Six Points To Consider Before Using A Calming Supplement

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by Juliet M. Getty Ph.D. | Apr 29, 2015 |

Travel and competition season is upon us, and “show nerves” are common, even in horses. Agitated, nervous horses that are normally well behaved may benefit from a calming supplement. These products can contain vitamins, or minerals, or herbs, or amino acids. So, which to choose and how best to use them? Before making a decision, consider these important points:
•An empty stomach is the main cause for behavioral issues—forage (hay and/or pasture) should be available at all times.
•Magnesium deficiency may be the issue, since most horses don’t get enough of this mineral—if this is true for your horse, supplementing 5,000 mg of magnesium per 500 lbs of body weight will make a positive change in demeanor.
•A borderline B vitamin deficiency will affect behavior and can result when the hindgut microbial population is compromised by stress, high starch diets, illness, or antibiotics. Thiamin (vitamin B1) has been shown to be especially effective at high doses (1 mg per pound of body weight). Prebiotics that feed existing microbes also result in more B vitamin production.
•Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, leads to serotonin synthesis in the brain and can be useful in soothing a nervous horse. For this effect to occur, it is best to offer tryptophan as a paste between meals. When added to a meal, tryptophan will not be used for serotonin production and the calming effect will be significantly diminished
•Caution! Herbs such as chamomile, valerian, black cohosh, ginger root, and passion flower may have an over-tranquilizing effect, interact with other medications, and have side effects. Consult with your veterinarian before using.
•Additional caution to you competitors out there: Always check any supplements for ingredients prohibited by competition rules. Valerian is such an example.

Permission to reprint this article is granted, provided attribution is given to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. No editorial changes may be made without her permission. Dr. Getty appreciates being notified of any publication.

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide American and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com–buy it there and have it inscribed by the author. Or get it at Amazon (www.Amazon.com) or other online retail bookstores. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered Spotlight on Equine Nutrition series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts.

Find a world of useful information for the horseperson at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com: Sign up for Dr. Getty’s informative, free e-newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty directly at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

This spring! On May 2, 2015, hear Dr. Getty address issues in horse nutrition at the Kirkland House Foundation in Delta, British Columbia, sponsored by “Hay…Girl!” For more information on this event, contact Pam Janssen at precioushaygirl@gmail.com or call 604-961-7265.

Avoid An On-Trail Spook

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Your horse sees objects far away much better than those nearby. As a prey animal, he’s programmed to scan the horizon, searching for predators. His brain is also trained to react to quick movements, such blowing branches and strangely moving unidentified objects-even items that you know to be harmless. Until proven otherwise, your horse assumes that an unidentifiable object may kill and eat him, which can lead to nervous, spooky behavior.

Your horse also has difficulty seeing when moving from light to dark and vice versa. While your horse has excellent night vision, his eyes dilate and constrict tremendously to see by both sunlight and starlight. As horses in the wild rely on their vision for survival, compromised vision can lead to a spook.

This in mind, keep your eyes moving and looking far down the trail. Scan the horizon for any object (such as a blowing grocery bag) or potentially scary scene (such as a dark, shaded area), that may cause your horse anxiety and lead to a spook.

By simply looking ahead, you can avoid circumstances that may trigger your nervous horse’s fears. If you can ride proactively toward whatever lies ahead, you may ride right past the threat before your horse acts out with fear.

When you spot a potential problem object or scene, follow these steps:

Step #1: Take charge. Remind your horse that you’re in charge and worthy of following in the case of a crisis. Remind him of your leadership skills and his ability to be obedient.

Step #2: Cue your horse. To establish your leadership, ask for simple, continuous moves, such as stop, go forward, turn, back, etc. Star your series of cues as soon as you see the scary object, before your horse detects it.

Step #3: Keep him focused. As you approach the object, keep your horse focused and his nose pointed directly down the trail; no looking around is allowed. If his nose isn’t pointed straight ahead, he’s thinking about his surroundings and preparing to take off on his own path.

Step #4: Stop and relax. Stop regularly to remind your horse that you’re in control. Let him drop his head, take a deep breath, and relax; then forge ahead. As he relaxes, take a moment to breathe deeply yourself. Your attentiveness and calm disposition will also cue your horse to relax.

Fear Of Tight Trail Obstacle

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Question:
When I have to negotiate around a trail obstacle into tight places with trees and low limbs, my mare gets very nervous. She barges through, and it’s hard to hold back and maneuver through. She’s normally not a spooky horse and is a good trail horse. How can I get her to relax and not get hurt in the process?

Answer:
This is a great question and one that you need to address quickly for your and your horse’s safety.

All horses are naturally claustrophobic to some degree. Their ingrained fear of tight places helps them survive in the wild. They don’t want to be in tight places or any situation they can’t run from quickly.

Therefore, we must train our horses to accept tight places and to trust us to decide where it’s safe for them to be.

A Natural Fear
You can see horses with the worst cases of claustrophobia panic in horse trailers. If a horse is truly claustrophobic, he may load into the trailer easily, then become alarmed and try to crawl out through any opening (emergency escapes, windows, etc.).

You may also see horses with this fear rush through gates or speed through their stall entrances. Panic takes over, and they suddenly have no ground manners. If they’re allowed to rush through consistently, their fear leads to dangerous behavior.

Keep in mind that there’s a broad range of reactions to being in tight places. Some horses may be fearful but quickly get used to tight areas, while others may become extremely panicked in any tight area.

If your mare is panicky or rushing anywhere besides your tricky trail scene, she may take longer to train — the fear may have become more of a learned reaction. If she’s only having trouble on the trail, your training plan shouldn’t take too long.

For either situation, the training process is the same.

Correct Disobedience
Think of your mare’s problem as a disobedience problem, as well as a claustrophobic issue. She might be fearful, but if you coddle her and try to relax her instead of correcting her disobedience, you won’t help the problem.

Your mare should move at the speed and in the direction you choose at all times. When she’s rushing through, she’s making her own decisions and not listening for your cues.

You need to address this behavior. It’s dangerous for your mare to speed through tight places or areas with tricky footing.

If I came to a tight space on a trail and didn’t trust the horse I was riding to listen and go slowly, I’d probably choose to dismount and lead the horse through. I don’t want to risk hurting my knees or hitting my head if the horse rushes through while I’m on horseback.

However, being on the ground isn’t always a safe place to be, either. If you lead your mare, stay to the side and well out of her way, in case she panics. You don’t want her to run over you.

Before you ride your mare through that tricky patch of trail again, schedule some training sessions at home to avoid any unsafe moves.

From the Ground
To work on this disobedience problem, you’ll first work from the ground to help build your mare’s confidence and remind her that you’re present and in charge.

Look for tight obstacles around your barnyard, or create some of your own. You may pile brush close together. Here at my ranch, I like to lead young horses in and around the pines that grow around our barn.

If you’re close to a trail, lead your mare around the natural obstacles you’re having trouble with.

Before you begin: Outfit your mare in a rope halter and long training lead.
Step 1. Approach the obstacle. Walk your mare up to the tight opening, and stop. Make her stand. When she stands still, pet on her, and tell her she’s a good girl. Move forward toward the obstacle one step at a time. Stop and praise her at every stage.
Step 2. Correct her. When your mare’s shoulders reach the tightest spot, she might become worried and get ready to rush through. This is the critical moment. If she rushes through without you prompting her for a step, say “whoa,” and correct her by snapping the lead rope and backing her up.
Step 3. Regain your authority. Use enough pressure to stop your mare in her tracks. You don’t want to apply so much pressure that you start a fight. However, you need to regain your authority, stop her rushing behavior, and let her know she must obey, go at your pace, and walk through the tight space one step at a time on your command. Under no circumstances can she rush through without your permission.
Step 4. Practice. Practice around your barnyard or local trails every day until your mare seems calmer and is obeying. You may only work from the ground 10 to 15 minutes a day or until she walks through the tight space, one step at a time, without rushing.
Step 5. Invest in the training. If you can’t work every day, practice at least twice a week — and don’t ride your mare through tight spaces until your training feels improved. You need to invest in the training to correct the problem. Just going out on the trail and trying it again probably won’t work.

From the Saddle
When you’re ready, ask a friend to take a training ride with you. Make sure your buddy knows that you may need to stop and work your mare from the ground, and make sure you both have time to work as you go.

A few safety notes: At first, choose a tight obstacle that isn’t as demanding or unsafe as where the problem began. Make sure you have ample room to back up and room to move through on either side of the obstacle.

When you progress to riding with a group, make sure the leaders know to stop and wait for you to get through any tight areas before moving the whole herd down the trail.

Before you begin: Outfit your mare with a rope halter and training lead; have your trail tack at hand.

Step 1. Walk her. Walk your mare through the tough spots.
Step 2. Tack up. Tack up your mare in your usual trail-riding gear, applying the bridle over the halter. Attach the training lead, coil the extra length, and tie the coil to your saddle’s front latigos. Then, if you need to lead your mare, you can use the halter and lead, rather than the bridle, for safety.
Step 3. Mount up. Mount up, and walk your mare in the open to warm her up and relax her.
Step 3. Approach the obstacle. Head toward the first obstacle, and repeat the procedure you followed from the ground. That is, walk your mare to the tight place, then stop. Praise her for standing still. Take one step, stop, and praise.
Step 4. Correct her. Keep walking through one step at a time. If your mare rushes, correct her, and back her up.

For more information, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, available from HorseBooksEtc.com. Also, watch the Horse Master,television show, which airs Monday and Saturday nights on RFD-TV. Check your local listings.

Leg-Sensitive Horse

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Leg-sensitive Horse
Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have been given a 12 year old gelding that I am very much attached to and enjoy riding. The problem is that he has had some past abuse issues and under saddle he is a nervous wreck. On a trail ride, he will mainly jig the whole ride, like he wants to run. However, he is not a ‘hot’ horse by nature. It seems he has been “trained” or it seems more like abused to the point of acting this way. We have come a long way in respects to ground manners (he is now an angel when it comes to handling) and even have some progress under saddle, as he is not bolting anymore. He is highly sensitive to leg pressure (actually, he is highly sensitive to everything), to the point that I only ride with my weight because leg pressure sends him shooting off into a tizzy. However, when I am on the ground with him and I put pressure on his side with my hands (to ask him to step sideways or move over), I get zero reaction. I would like to teach him to yield to my legs and bend, eventually going into side passing and pivots. I would also like to teach him to go on the bit rather than behind it. (His old bolting habit was to go behind the bit and run.) So far, asking him with my seat and legs down into the bit has not worked. In fact, this results in a hyper, hopping mess of a nervous horse. I ride in a loose ring snaffle and I really stay off his mouth when I ride (Western horse, light to no contact). He is not very responsive to this bit and responds better to weight in respects to stopping when working in an arena. (He responds to the tiniest half-halt) On trail, I have to haul on him to stop him much of the time. I need suggestions as to what I should do next? I am continually working on relaxation under saddle using half halts. Also, how do I teach a calm-down cue under saddle?

Thanks so much for some advice!

Answer: There are quite a few questions here, but I’ll give it a crack to try and suggest some solutions to your problems. First, I should say that it sounds like you have made a lot of progress with this horse, so you should feel good about that and continue on whatever path you have been on to this point. Secondly, let me say that I learned a long time ago that it’s very difficult to make a diagnosis and recommendations on horses when I am not actually seeing your horse’s behavior. I have always found that the rider’s interpretation of what is happening and what he or she is actually doing is not always the same as what I might observe if I were there in person. But what I’ll do is answer your question in terms of what I most commonly see when people are dealing with issues such as you describe.

First, I’ll address the jigging on the trail. Most often, when your horse jigs, the rider picks up on the reins to make him stop, but then does not release the reins (or only releases minutely) the instance your horse walks. And/or the rider does not trust your horse to walk and so keeps hold of the reins and pretty soon your horse is jigging because he is anxious about his mouth because the rider is holding the reins too tight. Also, in anticipation of the jig, the rider is typically perched forward in a tense position, with her center of gravity in front of your horse and your horse associates this position with trotting. At this point, it’s a chicken or egg scenario and the rider thinks she is holding the reins tight because your horse is jigging and your horse thinks he is jigging because the rider is holding the reins too tight.

The solution that I have always had success with is to pick up high on the reins (sitting back on your pockets at the same time) when he breaks into the trot, and the instant your horse walks, drop your hands dramatically to your horse’s neck with a very loose rein, your hands actually laying on your horse’s neck so he can feel them. He may only walk a step or two before he trots again, then pick up and release dramatically (the rein drop has to be very dramatic so that your horse notices). Soon he will associate walking with a totally loose rein and that is what he wants (that is what any horse wants). Also, it really helps to concentrate on the walk rhythm and really sit down on him hard and make sure you’re not tensing in your seat in anticipation of your horse breaking into trot. Often in this situation, people tense in their seat thinking that your horse is going to break into trot and pretty soon, your horse thinks he is supposed to be trotting because he feels the rider’s weight shifting forward. So make sure you’re sitting well back on your seat bones with loose and relaxed joints. Trust your horse to walk on a loose rein. If you feel him tense up like he might trot, just sit relaxed. Do not correct him unless he actually breaks into a trot. That way he learns to trust you too and he learns that he is only corrected if he actually trots. Don’t get sucked into the vicious cycle of you pulling all the time and him jigging all the time.

Your horse sounds very sensitive. Another way of describing a “hot blooded” horse is one that is highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. That means ALL stimuli (sight, sounds, smells, touch, weather, movements, etc.). With horses that are sensitive to leg pressure, the temptation is to always brace your leg out away from their sides to keep your leg off them. This is the worst thing that you can do for two reasons. One, when you do use your leg, it feels like a real jolt to him (it requires a big movement of the leg). Secondly, when you brace your leg it causes you to tense and that leads to jerky motions on your part, which will make a sensitive horse reactive to the leg. Keep your legs relaxed and soft and always in close contact to your horse’s sides. This will not only help desensitize him to leg contact but also remove the shock factor that happens when the leg is held off his sides. Again, make sure that you’re sitting well back on your horse and not perching forward in anticipation of his forward movement. This is very common but the result is that your horse wants to move more forward when your weight is forward, in an effort to get back under your center of gravity. So sit back on your pockets and down on your horse’s back and keep your legs relaxed and close to his sides.

If your horse is going behind the bit, it’s likely related to all the other problems and stems from your horse being pulled on too much. Forward or sensitive horses fall into this trap easily. Because the riders are less than confident on them, they tend to sit tense (forward) and clutch on the reins. Which increases your horse’s anxiety (from the pressure on his mouth) and the tense position makes your horse want to move more forward. Horses are herd animals and as such, when their rider is tense, they will tense. Herd animals are programmed to act like the animals around them. So, before your horse can learn to respond properly to the bit, he needs to learn to trust the rider and work on a loose rein (way loose). I would spend a lot of time with this horse working him on a loose rein with a low and level frame. Once he works steady and calm in this frame, only then would I ask him to come up onto the bit, with the lightest amount of contact possible. Contact is contact, whether it’s one ounce or ten pounds in your hands. A very sensitive horse will likely only tolerate very light contact. I might try riding your horse in a rope halter, a bosal or a bitless bridle at first to get him to relax and accept contact without pressure on his mouth. When you’re ready to ride on contact with a bit, you may want to try a fixed ring snaffle, such as a D-ring, egg-butt or full cheek. These bits make it a little easier for your horse to balance on the contact than a loose ring snaffle does.

For a calm-down cue with hot horses, I like to use two techniques. First teach your horse to lower his head on command both from the ground and mounted. A horse has to relax when his head is down low. There are many techniques for doing this. Light pressure on the poll will teach your horse to drop his head from the ground (be sure to release the pressure at the first hint of a drop). The rope halter is an especially useful tool for teaching a horse to drop his head. The first few inches of head-drop may be tough to get but after that he will make big drops all the way to the ground. Be sure to release the pressure immediately and lavish praise on your horse when he drops so that he becomes addicted to this calm state. Once your horse learns this from the ground, it’s much easier to do it from the saddle. Teach him a rein cue for a head drop. Lift up lightly on one rein (make sure the other rein is totally loose) and wait until your horse drops his head slightly to release. Be sure to drop your hand as he drops his head so that he does not hit the bit and punish himself for dropping his head. Then go through the same process of release and reward so that he learns to drop it all the way.

The second calm down cue would be the one-rein stop and disengagement of the hindquarters. Disengagement happens when your horse crosses his hind legs and all forward motion ceases. Disengagement takes away your horse’s flight response and therefore puts him in a submissive and calm state of mind (even if only for a moment). To do this, lift the rein up toward your opposite shoulder so that it’s an upward, diagonal pull (it’s essential the other rein is loose). Pull slowly and softly, this is not intended to be a harsh or quick movement. Hold the rein up until you feel his hindquarters disengage and then drop the rein all the way down to your horse’s neck and he should stop. If not, repeat. So every time your horse gets squirrelly, pick up on the one rein until your horse disengages and stops. Soon, your horse will begin to slow and relax when you just begin to lift one rein. The one rein stop is far superior to pulling on both reins, which causes your horse to stiffen his neck and jaw and lean into the pressure.

It’s sad but true that many horses that have been trained using brutal and relentless training methods, have terrible emotional baggage when being ridden. Even if those techniques are no longer used. Imagine what it’s like for a horse to be constantly criticized and tortured with inhumane apparatus, day in and day out. He will learn to do what he needs to do in order to survive this treatment, but he will be emotionally scared, possibly for the rest of his life. Be understanding and patient and try to make his training as drastically different as you can, using as little in the way of artificial aids as possible. Consider some of these ideas and they may help you make even more dramatic progress with your horse. Good luck and let me know how it goes!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Issues From The Saddle: Nervous Horse On Trail

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there is a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary. Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it is a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.

Thank you,
Carol

Answer: Carol,

As always, it is difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 As a third party observer in person, I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you.

Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him.

When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to the horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to the horse.

Your horse gains courage on the ground because you are there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you are on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you are on the ground YOU are more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion). Conversely, when you are on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness.

It is amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not.

We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla (the trainer that works with me and runs my office) and me, he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect the horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does. However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) the horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting the horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident.

Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching the horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as the horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, the horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground.

It is physiologically impossible for the horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once the horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you are describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting the horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse.

Teaching the horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it is much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as the horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until the horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make the horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to the horse’s fear when he becomes spooky.

When your horse feels spooky to you, put him to work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you from worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you are replacing the unwanted behavior with something else.

Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&As on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with the horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance.

Good luck and be careful.

Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Saddle: Fear Of Riding And Inappropriate Horses

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie,

I first saw you in 2005 at the Louisville Equine Affaire. You were awesome, and you were so right about fear management, your seminars are packed yet nobody ever talks about the issue of fear!! Here’s my situation – I am somewhat of a nervous, timid rider. Every time, and I can’t tell you how sincerely I mean this, EVERY TIME I get on the horse, it is an accomplishment for me. That is how I view it.

I bought a well-trained, well broke paint horse 4 years ago, when he was 15 years old. He’s a real cutie, but boy does he have my number. I regularly work with trainers to help me be the leader for my horse, because I know that this is not my strong point. Here’s what happened – I hopped on today and went outside to the outdoor arena to putz around before picking up a trot. Before I knew what was happening my horse rolled – I rolled out of the way and was not hurt, but boy did it scare me. Is this common? I was having trouble getting him to stand still while I was mounting – was the rolling his way of telling me he didn’t want me to ride him?

Here are the emotions I am feeling – fear, anger, hurt feelings (yes, believe it or not I am trying not to take this personally, but I can’t help wondering whether he did this because he didn’t want to be ridden). I have had trouble with him lately in the cross tie putting his ears back when I approach with the saddle. He does not try to nip but gets a sour puss face and wrinkles his nose. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to get him to stand still when I mount. I do give him treats before I ride, but only in his bucket in his stall. Thank you for any help you can give me. I don’t want this to happen again. It’s never happened before. Is this a behavior problem?

Christine

Answer: Christine,
I commend you for your courage and also for getting a mature, well-trained horse to help you gain confidence. Far too often, people that are dealing with fear issues are also riding totally inappropriate horses: too young, too green, ill-tempered or with other training issues. The horse is a very important part of building your confidence.

It sounds like your horse is a pretty good guy and the issues you describe are minor. All horses, no matter how wonderful they are, need leadership, guidance and discipline from their owner or rider. They need you to be a leader and they are very adept at discerning your leadership skills. There is never a void of leadership in the herd and at any time that you fail to show your self as the competent captain of the ship, the seeds of mutiny are planted. When you are dealing with a fear issue, it is easy for the horse to pick up on your uncertainty and therefore hard for him to view you as the leader.

The best way to maintain your authority over the horse is through ground work, where you control his actions and move him out of your space, and by being aware of your actions and the horse’s reactions at all times, from the ground and from the saddle. We often allow small erosions to our authority over the horse with little things like not correcting him when he moves into you, letting him walk off without a cue when you mount, letting him cut the corners of the arena or slow down or speed up, unauthorized by you. You must be thorough and always follow thorough on what you have asked your horse to do, no matter how small a thing it is.

As for the rolling, this is not uncommon and usually not too big a deal. The horse is not rolling because he doesn’t want you to ride him, although that can become a learned behavior (if your horse rolls and then you put him away and don’t get back on). It is not too big a deal because when the horse goes down, he goes down slowly, giving you plenty of time to slip your feet out of the stirrups, stand up and step off. Usually what makes a horse roll is an itchy back, sweating, after a light rain shower or when he comes upon a particularly choice rolling spot that is irresistible. Most horses will try it at some time or another and when they do, they should be spanked, kicked and yelled at until you get them moving. Then you might want to trot a little, so he associates his actions with having to work harder. A horse will usually give you warning that he is abut to roll by pawing or gathering his legs up underneath him; when you feel him do this, get after him right away and move him off.

Your horse pinning his ears when you saddle is also not too big a deal, as long as he doesn’t gesture like he is going to bite you or break some other rule like moving when you told him to stand still. If he does break a rule, correct him. If he is just expressing his emotion (ears back and wrinkled nose), ignore it. You can’t punish him for having an emotion. Of course, you want to make sure your saddle fits him well and that he is not anxious over being saddled because of pain or a sore back.

The horse not standing still for mounting is more of a problem and it indicates that your horse is willfully disobedient and does not respect your authority. You need to work through this issue from the ground, by going back to lead line work and getting control over your horse’s feet. He needs to know that you mean what you say when you ask him to stand still. This is covered in detail in my groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership and there are some Q&As on my website about retraining a horse to stand for mounting.

The fact that you are taking your horse’s behaviors personally and having your feelings hurt is more of a concern to me. I think you know that you are being very anthropomorphic (instilling human characteristics in an animal) and that is dangerous territory with horses. He is a horse and he is acting like a horse; he is not trying to get back at you or hurt your feelings. By taking things personally, you are not able to be an effective leader and you are not controlling your own emotions. Horses are very emotional animals and they will mirror the emotions of the animals around them, so it is imperative that you remain cool, calm and objective. Don’t ever get sucked into a horse’s emotion and don’t give the horse more credit than he deserves. He is just a horse, not a human, and he doesn’t have the complicated mixed emotions that come with human relationships.

You have come a long way and you can become the leader that your horse needs you to be. Review the article on my website about coping with a fear of horses again as a reminder of how to control your emotions. Continue your work with trainers and keep investing lots of time doing ground work. With persistence, you can work through these issues and your horse will give it up.

Good luck!

JG

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