Noel: The Christmas Pony

By Jonathan Field

Every so often you encounter a story that really sticks with you. You find yourself reflecting on it as you’re going about your daily routines. You wonder, “Why did that happen? How can I help?”

That’s what happened when I first heard about a young horse named Noel. Sherri Friesen, a participant in a clinic at my facility in Abbotsford, BC, told me about a horse she and her partner, Kevan Garecki, helped rescue. They were looking for suggestions on how to address some of the behaviours he had acquired after enduring a horrible experience. As Kevan and Sherri recounted Noel’s story, I could not believe my ears.

Kevan, a local horse hauler in the Fraser Valley, has volunteered his services on several occasions over the years to help rescue horses. On December 4, 2008, he received a call from the BC SPCA to assist with a seizure in Chilliwack, BC. 

rescue horse Noel was rescued by BC SPCA

This is one of the first photographs taken of Noel after his rescue. He was emaciated and so dehydrated he could not close his lips over his teeth. Photo courtesy of Sharon Wells-Ackermans

The BC SPCA had responded to a call reporting that some dogs had been left behind after tenants of a home moved out. When the officers arrived, they found the dogs and took a look around the property to ensure none were left behind. They found an old barn overgrown with blackberries and boarded up with plywood.

The officers could hear noises coming from inside the barn and immediately called Kevan, knowing that whatever was inside was going to require more space than their van provided.

Once Kevan arrived with his trailer, they removed the boards to free the animal that was trapped inside. Boarded up in a space between two walls, smaller than a box stall, they found a horse. Scared, emaciated, and extremely dehydrated, he was taken to the vet for a thorough examination. The vet estimated the horse was about two years old and had been trapped for roughly a month, surviving on nothing more than his own feces and the moisture trickling down the wall of his enclosure. The marks on the wall caused by licking were evidence of his determination to survive.

This story stuck with me. I was horrified that anybody could treat a horse so poorly. How could this happen? I felt for this horse and was in disbelief that someone could do something so horrible. How could anybody leave knowing these animals would die a slow and painful death? Why didn’t they tell someone?

After being examined by the BC SPCA, it was decided that the horse would be moved to the BC Horse Protection Society, a small non-profit organization located in Langley, BC. He spent the next three months in a foster home under the care of Sharon Wells-Ackermans, with additional assistance from Kevan, Sherri, and several volunteers. They all had a hand in his daily routines, feeding, caring, and handling. With donations of hay, feed, farrier services, and vet care, a story that began with someone doing something so terrible changed to one in which many people did much good.

rescue horse Noel was weak and emaciated

The night that Noel arrived at his foster home, he was so weak he could barely make the step up into his stall. Photo courtesy of Sharon Wells-Ackermans

Since it was just before Christmas, one of the young volunteers suggested they name the horse Noel, “The Christmas Pony.”

With diligent care and attention, Noel gained weight and strength. As he grew stronger, it became increasingly apparent that his troubles were more than physical. He was fearful and reactive, and began lashing out, biting, kicking, and striking when he felt scared. The simple act of leading him in and out of the barn was proving to be a dangerous event. When Kevan and Sherri came to me, they were searching for advice on how best to handle such a troubled horse. Sherri accomplished much over the course of that six-day clinic in Abbotsford, gaining a great understanding of leadership. I told her to take what she had learned at the clinic and start applying it with Noel.

Some time later, as I was preparing to teach a seminar at the Mane Event Horse Expo in Chilliwack, Noel was still on my mind. It happened that one of the clinics I was to present at the expo was about how to restart your relationship with a horse when the horse has been started incorrectly or had a bad go in life. Noel was the perfect horse to bring in to this clinic, as it would be an opportunity for me to help him directly, to share his story, and to celebrate the people involved in his rescue. I wanted to show people that there is hope for horses like Noel, and show them where to start when retraining them.

I met Noel for the first time at that Mane Event and had my first session with him. Kevan, who had already gained Noel’s trust and established leadership, told Noel’s story to the audience. 

retraining rescue horse Noel with natural horsemanship

ABOVE & BELOW: Once I had established leadership and the need for personal space, Noel softened and became very engaged in what I was doing. His curious nature made playing with him really fun!

Jonathan Field retrains rescue horse Noel

Noel was understandably stressed in the new environment. As a stranger, I had to establish leadership to show him that he could feel safe. Naturally, he tested me. His first move was to try to walk right through me — he was a tough little guy! He was sure he was going to shove me out of the way. When he found out that I wasn’t so easy to move, he resorted to trying to bite. I explained to the audience that a lot of people misunderstand this behaviour and think that the horse is being naughty, devious, or bad. The typical strategy to deal with biting behaviour is punishment. However, punishment doesn’t work. Noel was not being naughty; he was simply doing what he needed to do to determine if he could feel safe with me, to find out if I was a worthy leader for him. As soon as Noel realized that I had a plan for him and could be assertive as well as friendly, he relaxed in his surroundings and became an excellent horse for the seminar.

As I continued to play with Noel and teach the audience, I found myself really enjoying Noel. He had a lot of feel and was very sensitive once you got past his pushy behaviour. I felt myself getting to like this little guy!

That evening after the expo, Kevan and I spoke about how proud we were of Noel and began discussing his future. Considering the care he had received at BC 

Horse Protection Society with Sharon, and his time with Kevan and Sherri, Kevan thought it was time for Noel to find a more permanent home. I wanted to help him find the right home for Noel, but I worried it would be challenging because Noel was going to require a strong leader. After getting to know him better, I realized why Noel was able to survive his ordeal: he was smart, he was tough, and he was persistent. The very qualities that had kept him fighting for his life could land him in trouble if he ended up in the wrong hands. If Noel was going to make any change at all, it was going to take someone with good horsemanship skills to bring him to the next level. As I racked my brain about who would be right for him, I kept thinking about the level of push he had. I knew that as more was asked of him, he would continue to test and his reactions were strong enough that I was unsure about who would be able to cause a lasting change in Noel.

rescue horse Noel two years after his rescue

Noel at Jonathan Field`s ranch in December 2010, two years after his rescue. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

I talked about Noel with my wife, Angie, and kept thinking about the feeling I had when handling him. I could not imagine who was going to bring him through his struggles and not blame him for his behaviour or get hurt in the process. It was a rare group of individuals – Sharon, Kevan, and Sherri – who had brought him this far and I wanted to keep up the momentum. I thought if I could help Noel overcome his fears and learn a new, respectful way of being, he could have a bright future.

I asked Kevan if I could take Noel for the next chapter of his life. I would take him as my own, put him into our program, and then, when the time was right, find the right person to give him a permanent home. Kevan happily agreed and in November 2010, Noel came to me for the next chapter of his life.

Helping Noel Become a Well Adjusted Riding Horse

Initially I expected to have Noel for six months or so. Little did I know that he would be in our lives for almost two years, during which he became a part of our family. I quickly realized that Noel’s future was only going to be bright if he could overcome his fears and resistances toward humans. When I started with Noel I had three main issues to deal with: his health, respect, and confidence.

Health

One constant, ongoing concern was Noel’s health. He was healthy when he arrived, but any work or stress would cause him to go off his food, sometimes for days at a time. He would drop weight and become lethargic. We would have to wait for him to feel better before we could resume any small amount of training. 

Noel bonding with Jonathan

Once we had a good handle on Noel`s health, I was able to get in some good sessions with him, focusing on getting respect while still having fun and building confidence. Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

We tried many things to deal with this. To start, we had the vet do a full checkup, but Noel’s blood work and fecal tests all came back clear. Because Noel was starved for so long at a young age, it was hard to know just how much damage was done to his growing body and his organs.

Noel’s first year with us was spent sorting out how to get him to eat with regularity. Eventually we found two things that really helped. 

The first was a slow feeder. We carry a line of slow feeder haynets which all of my horses eat from daily. I hadn’t been using one with Noel because I wanted to give him all the feed he could eat, but I eventually decided to try it because he was wasting a ridiculous amount of hay (he would go through all the hay, take out the very best pieces, and leave the rest). With the slow feeder, he had to eat through the rest of the hay if he wanted the good leafy stuff, so he began to eat more consistently. 

The second thing that really helped Noel was probiotics. There was a lot of consideration given to the fact that Noel may have ulcers. After speaking with a nutritionist, we started Noel on a regime of probiotics and an acid neutralizer. Noel’s appetite began to improve and become more regular. He started out on a concentrated paste probiotic, and then switched to a top dressing granule over time. If he began to go off his food we would go back to the concentrated paste probiotics, and right away he would start eating again. His weight improved, as did his coat, and his bouts of lethargy subsided.

retraining rescue horse Noel

ABOVE & BELOW: At this point, Noel was still very green. To show him a new environment, I sent him around in what I call "The Horseman's Dance," which simulates riding exercises without having to ride yet. By asking the horse to move out in front of you, he builds his willingness to go forward and reaches another level of confidence. If we are always ahead on the ground, then the horse never has to be brave and go first - which won't help us when we go to ride! 

retraining rescue horse Noel

The slow feeder and the probiotics encouraged Noel to eat regularly, and allowed him to be handled more often. Even so, I took the training really slow. Fortunately, because Noel was exceptionally smart he didn’t need very much repetition.

Respect

Noel’s second issue was respect. Everyone who had worked with him before me had problems with respect.

The moment Noel was healthy, he became energetic. But because he was totally untrained, he was dangerous. Noel would not think twice about trying to run you over or push you out of the way. He would bite and strike and kick if he felt threatened — and it didn’t take much for him to think he was being threatened! Noel was so quick he could get you from any position. On many occasions in the beginning I saw several hooves and teeth coming at me way too close for comfort!

Two problems further exacerbated Noel’s respect issues. First, it was hard for people to set boundaries firmly and consistently enough for his behaviour to subside. Second, he was very resilient. Remember, Noel survived being trapped in that barn for a whole month. He was not a horse to just give up.

Confidence

Something as simple as walking with Noel down the barn aisle could be hazardous because he was overly perceptive and spooky. Whether it was a tiny bird at the other end of the barn or a horse blanket lying on the ground, Noel would react as if it was life or death, bolting and taking down anyone in his path. It was a real challenge to gain his respect without making him lose confidence.

training rescue horse Noel to yield to pressure

ABOVE & BELOW: Here I'm asking Noel to yield back off the touching pressure on his nose. This is an important yield because it establishes personal space and prepares the horse to yield to pressure from the reins when I am riding him. I don't push or shove as I apply the aid; I just squeeze my fingers and thumb, then wait for him to yield away from the pressure. When he yields, I release the pressure. When he does a soft and willing yield, I finish with a nice rub as a reward.

retraining rescue horse Noel

Many people would shower such a horse with lots of love and buckets of carrots, but these things will not give a horse confidence when he becomes scared. Once self defense mechanisms kick in and the horse goes into flight mode, no amount of carrots will convince him that he is safe with you. The key to dealing with Noel’s fear and disrespect was giving him the confidence that I, as his leader, would keep him safe. The key was leadership.

A horse such as Noel, faced with a combination of issues, needs a person who is in control of his or her own emotions and does not take it personally when the horse reacts. The horse is simply doing what he believes is necessary to survive and thrive. Given Noel’s history, you certainly can’t blame him.

We as horse people must realize that to really help a horse, we must be able to constantly adapt our approach and set things up so the horse will believe that what we want him to do is his idea. Then he will actually see a human as a trustworthy partner. With good leadership, a horse will trust us to keep him safe and will relax in our company. This is the ultimate compliment from a horse.

However, Noel was a long way from that.

Noel’s James Creek Ranch Experience

We took Noel to my ranch to soak up another new environment and to continue with his training. In the mountains just outside Merritt, BC, the James Creek Ranch is where I teach camps during the summer and fall. Open pastures, obstacles, cattle, and trails provide so many great opportunities for learning!

Noel loved moving cattle. When he could boss them around and not run into trouble from me, he thought that was pretty amazing. It was a great opportunity to bring purpose into our rides. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Every time I handle a horse I take the opportunity to build up many soft and willing yields. I think of it like having a short conversation about something the horse knows. I find this consistency really helps the horses. At the ranch with Noel we did the same activities we’d done back in the indoor arena in Abbotsford, and slowly worked our way toward doing consistent activities in new environments.

Getting Purpose

With horses like Noel who are smart and learn quickly, it is important not to be overly repetitive or stay in “training” mode too long. That doesn’t mean I stop training, but I do try to let the environment or task train him. In other words, I find a purpose right away. Purpose gives focus to riders and horses. Most importantly, it takes the focus away from each other and puts it on the job instead. The horse feels like the two of you are doing things together, rather than you doing things to him. It is a subtle difference, but it means a lot to a horse. 

If a horse like Noel ever felt picked on, he would become frustrated, sour, and defensive, and he would meet you with an attitude every morning. By constantly giving Noel a purpose, he ended up training himself!

Noel’s Next Steps

After nearly two years with us, Noel was ready for the next chapter in his life. Before looking for a permanent home for Noel, I decided to do a trial run and see how he would transition into a new home with a new person. A friend and student of mine, Kelli Lee ten Pas, took Noel for three months while we were on the road. It was a great opportunity to see if the changes in Noel would last. He did great with Kelli Lee and her family, and we felt Noel was ready to have success in a new, permanent home.

rescue horse Noel with his new and loving owner Carol

Carol and Noel at the end of the clinic in Prince George, BC. Photo: Jonathan Field Collection

Even so, we were not about to let Noel go to just anyone. The right person for Noel would be committed to the level of care he requires to maintain his health, and be equally committed to their own horsemanship in order to achieve continued success.

After meeting Carol, we felt she was ready to care for Noel physically, but we needed to ensure that she could be a leader for him. Thanks to an amazing friend that, once a year, provides a scholarship for a special horse or a special person to learn my program, we had Carol participate in a four-day clinic with Noel. It was a thrill to see Carol get off on the right foot with him. In that weekend she learned Noel’s feeding program and the horsemanship skills to become his leader.

Since the clinic, Carol has really focused on building her relationship with Noel. Many hours spent with him in the yard and around the barn have allowed her to become friends with Noel while always working on keeping up her leadership. Building on the lessons she learned in the clinic, Carol has taken to the trails with a couple of good friends, and Noel is doing great!

Friends of Noel

rescue horse Noel will never go hungry again

Noel is a lucky horse to have crossed paths with the BC SPCA on that cold December morning in 2008. I would like to thank the BC SPCA, the BC Horse Protection Society, Kevan Garecki, Sharon Wells-Ackermans, and Sherri Friesen for their unwavering dedication to Noel’s recovery.

I also want to thank the professionals who came forward to help Noel, including veterinarian Dr. Nick Kleider, who examined Noel and gelded him, and hoof care practitioner Christina Cline, who donated her services during the time he was at the BC Horse Protection Society and when he was with Kevan and Sherri. 

Thank you to the businesses who donated goods to help Noel’s cause, including Vanderveen Hay Sales, Wrayton Hay Sales, and Sue Balcom of Langley Greenhawk, as well as some who have asked to remain anonymous. 

Thank you to all the individual volunteers who helped out – Sean Rouse for working with Noel during his time with Kevan and Sherri, and to Allbury Farms for housing Noel during his time with Sean.  

Sharon Wells-Ackermans is the managing director of the BC Horse Protection Society and was responsible for Noel’s care during the first three months. To learn more about this non-profit organization go to www.HorseProtectionSocietyofBC.com.

For more information on the BC SPCA visit www.spca.bc.ca.

One thing is certain - Noel will never miss a meal again!

What happened to those responsible? 

In October 2010, after pleading guilty to multiple charges of animal cruelty, Bob and Brandie Ganzeveld were convicted of “causing animals to be in distress.” They were each fined $300 and prohibited from owning animals for five years.

This article originally appeared in the March and May 2013 issues of Canadian Horse Journal.

All photos by Robin Duncan Photography, except otherwise specified. 

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