Grieving The Loss

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

A grieving horse may constantly look for his missing friend—checking out the empty stall and waiting for a return that won’t come. When horses realize another won’t return, dynamics within the herd can quickly change.

Dear Julie,
My 8-year-old Thoroughbred gelding just lost his favorite buddy and is having a tough time adjusting. My older horse died after a long bout with Cushings Disease. They had been together most of the Thoroughbred’s life and my gelding saw the older horse as a mentor. If his buddy didn’t panic, he knew it was OK to relax. When I realized my older horse wasn’t doing well, I purchased another buddy to add to the group—so my gelding would never be alone. The Shetland mare is quiet and well behaved and entered the herd very easily.
When it was time to put my older horse to sleep, a friend told me to allow my gelding to see the body—that he’d understand that his friend wasn’t returning. He galloped off wildly and screamed. After about five minutes he settled down and started to eat. The next morning he seemed like he was looking around to see if his buddy was around the barnyard. He was calm until he heard a noise, then he’d rush to the door to see if his buddy was there.
All seemed well, but then my gelding started exhibiting very strange and dangerous behavior. Before his buddy died he was quiet well mannered but now he’s very excitable and aggressive. He charges around the paddock to disrupt his buddy and runs close to the fencing. I’m worried he might hurt himself or the mare. In the stable, he shakes his head and bares his teeth when I go to get him. He’s pushy when I halter or lead him and it’s making me nervous to be around him. Its as if he’s insecure. How do I get my calm and polite horse back?
Sincerely,
So Sad
____
Dear So Sad,
First, let me share my condolences for the loss of your older horse. I have no doubt but that horses go through a grieving process when one of their herd mates dies. Whenever I have put a horse down or had one die, it always caused an uproar in the herd and sometimes the closest buddies are visibly depressed for a few days. However, I do not think that this aggressive behavior he’s showing is directly related to grieving. The snaking (head tossing) and baring teeth is strictly dominance related behavior. It may be that his buddy was dominant and kept him in line and now that his buddy is gone, he is thinking he is an alpha horse.
No matter why your horse is exhibiting poor behavior, it’s time to do some serious groundwork to establish your authority and regain control. Your gelding is doing his best to find out if he can be dominant in the herd and with you (when you’re in the stable). He needs to relearn his manners and respect. I would do this first with round pen work and then with some lead line work (see Julie’s Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership DVDs at www.juliegoodnight.com.products.html). To establish dominance and respect from a horse, you need to control his space and control the resources (food). Controlling space is most easily done in the round pen by driving the horse away from you and controlling his direction and speed. Controlling the resources means that he is not “taking away” food from you. Wait until he is calm and respectable before you hand over his feed. With the lead line work I would be making sure the horse leads in a responsive and respectful manner (not getting in front of you and not lagging behind). I would also make sure I could back him up and drive him in a circle around me. And make sure he will stand still as a statue when you ask him to (ask him by saying “whoa” and turning to face him). If you are uncertain, you find a trainer to help you. The behaviors that you describe are dangerous and may need a more confident person to handle.
Training issues aside, let’s also look at the behaviors your horse exhibited after the loss of his older pal. I’ve often seen horses become anxious when a herd member disappears. They’ll run around, dodging here and there as if they feel like they should be going somewhere but don’t know where. It’s similar to what horses in a pasture will do when they see a horse trailer come or go, like they know a horse may be coming or leaving and it is exciting and/or disruptive to the herd. It seems like they are looking and waiting for the horse to come back; maybe he’s just around the corner and will pop out at any moment.
I had one mare that was very attached to a gelding I had to put down. We intended to bury him in the pasture, so laid him down out there. She stood over him all day and was visibly upset: calling, nervous, worried. After we buried the gelding, she still stood in that spot and wouldn’t come up for meals or move with the other horses when they moved around. After a few days, she became active in the herd again and went on with her life.
Some horses show emotions much longer than others. You’ll know your horse is sad or depressed when you see a dull look in his eyes, if he doesn’t eat, if he’s distracted when he does eat (eats a few bites, then wanders off like they are looking for something), if he lacks interest in other horses, or if he looks or turns away when you or another horse approaches.
The dominant and disruptive behavior is most likely a result of changes in the herd. Check out last month’s column “Settling in” for more advice about how to help your horses learn their places in the herd. Your gelding’s head tossing is known as “snaking.” It is an aggressive behavior used in the wild by stallions and dominant mares to herd or drive other horses into submission. The dominant horse in the herd will often use this gesture, where he or she drops her head down, snakes her nose out and sometimes bares the teeth. This is normal behavior, although it is an aggressive behavior. A properly trained horse should never act this way around people or once it is haltered and is under your control and authority.

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Safety Concerns: Rearing Causes Death Of Rider

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Dear Julie

My cousin, who hadn’t been around horses much, bought a used 20yr. old Tennessee Walker, supposedly a calm, old gelding. My other cousin, who’s been around horses and was in 4H said he’d been starting to lift his front feet. Supposedly she and a friend were coming up a slight hill when he reared and she fell off and broke her neck, instantly killing her. Horses are big animals and not warm and fuzzy friendly, I love you like a dog pets. I believe there was a combination of factors: inexperience, lack of paying attention, and the wrong breed. I’ve seen footage of Tennessees moving and they do lift their front legs very high…Yeesh. I’d’ve never bought one.

My husband says he would’ve stayed on, but would never have let me ride him. How do you stay on a rearing horse, like Roy Rogers and Trigger? Can you train a horse not to rear?

The people who sold him to her said he was, of course well mannered. How can you tell? The first 2 horses she had were Arabians and she had to give them to my other cousin. They were high strung.

I realize there’s risk in just driving, but at least I’ve taken lessons. I saw your clinic in 2003 at the Equine affaire in Columbus, Ohio, and told you you’d shown me more in 1/2 an hour than I’d learned in 4 years. You had.

But I still feel she was taken by the used horse dealer, if you know what I mean. How do you keep from being taken, how do you stay on or prevent a rearing? And is it true that some breeds really are patient and pretty unspookable? All the breeders say theirs is the best and most ‘versatile’.
Sorry for the long letter. Thanks for your precious time. I wish I could afford to take lessons from you.

God Bless,
Julia Grauel, Cleveland Ohio

Answer: Julia,

What a tragic story and I am sorry for the loss your family has suffered. Rearing is indeed one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses. When left on their own, horses will rarely turn over on themselves, but when a human interferes, it is very easy for the horse to lose his balance and fall over, and that is what makes rearing so dangerous.

When a horse rears, you should instantly reach forward with both arms and grab around his neck like you are hugging him. This will keep your weight forward, keep you balanced on the horse and prevent you from pulling back on the reins and causing him to lose his balance. Some horses seem to have more tendencies to rear than others but it is an individual tendency not a breed characteristic. It has a lot to do with how they have been trained, their temperament and their general inclination (just like some horses tend to buck more than others, some tend to kick more than others, etc.).

There are several Q&As on my website about rearing. Basically it is caused by a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Fear, pain, obstinance or poor riding can instigate rearing. Who knows what caused your cousin’s horse to rear; we’ll never know the answer to that. But she probably did not have the riding skill necessary to be riding this horse. Horses can certainly be trained not to rear, just as easily as they can be trained to rear. The solution to rearing is always to move the horse forward; it is ineffective and cruel to hit the horse in the head for rearing, which a lot of old-timers will tell you to do.

I don’t think anyone should blame this tragic incident on a breed. Within any breed, you can find individuals that are prone to rear. While it is certainly true that some breeds are calmer, more docile and cold-blooded (insensitive) than others, you’ll always find horses with both good and bad qualities within each breed. Tennessee Walkers do tend to be on the hot-blooded side but there are many TWs used for trail riding with a great deal of success.

The only way to truly evaluate a horse’s training and temperament before purchasing is to be around him and ride him in several different settings. I always encourage people to look at a horse at least three times before purchasing and at least one of those visits should be unannounced, so that you can see the horse in it’s normal state. You should work with the horse on the ground, groom him, handle his feet, trailer load, etc. You should ride him in the arena and on the trail and in any situation that you might be subjecting him to, such as working cattle. Ideally, you should buy a horse on a two-week trial period, but the seller is not always willing to do that. Another idea would be to have an experienced trainer look at the horse and give you his/her impressions. Usually you can pay their normal lesson fee and get them to go check out the horse and ride him. A person that has had experience with hundreds of horses can generally get a pretty good feel for a horse in one session.

Seeing a horrible accident like this and losing a loved one can certainly lead to emotional trauma. It would be perfectly normal for someone who has witnessed such a thing to develop a fear of horses and riding. There is an article on my website called “Coping with a Fear of Horses,” that may be helpful for you or anyone else that has been traumatized by this incident.

Again, I am so sorry for your loss. Riding is certainly a risky sport but I fully believe that having a safe horse, good riding skills and taking all safety precautions, such as wearing a helmet, will help prevent terrible incidents such as this.

Kindest regards,
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.