Make progress with an “advance and retreat” approach to your head shy horse.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Julie Goodnight,
Thank you for answering my request. My colt is 3 years, he was born in my arms, he is an Arabian. I have been working with him from day 1. He is halter broke and I have been working with him in the round ring. My husband and I have gotten a saddle and a bridle on him, and rode him a couple of times, then one time we put the saddle on him he spooked and he started to run with out the saddle being secure, the saddle fell off him and now he won’t let us put a saddle back on. So we took him to the round ring and started to ride him bareback with just the bridle and he is doing very well. Teaching him to walk and turn to the right and left with the bridle and also our legs. He wants nothing to do with the saddle. He is very smart. I have two other horses the Arabian mare (his mother) and a mustang we also raised from 5 weeks old. The mustang was a lot easier to train. The experience I have is only pleasure riding. I want to learn English and bareback and also better myself in western riding. I also love to teach and think I would be good in training.
Answer: Your question brings up some important points for any horse owner that is trying to start their own horse and I appreciate an opportunity to address it. I have trained many horses and through the years I have learned to be very cautious about horses that people have tried to start themselves, because more often than not, problems such as you describe have developed and it is much harder (and more dangerous by far) to un-train a horse once he has had bad experiences than it is to train him correctly to begin with.
There are so many steps along the way of starting a horse where things can go wrong. One of the most critical steps is the saddling process and getting the horse desensitized to the feel of the saddle and girth. You cannot be too careful at any stage of starting a horse. The slightest bit of carelessness or passing through a critical step too quickly can easily lead to a disastrous training session like you had with your young horse.
When you take your horse to an experienced and qualified trainer for the basics, what you are doing is buying insurance that these things will not happen and that your horse will be off to a good start. And there are many, many critical steps in the process of starting a horse under saddle, where things can go haywire. Every time you start a colt, you learn something else that will make your subsequent starts even better, so once you’ve started a few hundred, you’ve learned to watch out for all the little things that can go wrong.
Unfortunately, a horse cannot unlearn something he has learned. He will always remember what happened to him with the saddle and he will always be ambivalent about it. However, through training he can learn to overcome this bad experience. After enough positive experience with the saddle, gradually the positive will outweigh the negative and the horse will accept the saddle. I’ll give you a technique to use to teach the horse to stand quietly and accept the saddle, which is the same technique we use to start any horse. The difference with your horse is that it will take at least twice as long, because he now knows for a fact that the saddle can hurt him.
The technique is called patterned conditioning. The term conditioning refers to classical conditioning, a/k/a Pavlov’s Response. The term “patterned” refers to a repetition in training. What you need to do is condition the correct response in the horse when you approach him with the saddle. The correct response is to stand still and relax; therefore you will reward him every time he stands still and/or relaxes. The way that you reward him is giving him what he wants most at that moment, a release of pressure. In this case, the pressure, or stimuli, is the approaching saddle, so when he stands still and/or relaxes an iota, turn around and walk away from him.
You will continue to repeat this pattern of approach, retreating with the saddle every time he relaxes. Usually with an unhandled colt, depending on the breed, it might take from fifteen to fifty approaches for the horse to stand quiet and relaxed while you throw the saddle onto his back (cinching is a whole different process and another step wherein things can go very wrong). For your horse, it would probably take me a hundred approaches with the saddle; for you and your horse it will be several times that, because of the timing of the release.
The timing of the reward is so critical; the optimal time between behavior and reward, in order for the horse to make a strong association between the two, is a one half a second. An experienced horse person can see (or feel when riding) that a horse is going to do something even before he actually does it; a reward (release) given at that instant is the most optimal time. That is why trainers might advance much more quickly with a horse, and that is what you are paying for when you take your horse to an experienced and qualified trainer.
You’ll need to understand a very important concept in horse training to enact this plan. It is known as “Advance and Retreat” and there are several articles in my Training Library about that. Do not try the plan above until you have read it and thoroughly understand advance and retreat.
Good luck with this horse and remember to have a great deal of patience because it may take some time to even that score. In the meantime, keep working with him in all the other areas of riding (being extra careful not to get your horse in a bind), but pay special attention to desensitizing him to the saddle. Let him look at saddles in all environments; let him be near other horses being saddled. Take as much time as he needs and if you ever begin to lose your patience just walk away from it.
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Question Category: Issues from the Ground
Question: Hello Julie,
I recently purchased a 13 yr QH mare about six months ago. I had been riding her for about eight months with an additional two-month lease. I decided to purchase her. She is my first horse. She was formally a western barrel horse but we have converted to English riding for several reasons. While I’m learning a lot, taking lessons, and reading piles of material, everyday I experience a new behavior that she has not shown me since I’ve known her. Today she kicked me when I tried to clean off some of the mud in-between her legs close to her teats. I realize that’s probably a sensitive area, especially when there’s mud caked to her skin. What should have been my response to her kicking me? I’m not sure if my reprimands are correct and effective. How can I clean that area without this happening again? Thanks for your help.
Answer: Hi Barbara,
Thanks for your great questions and this is an important safety issue. Yes, between the legs and the teat area is VERY sensitive and a horse must be gently desensitized in this area (same thing for the sheath area of a gelding or stallion). If a horse has never been desensitized in these areas, their natural reaction would be to kick.
I do not think you can blame or punish the horse for this, since it was an understandable reaction on her part. My guess is that she probably gave warning before she actually kicked (unless you totally surprised her), so you need to learn to pay attention to your horse’s communication efforts. Watch the ears, level of the head, tail swishing, feet moving, etc. If you reached up and touched her there without warning, it is quite possible she (or any horse not used to this) would lash out without warning.
This is a great example of why people are more prone to injury around an unfamiliar horse, since you do not really know her idiosyncrasies or how she was trained and handled. As time goes by, you will learn more and more about her and know what to expect in terms of behavior. It has been an observation of mine that people with limited experience with horses (who have only worked with a small number of horses) make assumptions that all horses will act the same way as the ones they are used to handling.
If a horse is not accustomed to being touched in certain areas, it is perfectly natural for them to react with alarm. You cannot assume that all horses are used to being touched on all parts of their bodies. I have even seen well-broke horses that have never had their legs or faced brushed, who react with alarm when an unknowing person starts vigorously brushing these areas that have never been desensitized.
To get your horse accustomed to being touched in this very sensitive area, you’ll have to start slowly and work up to it. First let me mention some safety concerns. To work on her belly or teat area, you will be standing in a danger zone where she can easily kick you (as you have already discovered). Make sure you face forward and reach under with your closest hand so that your head is not moving toward the kick zone. If you face back and reach under with either hand, your head comes down closer to the kick zone. Secondly, this is a great example of why it is a good idea to wear a helmet when ground handling horses.
To teach your horse to accept your touch in the teat area, start slowly by rubbing gently and slowly with your hands in an area where she is comfortable, like higher up on her belly or even up on her back. Slowly advance closer to the area where she becomes uncomfortable and watch her closely for signs that she is getting tense (head coming up, ears tensing back, moving away). If she cocks a foot or switches her tail, you have gone too far and she is becoming defensive. When you find how far you can advance, where her discomfort is beginning but not so far that she becomes defensive, just hold your hand there until she relaxes and then retreat (back away and walk away from her). Go back again and again in this manner until she has become desensitized and you have broadened the area that she is comfortable with you touching. Slowly advance the area where you are touching and give her time to accept each new touch.
This advance and retreat technique is HIGHLY effective with horses. Advance only as far as you see the beginnings of discomfort, then hold that position until the horse relaxes somewhat (drops head, relaxes ears, chews or sighs) and then retreat away from the horse, to reward her acceptance of your touch. Don’t feel like you need to get in a hurry to clean her teats. Yes, this is an area that can collect dirt and grime, but some waxy build up there is normal and acts as an insulation to protect the sensitive skin. Be very gentle and don’t over-do the cleaning of the teats. Once your horse has been desensitized to touch in this area, she will accept it without protest.
Be careful working around the hind end of the horse and remember, do not assume any horse is desensitized to touch or handling all over their body. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Talk about Tack
Question: Our horse, a 12-year-old quarter horse, has started a bad habit. Recently we had our vet float his teeth and since then he fights taking the bit. He has thrown my daughter, her trainer, others and myself through the air when we try to hold his head. He eats fine and is fine once the bit and bridle go on. Any thoughts? We are not sure how to correct this behavior and don’t want to make it worse.
Donna Cowden, Mt. Pleasant, SC.
Answer: If your horse did not have a bridling problem before the teeth floating, he is probably just worried about his teeth getting hurt again. You need to desensitize him to being bridled again, just like a horse that has a bridling problem. I would recommend using the “advance and retreat” method.
First approach him as if you were going through the motions of bridling, but without the bridle. Make sure he is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist- GO NO FURTHER, but hold that position quietly until he relaxes, then retreat (walk away a few steps for a moment).
Count to five and then approach again in the same way; advance and retreat repeatedly. Do not try to hold his head still or confine his head, just advance until he resists, then hold that position but try to be very still. The worst things you can do are grab at his head and try to hold him still. You should wait to retreat until there is some small sign of relaxation. That might just be when he stops throwing his head or it might be when he actually drops his head and takes a deep breath. Ideally, that is what you want him to do.
Repeat the advance and retreat many many times, advancing further as you can. He will learn that when he relaxes, the thing that causes him fear will go away. Then he will no longer be afraid of it. Gradually advance, but always retreat. Do not approach him with the bridle until you can rub all over his head and mouth with him relaxed. Then start all over with the bridle. This whole process could take one hour or one week.
The fact that you never had a problem before the floating makes me think that he will go back to his old ways sooner rather than later. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate, this behavior started with an honest fear of being hurt. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Trainer and Clinician
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.