Question Category: Building a Better Relationship
Question: Hi Julie,
I have a gorgeous 6 yr old Irish sport horse gelding Bernie. I purchased him from a personal friend’s eventing farm almost 2 yrs ago. He was green but well started and I tried him out for 2 days in a clinic before taking delivery of him. He knows a lot for his age and is capable of things he doesn’t like to let on he knows. He is the smartest horse I have ever worked with (I’m 33 and been on horses since I was 3), and has an incredible memory. When he gives, he gives 1000 percent and when he is focused he is super talented!!
I know these are slow growing horses so when I got him I did some light work with him, took him fox hunting a few times and he took to it well. I was able to hack out alone, jump anything calmly and do whatever with him. Then the wheels started falling off, one by one, my saddle was too wide so gave him back pain (now have 2 custom saddles), moved to California for a job and he was stuck in a 12 x 24 box all day instead of grazing 24 hrs on lush acres in Virginia and he turned inside out and started spooking at everything!!! I hunted him a bit this season after moving back home and at first he seemed ok on the trail hunt rides, but once the season started he came unglued– started rearing at the checks (long stops waiting for hounds to be collected), running backwards and kicking out at other horses, keeping his nose shoved up the butt of the horse in front of us, the only way to calm him down was to move up to first field where there were jumps and keep him occupied (but my husband rides with me and he doesn’t jump yet), He started coming off the trailer with fire out of his nose, ready to go. I did the quiescence and stuff like that, but I just felt like I was putting a bandaid on the problem.
He is out 24 hours a day again with only his half brother (who is an angel) on 6 acres, only eating grass and hay, no feed, no supplements. We have no ring or roundpen and it’s been a wet winter so he has had lots of time off. I have recently been trying to hack him out alone and now he has become spooky and started rearing and won’t leave the driveway. At my wits end (I can stay on but it’s getting old!!!!). I talked to several people and your name came up from one of them (manager of Dover Saddlery in Chantilly VA) – I looked you up and read your rules on the ground from one of your q and a’s.
I did the stand still exercise with Bernie the other day in my barn, he was pissed but within a few minutes was licking (thinking) and chewing, and relaxed. I was actually in about 20 min or so able to leave the room to get something and he was still standing there waiting on me. So later that day after doing a session of stand-still I decided to go meet a friend for a ride. (I usually have been longeing him so that I can see what I’m working with), this time I didn’t, got on and instead of planting and rearing and spinning around and trying to go back to the barn or spooking, he marched right out of the drive on a loose rein, I am sooooo thankful for finding you! NOW I want more, he was a little tense on the ride and spooky but it was great to be out again, it made me tear up. It’s so hard to think of where we were when I first got him and the things we were doing to now….where I just want to hack down the road a bit without him balking and spooking or getting frustrated and having a rearing fit.
He can be spooky, doesn’t like things behind him (dogs, machinery, loud buzzing noises) doesn’t full on bolt but will tense up and sort of throw some forward half rearing lunging fits, gets nervous if we are behind another horse and that horse is too far ahead of us. And the memory thing I mentioned – he gets nervous every time we go by somewhere that he knows a dog lives or bees stung him, or cows were grazing (he remembers all those things) In the wild this horse would have definitely been a survivor!!!
Can you recommend what to do next? This horse is smart and amazing and will be a super hunt horse once he sees me as the leader of his herd. I need to get there. He needs a schedule and a plan. Could you help point me in the right direction so that we can be on our way to a great relationship?
Thank you so much for your time,
Your horse sounds like a handful! But at the same time, he seems smart and easily trained—sometimes these are the most challenging horses. From what you describe, he’s a horse that requires more authority and strict rules to follow. I think if you can get him focused on you, give him strict rules of behavior (like you did in the stand still exercise) and engage his mind, you’ll have the horse you’ve been dreaming of.
Chances are that there are small areas of inconsistencies in your relationship with this horse that has led him to disregard your authority. You’ll need to thoroughly analyze all that you do with him– all of your interactions, and figure out what you are doing to erode your authority or leadership with this horse. It could be something as simple as letting him walk off without a cue or hand feeding him treats. Look for any ways that the horse might be controlling your actions (like crowding you then making you step back) or things that you are condoning but shouldn’t be (like asking him to stand, then allowing him to move around without any ramifications).
In my Training Library, you will find several hundred Q&As, most of which have to do with problems people are having with their horses. I suggest you spend some time reading through the list of topics and reading the articles that sound even remotely familiar as the issues you are having with your horse. By reading through the questions and answers, you may discover that certain practices of yours are contributing to the problems or that perhaps you should be taking action when you are not.
Although it is not the answer most people are looking for, the truth is, you need to do LOTS more ground work with this horse. You have already seen that doing one groundwork exercise had a big impact on his attitude—the key is to do lots more! I suggest using a rope halter and 12-15 foot training lead and going through a series of exercises from the lead line, which are explained in detail in my video called “Lead Line Leadership.”
Continue with the standing still exercise. This teaches your horse that he cannot move impulsively whenever he wants. He learns patience and to respect your authority and that he doesn’t get to make decisions about when he moves and when he doesn’t. Add to this exercise strict control over his nose so that he learns he cannot look all around and must either remain focused on you or tune out everything around him.
Next, work on leading—teaching him that he has to move with you, match you step for step and stay in a perfect position beside you and behind you (similar to what you do when you teach a dog to heel). You’ll set a specific boundary for him so he learns that he cannot go in front of you or lag behind you when being led and that he has to focus on you entirely so he knows what to do. In this stage, you’ll do lots of transitions—speeding up and slowing down, and lots of turns—always turning the horse away from you (moving him out of your space) and making the turns smaller and faster. In these exercises, not only will he learn good leading manners, but he’ll learn that he has to focus on you and move his body exactly as you move yours.
He’ll also be learning that you are a very strong leader and that it pays to follow your rules. In fact, you’ll see a shift in his attitude where he starts looking up to you and trying to please you. At this stage, it is important to make sure that you give him lots of praise when he deserves it, so he works ever harder to stay out of trouble and on your good side.
In the next set of ground work exercises, you’ll circle the horse around you on the long lead, cueing the horse to stop at times and change direction at times. With these exercises, you’ll teach him that you most certainly have control over his whole body—moving his nose, shoulder, feet and hip every time you turn him around. And he’ll learn that you have control over his actions—stop, go and change of directions. This is an exercise you can employ when you are riding (with halter/lead under bridle) and he gets a little sketchy—just hop off and start circling and changing directions. Again, all of these exercises are detailed in my Lead Line Leadership video.
I strongly believe that if you invest a little time in ground work with this horse—say, 20 minutes a day for a couple weeks, you’ll have a whole different horse on your hands. After the first few weeks, your horse should be getting very compliant, but it is a good idea to do a few minutes of groundwork each day before you ride, to get your horse in the right frame of mind. It’s likely that through these exercises, as your horse learns to respect your authority, that the spooky behavior goes away. Through ground work, the horse accepts that you are a strong and competent leader and that you can be trusted to take care of everything. Therefore, things don’t frighten him as much.
If you find that even after doing several weeks of ground work, your horse is still acting spooky out on rides, then you may want to read up on de-spooking your horse. Again, this information is all available to you in my Training Library.
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