Patience Pays Off: A Q&A with Lily Chandler

Patience Pays Off: A Q&A with Lily Chandler

We've all seen them - the horses who just don't want to do the job. They rear, they spin, they plant their feet, they tell us in the clearest of terms that they know how: No. Most of the time it's due to physical pain, but sometimes, there can be an underlying issue of anxiety or a lack of confidence that overwhelms the horse and causes reactions of this nature. 

British Showjumper and Lily Chandler (owner/operator of LC Equestrian) met such a horse in Eric (Eragon Von Der Held) when he came into her sales barn. At first, she did what most of us would do, and attempted to address the issue as it happened. Over time, though, she made the decision to step back and address the very root of the problem rather than just the symptom. 

Read her amazing story of how she was able to turn this special horse from borderline dangerous into one of her most beloved mounts in (and out) of the ring. 

Sophie Coffey: Tell us the story of Erik! How did he come to be with you, and what is the backstory of your journey together?

Lily Chandler: Eric actually came to me to be sold, and I had a message on my business page of someone saying they had a difficult horse that they didn’t really know what to do with. They sent me some videos of him rearing, and I thought, “Wow, ok…that’s some intense behavior.” I called the owners and we discussed everything about him, and they told me first and most importantly, that he had been FULLY medically checked out. They had a saddle fitting, X-rayed everything, scanned all the tendons and suspensories, and even went as far as doing a bone scan to make sure that pain wasn’t the cause. They did find low grade ulcers, which they treated, but nothing physically stood out as a cause for his behavior. 

So they were at a loss, it was a mother and her teenage daughter, so I agreed to take him on with the agreement that if it didn’t work out, I would send them back. I wasn’t sure at first that I would be able to change his behavior, but there was something I liked about him, so I agreed to take him on a trial basis.

When he arrived, it was December, and we had just had a huge snow storm so we couldn’t turn the horses out for a while. I thought he was going to be terribly fresh for his first ride. We even had to trailer him down the road to an indoor ring since ours was still unrideable, but he was just amazing for that first ride. He was so well behaved, a few small bucks from being fresh, but no rearing or other behaviors that I had seen in the videos. He jumped and gave me an amazing feeling over the fences, even though they were small. I said to my dad at the time, “Gosh, I like this horse. He props himself to a fence, he’s so intelligent, and everything I ask he just seems to know exactly what I want.” He had a great attitude towards his work, and I thought at first that maybe he just didn’t get along with that one rider for whatever reason. 

But it didn’t take long for his behavior to come out. We took him to a small training show, and he was - in the nicest way possible - absolutely terrible. He stood in the corner for about 3 minutes, he just kept rearing, but I could tell it was from anxiety and stress. So I just quietly let him get it out of his system, and then he actually walked forward and jumped the course. I thought to myself, “Ok, I can work with this. We just need to find a way to manage this anxiety before he starts jumping, because once he starts jumping, he almost settles into himself and he knows his job.” 

Over the course of 6 months, I got him to a spot where he was very relaxed in the ring and good to ride and hack out at home - it wasn’t perfect, but it was loads better. We got him to some shows, got him some good results, and I thought he was in a good place to move onto a new owner. Unfortunately, everyone who came to try him fell off - not a single person managed to stay on. So at that point, I said to the owners that he just needed more time, and we came to a deal where I purchased him so they could move onto another horse that was more suitable for their daughter, and I could keep giving Eric the time he needed to continue to gain confidence.

Now of course, it’s safe to say that Eric isn’t going anywhere. I’m extremely attached to him, and I think that some horses are just 1 person horses - if he were to go to another rider, even if they were very good, I think it could set him back tremendously. So now he’s with me to stay and I love him dearly. 

Sophie Coffey: So how did you turn him around? What sort of methods or techniques did you use, and how did you sort it out so that he’s the self confident horse you have today?

Lily Chandler: The first thing I want to say is that it definitely hasn’t been linear progress - it's been 2 steps forward, 1 step back nearly the entire time. We would have a few weeks, or even months, where we had no reaction at all and we thought that maybe the behavior was gone forever, and then something would happen and it would set him off. 

When we were about 8 months into having him, so 2 months after purchasing him, I took him to a show down the road after a few months of him being so good, and he just had a huge meltdown. He just got so upset and anxious in the ring, and he hadn’t been that way for so long, it was essentially a disaster. At first I was very disappointed, because I thought we had made a breakthrough and the behavior was behind us, and it really wasn’t until that show that I decided I needed to change something - just going out jumping and trying to practice in a show environment wasn’t working, and it felt like maybe we were just masking his anxiety rather than addressing it. It felt like we had only built up half of his confidence, that if the environment suited him, he would be fine, but as soon as he experienced something that rattled him, he reverted back to how he was. 

So over the winter, I gave him 2 months off in the field to just decompress so we could completely start over. When I started to work with him again, I focused solely on groundwork and his own emotional regulation for a long time. He’s such an insecure horse that when he had big feelings, he didn’t know what to do with himself. I didn’t even get on until I felt that he was completely relaxed in-hand no matter what we did. I took him on lots of in-hand hacks and really tried to get him to build more trust in me as his go-to for support when he did feel overwhelmed. 

It’s hard to describe the exact things I did with him, but I used the techniques I learned from a lot of great natural horsemanship people. It was a lot of positive reinforcement, I don’t believe that just releasing pressure is going to get you the result you want, especially with a horse like Eric. I really wanted to use reward based training for when he did things like investigate something that was scaring him rather than spooking at it, or stepping forward into an environment that made him uncomfortable. Eventually, he learned that instead of melting down, he could just take a moment to assess the situation and move forward when he felt ready. All of that was amazing progress for him. 

When we did go back to ridden work, we eased into it very gently. Just lots of hacks, lots of positive reinforcement and keeping things fun, easy, and small. We didn’t train him like he was a competition horse under pressure, because it was hard for him to handle that sort of mindset, and I wanted him to enjoy what he was doing. 

Then when we started competing him again this year, I noticed a huge difference in his attitude. At our first show back together, we had a warm-up that was busier than I wanted and less than ideal, but he walked into the ring on a loose rein, popped around the course, and walked out just as happy and relaxed. That was when I said to myself, “Wow, taking that step back with him is actually working. We’re no longer just skipping over or masking the issue, he’s truly a more confident horse.”

So now he goes into the ring and wants to do it rather than feeling like he HAS to do it. I’ve planned this year very deliberately to give him breaks where we can go back to the groundwork so we can keep his confidence up. And he’s had an amazing year so far, I’m just so thrilled. I’m even thrilled about the fact that now when he does still have a reaction to something, not only is it appropriate in scale, but it’s also due to him trying to tell me something is wrong rather than his anxiety. 

For example, at a show a few weeks ago, he had a small episode but still nothing like it was before - he didn’t feel anxious as much as he just felt off, and like he was trying to tell me that, so I retired him after a few jumps and got the vet out the next day. Sure enough, we found a problem in his hocks. I’m proud that he was able to let me know that there was an issue without blowing it out of proportion. 

I can’t wait to see what we do with each other this coming year, and I’m so happy with how he’s developed and the relationship I have with him now. For him, patience really did pay off, and taking a step back to address the root of his anxiety and lack of self-confidence rather than treating it like an isolated “horse show” issue. Turning things into a more “play” mindset and making sure he not only enjoyed his job, but WANTS to do it, has been key for us.