Horse Behavior: Seasoning A Horse For Shows

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: I am writing from Pretoria South Africa. My daughter recently attended her first show-jumping event. Her horse boxed (trailered) without major problems and also traveled well. At the event this well-behaved, sweet horse, turned into a very nervous rearing animal. We could not control her and needless to say my daughter could not compete. According to her riding instructor, from whom we purchased the horse, she came off the track two years ago after being pushed very hard. She said that the P.A. system, bells, noise and other horses reminded her of her racing days and together with the stress of traveling caused her behavior. We did manage to calm her later the day. I am now prepared to travel with her the previous day and to stable her overnight, to minimize her stress level on the day of the event. The instructor however is of the opinion that stabling her in an unknown environment would heighten her stress and could bring on a bout of colic. Can you please give me advise how to approach this problem? Kind regards,

W.M.

South Africa

Answer: Willem,
For horses, training is very place (or location) specific. A horse learns to perform a certain skill in a certain place and when you ask the horse for the same thing in a different place, at first he may not know what to do. Scientifically, there are four stages of learning for all animals, humans included:

• Acquisition- horse learns to associate a cue with the behavior you are teaching him

• Fluency- horse responds correctly to the cue almost always and refinement occurs during this stage

• Generalization- horse takes a skill he has learned in one environment and comes to understand that he can perform that skill confidently in any environment (such as at a horse show)

• Maintenance- the “finished” horse will perform reliably in a variety of settings

It sounds to me like your horse is in step two, the fluency stage, and her training has not yet been generalized. Generalization is a stage that is often overlooked in training horses. This can be a very time consuming stage because you’ll have to virtually go back to step one and ask the horse to perform in different settings. Horses that are generalized in their training are referred to as “seasoned” horses; what we in the U.S. refer to as, “been there, done that.”

With your horse, I think you need to just back up a little and haul the horse to some different settings (without a show) and work the horse, so that first she learns to generalize her skills. I do not know if you have horsemanship clinics in your country, but that is a good way to get a horse used to strange places and to teach him that he can act just the same away from home. Then you might haul her to a few small shows, but do not enter her in any classes. Instead, just allow her to get comfortable with her surroundings and maybe do some light work. Eventually you’ll be able to enter her in some classes, but don’t expect much at first. It takes a long time and many shows to truly season a horse.

As always, I recommend that you do a lot of ground work with this horse so that when you are in a new setting, you can do some ground work with her at any time to get her focus back on you. It is always possible that stress can bring on colic, so I would look for ways to minimize the stress. If you can haul her to some shows without the purpose of competing, this will relieve the stress for you and therefore for her. I would not be in favor of “immersing” the horse in the stimuli that causes her fear, but rather desensitize her gradually with small trips and lots of reassurance. Good luck to you and your daughter! Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

www.juliegoodnight.com

Follow-up:

Hi Julie

I wrote to you awhile back regarding a problem with my daughter (Chantelle’s) horse at her first event.

I would just like to inform you that things progressed very well. A few days before boxing her we gave her a homoeopathic remedy called “Echo fear” which relieves stress in animals, we then followed your advise and took her to different events without entering her in any competitions and just let her graze and walk around whilst on a halter. We then entered her in smaller shows. We took her to the venue the day before the event was to take place to allow her to familiarize herself with the area. She now travels to any event without any trouble at all and has been placed 4 times, earned a 1st and a 3rd place. It has not been necessary to give her Echo fear after that first time. She is a lovely and good tempered horse once again. Thank you very much for your good advice.

Kind regards

W. M.

South Africa

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