes that were really funny! They raised thousands of dollars for their cause, and they staged my show in the swanky Crystal Gardens ballroom. And they had a blast doing it. How can you top that?

And maybe best of all – they have raised the Intrepid! Who knows where it will sail next?

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Fear in Dogs and the Difference Between Teaching and Training

Arthur is a German Shepherd and a social clod. He’s big and clumsy and he wets on the floor when he gets too excited or scared. He will jump on people. He is boisterous and exuberant.0916191017.jpg

Arthur is a year old. But mentally he is about 5 months of age. Arthur is a special needs case who has had to return to kindergarten and learn how to be a puppy.


My blog has covered a lot of Arthur’s early training and how he behaved when I first got him. He was terrified of virtually everything. When approached by a stranger he would back up barking and sometimes even literally fall down in fear. He was reminiscent of a child with autism in the way he reacted to noise, including engine noise from automobiles and other common sounds.


Although it is the usual go-to explanation in the case of a dog who reacts fearfully, Arthur was never beaten or abused. Indeed the family who purchased him from the breeder was at a loss over what to do with him and his inexplicable depressed behavior. They had tried classes — where in the instructor had them place a prong collar on his neck and then drag him along the floor when he collapsed — a terrible experience for any puppy. (NO puppy should have to wear a prong!) Arthur’s owners didn’t like the way this was headed, and to their credit they kept trying multiple trainers before a friend called me in. They wanted Arthur to come to my puppy boot camp so I could fix this terrified, vomiting puppy, and I was given two weeks to do it.

After having Arthur for 2 weeks I realized that he should not go back to the home because he had a genetically programmed, deep seated fear response that could manifest in aggression. He required a lot of special handling. He couldn’t walk down the street or through the store without barking at everyone we met.

My goal with Arthur over the following months was to build his confidence. This was the most important thing that could be instilled in this dog, because fear is what was driving most of his behavior. I logged much of his progress on my blog.

He became my full-time job. My goal was to not only save his life, but offer him some quality of life. His owners gladly relinquished him to me when they were presented with a list of daily activities that his condition demanded. Their hearts were in the right place but it was just too much for a normal family to handle.

Arthur was taken under the wing, albeit reluctantly, of my border collie, Til and my other dog, an older mixed lab named Jasper. He lived with three smaller dogs as well, in a big eclectic canine family.


In the following months Arthur visited stores and shops and many other public places. His contact with people was carefully monitored to orchestrate a positive experience on each occasion. I spent the summer teaching him to swim. He was afraid of the feeling of his feet leaving the lake bottom. He didn’t understand how to chase a ball, but thanks to the example of my other dogs he learned how to play.

He enjoyed a lot of freedom during those months. We went for daily runs in the field. We walked in and out through doors that scared him. We went on stairs and elevators. We faced countless boogeyman, every day, for months. He worked hard. He learned to come when he was called, every time. He learned to stay when he was told and wait patiently. He learned a couple of fun tricks.

His training was geared toward confidence. Not precision obedience. He never had to plod around a boring ring and have his neck jerked. He knew all the basics — sit, down, and to not pull on the leash when walking. But he was allowed to remain happy and buoyant and even on the verge of euphoria most of the time.

It has taken me eight months to get Arthur to the point of where he is confident enough to go up to anyone. Now he’s at about the five month age level, mentally. He will always be a special needs dog.

I received some criticism because Arthur is skinny and he doesn’t look or act like his littermates. All the littermates have their ears up, are enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and tipping the scales at a robust 80 + pounds.

Arthur is not like his littermates. He just got over a bout with a tapeworm — probably from eating fly eggs in horse poop. He’s had zero couch time. He is solid muscle from running and swimming and maintaining active days over 8 months. While he’s received a fair measure of discipline, (no chasing horses or cats, no barking and running up to people who come to the house, etc) he doesn’t know how to behave inside, because he’s had to stay in a crate due to the urinating.

A couple of weeks ago, Arthur rolled Jasper, puncturing his neck in a completely unprovoked act that was vicious and deadly. I put Arthur in the van to take him to the vet to be euthanized. But looking at that goofy face, well… I decided to instead return him to the source, his breeder, in hopes that her experience with the bloodline and handling in a controlled environment will give him a future with some quality of life. It’s possible that he’s acting out as a bully during his delayed growth phase. But the congenital undercurrent is always there.

It was a heartbreaking decision and not one I have taken lightly.

I’m not going to bash formal obedience training or working with dogs in a classroom setting. On the contrary! Any quality time spent with your dog is always a good thing! However…

A classroom obedience regimen does not always translate to the real world. If you have a dog that does a perfect recall and a beautiful sit and a lovely stand for examination inside a building, that’s wonderful. But would you be able to pull that dog away from a running deer or rabbit with just the sound of your voice? The biggest question is what happens with the dog if he gets off the leash.

If your dog is going to mature around a hundred pounds and has a congenital fear aggression problem, then he is a liability and you damn well better be sure that you can call him back.

A dog who will listen to you under the most extreme of circumstances is a dog that can go into the classroom and easily learn all the formal stuff. The reverse is not always true.

Arthur hasn’t spent much time walking in circles in a classroom. He might jump up in greeting or be a little too exuberant in his manner. He’s had no formal training. But he will come back from a running rabbit for me. He’s come a long, long way up from a darkness that was no fault of his own.

And he’s still alive.

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When Someone is Trying to Damage You

Even if you don’t believe in God or a higher power, you can rest assured that intentional acts of hatred come from energy. People who fuel this type of hateful energy have it come back on them in a myriad of ways. It can make them physically ill.

Don’t waste your time on revenge. People who would do harm to the helpless, two animals and to the disadvantaged are already wreaking their own inner damage.

Instead, focus on what you want to create. Put your energy into building something wonderful. Do good. Teach. Make art. If you stay focused you can succeed… and even after you forget all about them, those who tried to do you harm will be watching as you rise.

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Listening To Your Dog, and the Great Pyrenees Charades

We are all Dog TV. That’s all we are. We are clipping hangnails, checking our phones, sweeping down that elusive cobweb in the bathroom ceiling corner. What is the dog doing? Watching us.

Is it any wonder that the cognitive skills of dogs are off the charts? We don’t even know how much they understand, but we wager it’s a lot more than they are given credit for. On the flip side, though, think of the effort a dog has to go through to communicate with us. When it comes to speaking Dog, most of us are hopelessly stunted. Therefore, it is up to the dog to communicate, through what can only be described as charades, to try to tell us what he needs.

I never witnessed this more clearly than through a Great Pyrenees named Zoey whom I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days with. Her owner said that she can’t catch Zoey, that she doesn’t come when called. When she put Zoey out on the line, I got a great example of what she was talking about. Zoe becomes a dodging whirlwind, edging close and then dashing away at the last minute. She is an expert. If she were ever to get off the leash, you would be spending the whole day chasing her and maybe finally calling in someone with a big enough net.

Her food drive is at an all-time low. She is tentative and carefully smells even the most delicious tidbits of fish, chicken or whatever, even after fasting for a day.

It took me a little while to figure out what Zoey was really trying to say. She is a young dog, about three, and she lives with a baby Newfoundland about a year old named Marley. When given a chance, Zoey will roll and chew on Marley.

The two dogs are highly compatible and I was able to play them off each other. In observing Marley’s new trick of learning to lie down for a treat, Zoe started offering up the same behavior. She would crunch down the treat as well. The two dogs were crated separately in huge cages in a spare bedroom. As the day wore on, I saw that Zoey would start her dodging behavior when it came time to go back in the crate.

We worked on coming close for a treat, allowing herself to be caught, touching her collar, handling her head and neck before earning the treat. But it turned out that what she really needed was management. More play time. More outdoor time. More fun in life. She would take treats if they were offered as part of a training ritual. If offered for free, she mostly scorned them.

What Zoey craves most is social interaction. As the days wore on, we developed a routine of short leash walks, training games, play time with Marley, and more time in the house to just lie around and be in human company. When it came time to go back in the crate, she was offered a couple of big cookies for going in. At the end of the third day, she was going back in the crate on her own. Like everyone, Zoey just wants to be part of the action — and she was saying it as loudly as she could.

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Clicker Training a Head Shy Mare

On the first day I met her I started teaching her to touch a target. I didn’t have my regular horse Target stick so I used my dog’s chuckit as a substitute.

Flo is an Arabian mare who was abused by a person who had been hired to train her. She came home emaciated and upset, and so shell shocked that no one could touch her head. The farrier went into the stall with her and tried to put the halter on and she spun around in circles so he couldn’t reach her head.

On the second day she came up to me in the field but then ran off, so we brought her into the stall, using the other mare as a guide.

She liked the Target Training pretty well although she was still goosey about her ears and head.

On the third day, she watched me pull up into the driveway and get out of the car and she made a beeline for the fence and met me there.

I was really glad to see her coming to greet me and her interest in the work. She had remembered everything and was still targeting my hands and the treat bag and lowering her head even though I hadn’t brought the target stick.


When I first touched her face with the halter she reverted to her old aversive head jerking.

But once she figured out that the halter was replacing the target stick she started putting it all together.

It wasn’t too long before she was tolerating me wrapping the halter around her face. Even for a split-second this was great progress.

She sensed my excitement and seemed to be pretty satisfied with herself. At the end of the session she was willing to model!


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Target Training a Head Shy Arabian Mare

When my friend Agata asked me to work with her mare, Flo, she first simply said that the mare was, “shy”. It took me a little while to discern what the problem was because in the pasture Flo came right up to me and took a carrot out of my hand. It turned out that the six-year-old Arabian mare had been to a trainer and when she came back, she was emaciated and no one could touch her head. Getting a halter on her was nearly impossible.

I decided that Target Training would probably be the best start for this mare. Unfortunately I had forgotten my regular Target stick and the only thing I had in my car was my dog’s chuck-it. But it would have to do.

I asked Agata to bring Flo into the barn along with her buddy in order to keep her calm. Agata was reluctant to go into the stall to try to put the halter on the mare because she would “go ballistic.” She described how Flo would start spinning and flee from the halter leading to a very dangerous situation in close quarters!

I began Target Training the mare and she quickly picked up on the meaning of the click, which told her food was coming. Thankfully she was very interested in treats! When I started trying to touch her head around the ears, she would jerk away from me. I could immediately see how getting a halter on would be very difficult.

So the first exercise was in teaching her to touch the stick while allowing me to handle her face and head around her ears. It took about 20 minutes before she was calm enough to permit some handling.

Her friend , the Black mare was very interested in earning treats. It was pretty hard to ignore her asking for her own turn to touch the target stick! I finally offered her the stick and she opened her mouth and for a minute I thought she was going to suck the tennis ball right out of the chuckit! It was hilarious! Both mares are real characters. Even though Flo is nervous due to a serious case of PTSD she still has a gentle demeanor and is very intelligent.

At the end of the session she allowed her owner to brush her forelock and remove some of the burrs that had become embedded there.

That was good for a start . There is typically a learning phase during the downtime where the horse comes back more confident and the learning curve continues to grow with each session. We will let her think on it and then resume her training is the second session and see how it goes. It may take a couple of sessions before she is ready for a halter.

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