Off To A Good Start

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Off To A Good Start

Are you raising a foal or young horse? Make sure you’re setting up a good relationship with respect from the start. To start your young relationship off on the right path, you’ll need to consider how a young horse thinks and envision how you want your horse to act later in life. All that training starts now. Your expectations must be clear and you must set about systematically to teach the horse what you think of as “good” behavior. In his young world, good behavior includes kicking, biting and running hell-bent for leather in any direction he pleases. That’s not how you want your young horse to act, so start teaching the new rules soon.

 

Horses know how to act like horses; that’s it. If we want them to act in certain non-horsey ways when we handle them, they have to be taught the proper response. We call that horse training. However, in the horse’s herd, he learns in the first days of life to recognize dominant horses and dominant behavior. He learns to respect authority and respect the space of others. He has trouble with the latter, even in the herd, so he gets spanked regularly (by kind but firm “aunties”). Because of this, young horses can be easily taught to respect your space and follow the rules. They can also be easily taught the opposite if mishandled.

 

I am not a big fan of over-handling baby horses—I’ve seen too many foals become insensitive spoiled monsters with many bad habits that must be “un-trained.” And I’ve seen how easily and quickly you can train 2 or 3 year olds that have never been handled; who have no preconceived notions about people. But, if you are going to handle young horses, there are basic manners and expectations of behavior that they should learn early on.

 

Spatial issues are huge with horses of any age. Just because the foal is young and cute, doesn’t mean he can’t run you down or kick your teeth out. Often, when inexperienced people are raising foals, big mistakes are made early on and the behaviors are well-engrained in the horse, long before the person has an appreciation for the scope of problem. Foals love to be rubbed and scratched and will quickly learn to lean and push on you to get your attention. Next thing you know, you have a horse that pushes you around and has learned to lean into pressure instead of move away from it. Those are bad traits when you’re riding a horse.

 

Because young horses are very oral by nature—constantly exploring their environment with their nose, lips and tongue—biting can be a big problem when handling youngsters. There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting (the most aggressive and deadly behavior of horses). These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries. Just as with human toddlers that may test out biting, this behavior should be “nipped in the bud,” as early as possible in the progression.

 

It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower in your “herd of two.” It’s best to set this pattern early on in the relationship you are developing with your young horse.

 

If you establish basic rules of behavior (respect my space at all times, follow my lead, stop when I stop and stand still when I ask) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn these important ground manners quickly. Also, any time any part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space, so he learns where your space begins and ends. This will help him to learn to keep a respectful and safe distance from you and to be respectful of your space.

 

If you are raising a young horse or even retraining an older horse that missed out on learning good manners, it’s important to know what your expectations of his behavior are so that you can set clear rules and boundaries. If you’re not certain what your expectations should be, get some help. You only have one chance to make a good first impression on your horse.

 

Doing it right from the beginning may be critical in your horse’s success later in life. You have to be the leader and the enforcer and not coddle, cuddle or condone. When he is a teenager with 800 pounds of exuberance, you’ll be glad you did.

 

 

–Julie Goodnight

Jealous Little Girl

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Dear Julie,
I have a two-year-old mare that’s an eager learner and wants to spend time with me. She readily approaches me and wants to be in on the action when I work with other horses. It’s been snowy and icy here so I have not had the opportunity to do the groundwork I usually do with her. So today I spent time brushing and cleaning her up and I took her for a walk. When I brought her back, I let her loose while I was grooming another horse—a gelding I am bonded to and have worked with for many years. While I was grooming him, the mare put her head on his back and placed her nose on his hoof. I continuously backed her off and returned to grooming. Then she nipped at my arm. To my surprise, I hit her and said “no.” I’m embarrassed to admit what came automatically. How do I teach her to not to interfere when I work on another horse and how to I teach her not to bite to get my attention?
Sick of Envy
Dear Sick of Envy,
First of all, give yourself a break for your reaction to your mare’s nip. You followed your instincts and acted much like a dominant horse would in the same situation. Think about what would happen in the natural herd setting if a subordinate horse bit a dominant one. The dominant horse immediately restates his or her position by biting, kicking and even running the subordinate horse away. Your reaction matches what would have happened naturally—and shows your reflexes are working! When a horse bites or nips she is challenging your dominance and he needs to be immediately and firmly corrected. You’re keeping yourself safe by teaching your horse you’re in charge and won’t put up with aggressive moves.

While we’re talking about safety, I think the scene you described may not be the safest way to teach your young horse or the safest place to groom your older horse. With one horse tied and the other loose in the same area, you’re inviting trouble. There’s no question that this is dangerous—I once saw a person get killed in a similar situation. I’m guessing that the older gelding is dominant over the mare. When he’s tied and can’t react like he usually would, the young mare may find it tempting to challenge him. Tie them both up or move the horse you’re working with to a separate area where you can’t be bothered. If you tie your mare, she’ll learn to stand patiently at the same time you are working on the other horse.

Now lets talk more about horses and jealousy. Horses are emotional animals with feelings more simplistic, but similar to humans’. Horses can certainly be jealous. Some of the behaviors you describe indicate that this horse is jealous of the attention you pay to your older horse. Horses can become very possessive over another horse and will sometimes go to great lengths to keep that horse from interacting with other horses. You may see a horse in the pasture or turnout herding another horse to keep it away from the others and he may even make threatening gestures and aggressive actions towards the others to keep them away from “his” horse. It is always helpful to understand how horses interact in the herd so you know the origins of their behavior and how you fit into the mix. You definitely don’t want your horse to treat you like another horse and you don’t want to be one of your horse’s possessions.

Even though it is pleasing to us when our horses want our attention and interaction, you must be very careful not to give the impression to this filly that she can control your actions and gain your attention any time she wants. Be very clear about not letting her invade your space and do not let her prompt you into giving her attention and learn that she can control your actions.

To start your anti-jealousy training, make sure you only give your mare attention when you choose. In other words, make sure not to give attention when she’s seeking it, but only when she’s calm and relaxed. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Horses will try to get your negative attention if they can–by acting up then causing you to come to them to provide discipline. Even though it’s negative attention, the horse is still in control when she nips, kicks, paws, chews, etc. in an attempt to get a reaction from you. For example, if I have a horse tied and I am doing something with another horse, the first horse may paw in impatience and frustration. If I go over to her and reprimand her, she has successfully won my attention—getting me to stop what I’m doing and move into her space. She’s controlling my actions. The best thing to do is ignore her behavior; it will eventually go away.

Your filly sounds very gregarious and that is a great quality. Just don’t let that turn into her being pushy. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak.

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Self Inflicted Pain

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Dear Julie,
My 11-year-old horse recently started biting at his sides—digging deep and mutilating his skin and hair coat. Before I bought him last year, he was gelded and was away from other horses during his healing time. That’s when this strange behavior started. When I purchased him, the former owner barely mentioned the behavior. He just told me if you rode him each day, he’d be too tired to bite his sides. At my place, we keep him turned out with a larger herd. He exhibits the behavior when he’s around his buddies—not only when he may feel lonely. The horse is so sweet to people. He’s kind and respectful. He’s just terrible to himself. What can I do to help him? Why is he doing this?
Bit To Pieces

Dear Bit To Pieces,
Horses that self-mutilate (bite at their own flesh causing open wounds) are generally either in severe pain or experiencing severe stress. Have your veterinarian evaluate your horse to rule out any pain that may be causing the habit. You may also consider having an equine chiropractor (a veterinarian specially trained in spinal alignment) check your horse’s back and range of movement. If you resolve the pain or take away stress, the behavior should go away. That sounds easy, right? However, I wonder if your horse may be hurting himself because of pain or stress he experienced in the past. He may have felt stressed and frustrated when he was isolated at another barn. That stress-time behavior may have become habitual—meaning your horse may not feel pain or stress now, but he has the undesirable behavior nonetheless. If that’s the cause, your horse may need some time to realize he no longer needs the stress-relieving behavior. An interesting note, some research indicates that self-mutilation is related to Tourrettes Syndrome in humans. That link may explain why some horses continue to harm themselves long after a prompt is present.

I have seen a handful of self-mutilators in my training career. I’ll never forget the little mare that had been in training with a brutal hunter-jumper trainer who rode her in draw reins with her nose cranked to her chest. She began to bite her chest while being ridden. Both sides of her shoulders dripped with blood at the end of every course of jumps. Eventually her owner figured out that she was in pain and under stress because of the trainer’s methods. The owner removed the horse from the trainer’s barn and the problem behavior went away. Unfortunately, that trainer is still in business—or so I’ve heard. The other horses I’ve known were stallions with exacerbating medical conditions that caused them great pain. When the horses were brought back to a healthy condition, the self-mutilation went away.

To stop the flesh-eating behavior, you can put a neck cradle on your horse to prevent him from reaching to his sides or legs with his mouth. A cradle is made with dowels strapped together and buckled around his neck when he is alone in his stall. Look for a cradle in any vet catalogue’s bandaging section. It’s not a good idea to have a neck cradle on your horse when he’s turned out with other horses—he won’t be able to turn away from dominant horses or defend himself. Other horses may also become tangled in the cradle. Keep in mind, this cradle can stop the behavior, but not the horse’s desire to self mutilate. It’s important to find a way to help your horse inhibit his desire while his body begins to heal.

Dr. Katherine Houpt from Cornel University has researched self mutilation extensively. In her book, Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists she says “self-mutilation is a very common behavior problem. Although it occurs in both sexes, it is much more common in stallions. The behavior consists of biting at or actually biting the flanks or, more rarely, the chest. The horse usually squeals and kicks out at the same time. The signs mimic those of acute colic, but can be differentiated because self-mutilation does not progress to rolling or depression and is chronic. The cause of the behavior is unknown, but because it usually responds to a change in the social environment it is probably caused by sociosexual deprivation. Most breeding stallions do lead similarly deprived lives in that they are kept in stalls in isolation from other horses, particularly from mares, but do not self-mutilate. Castration usually, but not always stops self-mutilation.” I got my copy of Houpt’s book from Knight Equestrian Books by calling 207-882-5494.

It sounds like you’re on the right track when evaluating your horse’s psychological needs. You said you have him turned out with other horses. That social arrangement—much different than his sole time in a stall–may help the behavior disappear after he becomes more comfortable with the herd. If health problems have been ruled out, your best recovery bet is to experiment with different herd arrangements until your horse feels comfortable and realizes chewing on his sides isn’t necessary any more. I wish you the best of luck!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Acting Up On The Trail

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Why does my horse act up on the trail?
Questions about how your horse should act on the trail –and why he doesn’t do what you want when you’re out in the open—are some of the most common topics. In our episode of Horse Master titled “Close for Comfort” viewers learned about a mare that was suffering slightly from PMS (prissy mare syndrome). She bit and kicked at other horses that she deems as too close when out on a leisure ride. She was making unauthorized decisions that should only be made by the one in charge.

She was actually a very sweet, easy-to-train horse that has just not had good leadership. ALL horses must learn this very important rule from the youngest possible age: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO FRATERNIZE WITH ANOTHER HORSE IN ANY WAY WHEN I AM AROUND YOU.
This includes sniffing noses, flicking ears, showing teeth, herding gestures, swishing a tail, picking up a foot to kick or any other gestures, interaction or displays of herd behavior.

This should be one of the Ten Commandments for horses and it is a subject I talk about in every clinic that I do. It is of paramount importance not only for your safety and the safety of those around you (horse and human) but it is also a critical issue of manners and respect for authority. Besides, it’s a hygiene issue too—I don’t want my horse sharing snot with all the horses around him.

The safety issue I think is fairly obvious. If horses are allowed to fraternize, sooner or later someone’s going to throw a kick or bite and you or the person you are riding with might get caught in the fracas. I saw my good friend get killed this way when I was 12—so you can see why this has become an important issue for me. She was breaking another all-important safety rule by sitting on the ground by her horse at them time—never sit or kneel around a horse, always stay on your feet.

The manners issue has to do with your horse’s respect for your authority as the leader of the herd. If you are the one in charge, he has no business herding or acting aggressive to any other horses—it’s your herd. And, if he is doing his job, he is focused on you, waiting patiently for your next directive—just like a good first mate to his captain—not looking around, acting bored and looking for a party.

This fundamental rule explains why a breeding stallion can be used in the show ring or go on group trail rides and be tied up right next to another horse without incident, if he is well-trained. Horses are very good at learning and following rules when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced.

For this episode of Horse Master, it turned out to be an easy fix. First, the owner simply needed to learn about this and step up to the helm, then she needed to know when and how to correct her horse when she breaks the rule. I also taught her how to deal with kicking in an emergency situation, to make sure everyone stays safe. You can watch a clip from this show at: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight and type “116 Kicking Horse” in the search box.

Does your horse see you as his leader?
The bad behavior seen in the episode happened when the horse made her own decisions and before her rider stepped up to correct her and be the leader. To make sure your horse doesn’t escalate and become a behavior challenge, make sure you’re always in charge.

An obedient horse that knows that the rider is in charge will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.

To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.

You control your horse’s nose and where he should look while on a trail ride and during any time you’re together. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.

Keep in mind that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.

How strict I am on the horse’s nose placement depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.

More help on the trail
With so many questions about how your horse should act on the trail, I compiled a training video called Trail Solutions. It’s all about trail riding, and features some of my favorite Horse Master episodes.

Trail Solutions will help you get to the trail safely and help with any problems evaluating a horse. You’ll have help with barn sour behavior, you’ll teach your horse to stand still as you mount, you’ll learn how to approach any new obstacle or water crossing with your horse, and more.

The topics:

  • Horse evaluation and understanding mares and geldings
  • Buying a horse with training
  • Using the idea of making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy for trailering
  • Learn leadership skills so that your horse knows he can trust you on the trail
  • Learn to direct your horse’s path.

Get Trail Solutions at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com

Dominance Rehabilitation

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Question:
I have a very dominant 9-year-old Tennessee walker. He is very proud, and was abused and starved. I’ve had him for 3 years. I am having problems with him on the ground and in the pasture. I am the “boss” of my three others, and they all respect me, except him. He rears up at me and attempts to bite me and chase me out of the pasture. We had a great respect and got along great, but lately I can’t get near him. Would like some info on what to do to gain back what we had before.

Thank you.

Dominance Rehab

Answer:

Dear Dominance Rehab,

This sounds like a tough horse! I would recommend that you separate him from the others. It sounds to me like he is becoming protective of “his” herd. Compounded by the fact that he has reason to dislike and distrust humans, he has reverted back to more natural or wild behaviors.

If you separate him from the others, he will not have the opportunity to protect his herd and he will be more reliant on you for companionship and to take care of his needs. Of course, to really gain respect and trust, you’ll need to build a relationship through groundwork. I would definitely start with round pen work, focusing on moving him away from you. I would not let a horse like this turn toward me when I ask him to turn around; instead, emphasize moving him out of your space.

Once he becomes more respectful of your space, then you can start doing inside turns with him. As he improves in the round pen, I would start doing lead-line work focusing on some basic rules of behavior like, stand still until I tell you to move, keep your nose in front of your chest while I am around you, and do walk-trot-halt transitions and turns away from you from both sides of the horse.

With any horse, and especially with one that has shown such aggressive tendencies, always make sure you have some sort of device in your hands when you work with him that allows you to keep a safe distance from the horse. A long whip, a lariat or a cattle sorting stick all work well; I prefer to use a “training wand” (available on my website). The purpose of the stick is not to hit the horse but it is an extension of your arm to give the horse communication and direction. And it allows you to keep a safer distance from the horse and protect yourself should he become aggressive.

With a horse that has been abused and has reason to distrust humans, you have to be careful not to get emotional or angry and escalate his emotions. Horses develop trust when they have basic rules of behavior to follow and you correct and reward them consistently. Start with some very fundamental issue, like moving him away from you, and then work just on that for a while.

I always like to remind people that you can only work on one issue at a time with a horse. So set your priorities and focus on one issue. A good example is when you are working on round pen and trying to control the horse’s speed, but then he starts coming off the rail and cutting off part of the arena. In this case, decide what your priority is at that moment: is it speed or is it staying on the rail? You cannot work on both at the same time. So maybe you step back and work on the horse staying on the rail for a few moments then when the horse is following that rule, you can go back and work on speed control.

Good luck to you and make sure you are very careful around this horse and watch yourself. Hopefully once he is separated from the herd, some of his aggressive behaviors will diminish.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

No Biting Allowed

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In the Horse Master episode, “Raising Her Right,” I worked with Elaine Shabazian, a longtime horsewoman and Friesian breeder with a farm on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Elaine was recovering from knee surgery and wanted to make sure she was doing all she physically could to prepare her young Friesian filly for an upcoming breed inspection. It was great to see such a nice young horse and to share some young-horse handling techniques with Elaine and the audience. So often, I see horse owners who want their young horses to be cuddly and snuggly—then they don’t know what to do with a mature horse that still insists on being petted and moving into your personal space. Handling a foal right is a great responsibility that Elaine was prepared to take on. Read on to learn more about handling young horses—especially what to do when young horses become “lippy” and need to mouth everything, including you. Then watch the “Raising Her Right” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight February 5 and March 16, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html

There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting. These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries to see if he can gain dominance over you. It sounds like your colt is still in the nipping stage and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak. It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. Another common action that leads to nipping/biting is when you hand feed treats to horses. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower. It sounds like you haven’t quite got this settled between you and your horse yet. If you were dominant in his mind, he would not dare move into your space or put his lips or teeth on you.

Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water) and by controlling the space of the subordinate members (running them off, pushing them around). If you allow your horse to move into your space at all, it confuses the dominant-subordinate relationship. Horses are much more aware of spatial issues than humans are. When we get horses in training here at my barn, whether youngsters or older horses, one of the first rules of behavior they will learn is to never move into our space with any part of their body, including the nose. Most people constantly allow their horses to move into their space especially with its nose. In fact, it is often encouraged by feeding treats or by playing with the horse’s nose. All of these actions confuse the horse and make him think he is dominant.

For your colt, you need to establish a more respectful distance between you and him. Don’t stand close to his face or pet him on the face and don’t allow him to move his nose toward you at all while you’re working around him. Every time he moves his nose toward you, correct it by poking a finger in his cheek or just pointing at his nose until he puts it back in its proper place, in front of his chest. If you establish this basic rule (your nose must stay in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn this important ground manner quickly. Also, any time any other part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space. This will help him to learn a respectful distance and to be respectful of your space as the dominant herd member.

When the colt reaches out to nip or bite, you should instantly poke him with a pointed finger or smack him in the muzzle with the back of your hand. This correction must come instantly without any pause at all on your part. The optimal time for a correction is one-half second after the behavior, in order for a strong association between the behavior and the correction to be made by the horse. There is a three second window of opportunity within which to reward or correct a horse, but, the sooner in that three seconds, the correction or reward occurs, the more meaningful it is to the horse, and the optimal time is one half second. Your colt already knows that he is doing something wrong, that’s why he is backing up after he nips. If you feel you cannot poke him in a timely fashion, go ahead and jerk on the lead rope and back him up vigorously for a far stretch and yell or growl at him like you’re angry. John Lyons has an interesting theory about correcting horses that bite. He says that you should pick up whatever is handy and act like you’re going to kill the horse with it, but only for three seconds. Of course, he would never actually advocate beating the horse with something, but by the time you have picked it up, swung it over your head and lunged at the horse, at least three seconds has gone by so you would never actually have time to hit the horse. This puts the “fear of god” into the horse and makes him very leery of putting his mouth on you again (don’t ever try something like this with a tied horse because it will lead to a pull-back problem).

If you’re leery of poking the horse in the cheek, then you can give him a pinch on his neck, to simulate the alpha horse biting him. Take your thumb and index finger and give him a hard squeeze at the base of his neck muscle. Wrap your fingers around several inches of the big strapping muscle that defines the bottom line of his neck and then give a quick sharp squeeze. This will give him quite a shock and simulates biting. It gives him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. One more time, I want to reinforce the fact that as likely as not, the human is the one that has made the horse nippy by crowding his space, playing with his mouth, feeding treats and allowing the horse to push him around. So make sure that you correct your behavior too, if necessary, so as not to encourage the horse to be disrespectful.
–Julie Goodnight

Burned Out

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This Issue: Burned Out

Recently I was a speaker at the PATH International therapeutic riding conference—the annual convention. The crowd was full of hundreds of physical therapists, mental health specialists, therapeutic instructors, horse handlers, side walkers and barn managers that work for therapeutic riding programs. My presentation was on avoiding and resolving burnout in therapy horses.

Now, this is a very popular subject because every therapeutic riding program out there shares this problem. While only the best-tempered and most qualified horses are used in such a program, their job is stressful (both physically and mentally), tiring, boring, repetitive and sometimes downright obnoxious. Sometimes as many as five adults are hovering over the client and micromanaging the horse’s every step. With a high dependency on volunteerism in TRPs, the horse has to get used to a revolving door of handlers. Sometimes the client is off balance, moving spasmodically or unpredictably, laughing or screaming loudly. Most therapy horses work hard for a living and many of them also have to make ends meet by working extra hours packing around able-bodied riders in lessons—a novice rider that thinks she knows what she is doing is often harder on the horse than a therapeutic client. As you can imagine, burnout is an occupational hazard in these horses.

Every therapeutic riding program I’ve worked with has problems with horses biting, horses that learn bad habits or avoidance techniques (particularly around the mounting block), horses that develop bad manners, and worst of all, the horses that learn that they can get away with stuff like biting the handler when there is a client on its back because they know the handler won’t take the risk of disciplining the horse with the client on its back. Maybe you’ve had some personal experience with this, if not in a therapy horse how about in a show horse? I consulted with Disney World a few years ago and they had this problem with some of Cinderella’s ponies (you know, the little white ponies that pull the pumpkin carriage). Disney horse handlers are strictly forbidden from taking any disciplinary action at all when the horses are in the park in front of guests and unfortunately sometimes clever little devil ponies learn they can get away with stuff like biting the handler in the park, but they never do it outside where the handler could take disciplinary action. This is a very bad deal because once they learn that there is a certain place that they can get away with stuff, you cannot unlearn it. So we must do our best to prevent the horse from learning this to begin with by being diligent to the horse’s behavior and obedience and taking corrective action before the horse figures it out. Fortunately, most horses are not that smart.

Have you ever had a horse that learned he can get away with things in certain settings? It reminds me of when my sisters and I were little and my parents dressed us up and took us to a very fancy restaurant where we promptly staged a revolt and crawled under the white-linen table and refused to come out (it was my sister’s idea; I was just a pawn in her scheme). We just knew they wouldn’t do anything to us there and that there would be no spanking in the fancy restaurant. Little did we know that later, at home, we would come to regret our actions. Unfortunately, with horses, punishing them after-the fact will serve no purpose other than to confuse the horse and teach him not to trust you. Regret is not a train of thought your horse will follow. As I am fond of saying—once three seconds goes by, it’s a whole ‘nother day to the horse and there is no connection whatsoever.

Although a lot of these behavior problems in therapy horses have to do with the difficult and stressful job they do, much of this it has to do with poor handling and the ever-revolving door of handlers with varying degrees of competence. Many larger and well-funded programs employ a full-time trainer whose job it is to maintain the therapy horse’s training, avoid bad habits and take care of the horse’s mental and physical needs. But the smaller programs are scrapping for every labor dollar they have and usually can’t afford this luxury, so they have to do the best they can, with the people they have.

I wish I had had more time for the presentation because we had about 8-10 therapy horses from several different programs here in Colorado, with a variety of interesting issues. It was way too many horses to work with in the 90 minutes allotted to me. There were a many points that I wanted to stress in training the volunteers and in the day-to-day handling of the horses, but I found myself focusing again and again on a few key points: don’t micro-manage the horse, don’t crowd and grab the horse and be sure to maintain a level of authority with the horse.

Biting horses is probably the most common problem TRPs deal with, a problem that many horse people encounter, but the therapy horses are way more prone to it than any other population I know of. I’ve spent some time pondering this problem and have observed many different operations and to me, the cause is quite clear—the horses are sick and tired of everyone being in their space! These horses get so over-handled with so many well-intentioned people that don’t always do the right thing. The horse handler crowds the horse’s face, often choked up on the lead rope and micro-managing every movement the horse makes (if he’s being used in a TRP, he knows what he is doing; he does it every day and usually knows it better than the handler). Worse, the handler sometimes leads with the reins or clamps down on the reins just behind the bit; both of these actions are VERY hard on a horse’s mouth. Is it any surprise so many therapy horses bite?

It’s just like with riding a horse—at some point you need to quit micro-managing him and just trust the horse to do his job, especially when it is something he knows how to do. Step back, put some slack in the lead (or reins) and let him do his job. You cannot prevent a horse from moving by holding him still (who are you kidding if you think you can hold a 1000 pound horse still?) but you can train him that it is an expectations of yours that he not move his feet without a cue, then step back, loosen the lead and expect him to stand; correct him if he doesn’t. Don’t try to prevent him from making a mistake, just correct him when he does.

This will only work if you have authority over your horse and he respects your leadership; otherwise, when you step back or loosen up, he just does whatever he wants. I have written a lot about this subject—it’s all over my Training Library—and I spent a lot of time in my NARHA presentation just teaching simple ground manners to the horses (and teaching the handlers what to do and what not to do). A horse doesn’t automatically respect you, trust you or accept your authority over all things unless you earn it. And if everyone knew how to do that, I’d be out of a job!

It was a great workshop and I really enjoyed it. The session ended too soon and as usual, I could think of about a thousand things I wish I had time to cover. If you were there, let me know what you enjoyed the most and what you wished we could’ve covered. If you’re involved in a TRP—good for you! It is a valuable and satisfying field and TRPs are always in need of more volunteers, so check it out. If you cannot afford the time, maybe you can make a donation to your local therapeutic riding program(cash is king for these low-budget non-profits). If you are not involved in a TRP, perhaps you can still find some useful information here to help you avoid problems with your horse.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie

–Julie Goodnight