When Leigha Schrader first laid eyes on Slick, she felt sorry for the scrawny two-year-old colt.
He was malnourished with a neck as skinny as a toothpick and infested with lice and internal parasites. He also suffered from severe hoof and dental neglect.
As assistant trainer at Days End Farm Horse Rescue, Leigha had seen her fair share of rescue cases, but there was something about this pint-sized plain bay colt that caught her attention right from the start and ultimately shaped her life to this very day.
The colt had arrived at DEFHR in Lisbon, Maryland, in 2014 as a neglect case when Leigha was 17 years old. He hadn’t been handled much in his short life. He was confused, reactive, and had no concept of respecting personal space.
Yet something about him still charmed Leigha. So, with patience and experience, she and the staff at DEFHR taught him the rewards of behaving like a gentleman.
After a smooth rehabilitation and castration, his once dull, mud-colored coat began to shine like mahogany. Muscles soon filled out his petite frame. Next, he needed some social refinement.
“He was very dominant and would always try to push his herd around,” recalls Leigha. “Let’s just say that they did not take him very seriously! His introduction to the herd was videotaped and is still used today to teach animal control officers about equine psychology.”
The facility’s head trainer, Sara Strauss, took him and another youngster to a colt-starting clinic with Scott Purdum of Advantage Horsemanship.
“It was a great experience for me and the ponies,” says Sara. “Slick was really easy to get started under saddle. By the end of the weekend, I was riding him around the arena at all gaits in a bitless bridle.”
Sara worked with Slick for a few weeks, but ultimately realized that five-foot-tall Leigha fit the 14.1-hand pony perfectly. Since Slick is naturally gaited, Leigha took her time familiarizing herself with his unique paces… and with his cheekiness.
“Our first ride was definitely a memorable one,” she remembers. “I was gaiting him around the arena and laughing because of how funny he felt. Then he spooked at something in the corner and took off bucking. I face-planted and spit out about a cup of sand.”
Then she got right back on and never looked back.
The intern that never left
Leigha had started at DEFHR back in 2009, years before she met Slick. She arrived at the facility as a volunteer with very little horse experience, but had a desire to soak up as much knowledge as she could from the experienced staff.
“Soon after starting as a volunteer, I realized that this was my passion and something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I jumped right in, learning as much as possible from all of DEFHR’s education opportunities.”
Leigha took riding lessons at a local farm after school during the week and volunteered at DEFHR all day on weekends. During her senior year of high school, she interned under Sara.
“She really took me under her wing and helped develop me into the trainer I am today,” Leigha says. “Thanks to Sara’s guidance and mentorship, I started picking up more projects and opportunities. Even though my intern requirements were only a few days a week, I came out almost every day. We joke that I was the intern that never left.”
After Leigha graduated in 2014, she stayed local to study business and continue her volunteer work and training at DEFHR. While still earning her college degree, DEFHR hired her as an assistant trainer in 2016. Since then, she’s continued her online education and attends graduate school, with expectations of earning her master’s degree in contemporary communication this year.
“Thanks to DEFHR, I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many amazing trainers over the years,” Leigha says. “I’ve spent time learning from Scott Purdum, Trevor Carter of Carter Ranch Horse, Tara Jones of Pieceful Solutions Riding and Training, and many others. I really owe my career to the trainers I’ve had the privilege to work under, and of course, the horses.”
“Leigha brings a unique, creative outlook on horse training, and that’s what really has made her an exceptional trainer at DEFHR,” says Sara. “She is in it 100% for the horse and isn’t one to give up easily. If she hits a roadblock, she’ll find a way to get through to the horse. She has a great work ethic and a desire to give it her all every day. The horses benefit directly from that.”
Finding the right answers
Over the years, Leigha had dabbled in eventing, dressage, local hunters, and low jumpers. Slick helped her fall in love with working horses at-liberty, in a free environment without tack. It was a perfect outlet for his precocious nature.
As Slick’s under-saddle training progressed, she saw a special intelligence in the pony. She began trick training him to build his confidence and thought it might also elevate his adoptability since, at the time, he was available.
“He was really the first horse that I started doing this type of work with so we had a lot of trial and error,” says Leigha, who watched videos to learn more about the process. Before long, she’d taught Slick to lay down, roll onto and balance on his back, sit, bow, Spanish walk, rear, stand on a pedestal, and say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’
“I have to give credit to Slick for how much he was able to accomplish with how little experience I had at the time,” Leigha says. “All my tricks are taught using a balance of positive and negative reinforcement. I don’t use force or ropes when teaching any trick. I enjoy giving my horses the power of choice. Using a balance of positive reinforcement has allowed me to build motivation and a confidence in my horses that I have never experienced before. They want to work, and they enjoy trying to find the right answers.”
Keeping the training process simple for the horses is one of Leigha’s main objectives.
“I always try to break down goals into things the horse can understand. For example, the horse does not understand what a ‘bow’ is, so there is no point in having that frame of mind. But if I ask a horse to pick up his foot and back up at the same time, I am able to communicate more effectively.”
A horse with a golden heart
Before long, Slick and Leigha were serving as ambassadors for DEFHR, performing at expos, festivals, and leading demonstrations together. During that time, Slick was still available for adoption and waiting for his perfect match to come along. But everyone at DEFHR knew he had already found his match. After a few months, Leigha made it official.
Leigha was initially on the fence about adopting Slick. She had high aspirations to compete in dressage, and even though she’d done an impressive job with his training, he wasn’t destined to compete at the upper levels of the sport.
“Even though he wasn’t the fanciest pony, you couldn’t deny the connection that the two of them had together,” says Sara. “And isn’t that what we all want? A connection with a horse and to enjoy being around each other.”
These days, while Leigha stays busy with other rescued horses at the facility, Slick enjoys the easy life of playing around at DEFHR (often bridle-less), trail riding, learning new tricks, and advancing his at-liberty work with Leigha.
“Like most horses, Slick has gotten more mature over the years, but his personality has not changed,” she says. “He is still the goofy, attention-seeking, hard-working boy I fell in love with.”
For Leigha, being a part of the DEFHR family is a dream come true. Since 1989, the non-profit organization has helped rescue, rehabilitate, and successfully re-home more than 2,000 horses in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia area.
“It is extremely rewarding to be a part of such an inspiring organization,” says Leigha. “DEFHR has been making an impact for more than 30 years. I am just one of the thousands of people and horses that DEFHR impacts each and every day. I have learned from some of the most passionate and dedicated people.”
A fierce advocate for second chances, Leigh encourages all equestrians to consider adoption and look past breed stigmas. She recently DNA-tested Slick to gain more insight into his gaits and short-stature and learned that he is a mix of Tennessee Walker, Mountain Pleasure Horse, and Hanoverian.
“There is potential in every horse and there is no greater breed than a rescue,” Leigha says. “Horses are some of the most forgiving creatures on the planet. I have seen them being pulled from near-death experiences and go on to be show horses, family horses, and ‘heart horses.’ I have always described Slick as a horse with a golden heart. I can’t thank DEFHR enough for giving me my ‘heart horse’ in Slick.”
Learn more about Days End Farm Horse Rescue’s adoptable horses as well as their numerous education and volunteer opportunities. https://www.defhr.org