14yr old Shy, Spooky, Barely-Broke Baby with trust issues :(
(fair warning: I tend to be long-winded and enjoy sharing details. You can find a summary at the end of this post if you want to just skip to the bottom and get to the point)
Meet Snowball (or as my mother and I lovingly call him, Snowbutt):
He's a 14yr old gelding "made of" Gunner Stock, a locally bred "grade" mix of gaited horses that were specifically bred for handling cows and working with humans. He was gelded around 2yrs of age. At 6, he was used as a bucking horse in a local rodeo. It was a one time thing because his owner (my step-father) needed the money at the time. Since that ONE event, he has never been ridden, never been handled, and never been trusted. He roams out in the 40acre pasture with his other horses.
When my mother introduced me to my step-father, I was immediately drawn to this horse. There's just something about him, and it's not the typical "Oh, girly girl loves the pretty white pony lah-dee-dah!" kind of something. Maybe it's the fact that I've got a soft spot for shy men ;)
Anyways, I'm in the process of getting him "re-acquainted" with riding and being handled. He is so afraid of people that he won't get near them without enticement, which is something I would like to avoid. I've been working with him and loving him, and he's starting to warm up to me, but is still reluctant to get anywhere near anyone else. My family jokes that it is because we match (blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin). When supper time comes around, Snowball is very careful about how he eats and will try to stretch and reach around to avoid being touched by my mother, sister, and step-father. I've managed to get him comfortable with me and he will allow me to scritch behind his ears while he chows down.
Cautious ears, over-stretched neck, and once he got his mouthful of food, he'd pull away quickly and chew it in the corner before venturing for more. Note that I always kept my hands softly closed to prevent my fingers from looking like claws or a fist, and they weren't always on that wire; sometimes they'd be lower, sometimes they'd be in the feed bucket. I just wanted to get him used to the fact that "Oh, hey, there's a hand here."
He's making great progress. Before I started working with him, he would freak out if anyone tried to even bring a halter near him. Now he halters up for me just fine a long as I've "caught" him by just draping the lead over his neck. He'll even stop eating for me to get it on him.
All in all, he's making great progress. I haven't started "really" working on him yet, as I have yet to have a decent amount of time off to focus solely on him. But here he is after our 5th little session Calmer, curious, and caught just before he went to sniff the camera.
Here's the problem:
He spooks at the slightest motion when he is around people. A branch sways in the wind: spook. Step-father waves at a passing neighbor: spook. I reach into my pocket to check the time on my phone: spook. My 7yr old sister runs up to pet one of the other horses: spook (she's been scolded for running at horses plenty of times, but they tolerate her shenanigans pretty well now).
He is very uncomfortable when there are more than two people present, as shown when all 6 of us (step-father and his 2 kids, my mother, sister, and myself) were messing with the horses, getting ready to ride. He sent these very sharp "Get me out of here please!" vibes when they were all around him. They very much crowded him, and while I kept my calm, I could tell he was going to lose it if I didn't get them away. Well, he lost it completely when my step-father raised his arms to shoo away our dog. But despite his freak-out, I kept calm and had a firm hand on the lead. I spoke softly until he settled, and when he had calmed, I lovingly asked if he was finished or if he had more antsy-pants to get out. He walked up to me and sighed, and we took a walk in the pasture to settle his nerves.
I have yet to ride him. He was only green-broke at the time he was used in the rodeo, and he's never been ridden since. He is a tall, strong horse, and my step-father is afraid of him hurting me. My step father has lunged him with a saddle on, but neither of us (the horse and I) are comfortable with that. This is going to sound crazy, but the two of us just...connect...he tells me with his body and his spirit that he isn't comfortable with that. He's not lazy, he just doesn't like it. And that makes me feel as though it would be easier on the both of us if we just saddled him up and slowly worked up to putting weight on him again. I watch him when the others are saddled, and I see him wanting to work. I see him wanting to play. I see him wanting to be loved on like his brother and herdmates. He wants to make us happy, but he doesn't know how and he isn't ready to trust us again. I can't say I blame him...if no one trusted me for 8 or so years, I'm pretty sure I'd be reluctant to let any of them near me too!
So, in short:
*I need some advice on how to help "de-spook" him around people (he's quite brave out in the pasture, but spooks quickly when around people).
*I need tips/ideas/suggestions to getting him used to riding WITHOUT lunging him...we don't have a round pen, and neither of us are comfortable with lunging. We just don't like it, and he says he can do it without it.
I know a lot of his "problems" are with trust, and we're working on building that up. He has gotten used to me being around, and he doesn't mind me fooling with his feet, legs, mouth, ears, and so on (although he bit my step-father for trying to do the same, so I assume there's some favoritism going around). I've even convinced him to lay down and let me look at his stomach to treat a nasty fly bite on his belly. He didn't start freaking out until my step-father walked up to check on us. I imagine poor Snowbutt feels a little betrayed by my step-father for allowing him to be used in that rodeo, then emotionally neglecting him for almost 9 years until this crazy blonde-headed woman decided to say hi to the pretty white pony that no one else would touch.
Anywho, thank you for your time! If you read the entire post; Kudos to you! And if not, I really don't blame you :)
I would look into join-up first, then find a natural horsemanship ground control program that works for you. :)
We've tried joining up, but it's a little difficult without a round pen ^^; he will follow me when he has a lead on, and doesn't try to pull away or stand firm. I can put the end of the rope in my pocket and we can walk for quite a while without any problems and with no signs of boredom from him. I've even taken it off without him noticing and he'll follow me around until he figures it out :P
I will definitely check out some natural ground control programs! :)
He's a gorgeous boy! Didn't read your post thoroughly I'm afraid - don't have much time now & I too tend to... waffle on a bit!
He is so afraid of people that he won't get near them without enticement, which is something I would like to avoid.
Far from avoiding it, I'd use it as a valuable training tool, to help change his association with people from Bad to Good. Learning the principles behind 'clicker training' would help you understand how to use it most effectively.
Sounds like you're doing fine, just need to keep it up. Regarding his behaviour around others, riding, etc, get him trusting of you first before beginning to work on desensitising him to other people. Get him really good on the ground first before contemplating saddling or riding. I'd go in baby steps, as slow as he needs & be ready to go back a few steps if/when you hit setbacks.
Unfortunately, first impressions do count for a lot, without having the experience to put one Bad Thing into perspective & his first experiences sound scary. That will have a bearing on how long it takes & how carefully you have to tread to get him over it, especially since he's had half a lifetime to 'practice' being scared of people to back it up.
I disagree with 'join up', but not with playing/teaching in a smallish yard(it looks like he's in one of those - no law to say it has to be round). See my posts on the 'join up' thread for more details.
I was sitting in a similar boat with my two year old... she was wild and terrified when I got her, and its been quite the journey. It resonated with me when you said Snowbutt spooks at everything when he is around you (or people), but feels very brave out in the pasture with his buddies or by himself.
This is exactly what I have been dealing with, with my filly. She was also terrified of every single thing we encountered together, and it was because she does not have that fundamental trust in humans, that say, a horse would have that was handled well and lovingly since foalness. So out in the field, she felt better and safer, because she trusted her horse friends, and could gauge situations better with their support.
Also, I realised, that in the beginning, while with me, when she spooked, she would go into self preservation mode, and therefore pull away from me and panic. Danger, danger! She didnt look to me for support, as a better adjusted horse would. She didn't even see me as being there at that point. So that is what we worked on... I wanted her to see a situation, and then turn to me for comfort, rather than away from me. Treats really worked for me with this... because the moment a horse chews or licks he relaxes a bit subconsciously... Sometimes, when you cause the body to relax, the mind will follow... and eating is a comforting and relaxing thing.
So for me, what helped was to get her attention on me when confronting something scary, we would go for long walks in hand, and if a scary rock sneaked up on us... we would stop, I would talk about it in a calm grown up voice (not baby-ing or 'shame! Poor horse!' type of tone)... perhaps we would eat a bit of carrot... we would discuss it more... whatever it took... really take our time... if she wanted to drop her head for a nibble of grass, so much the better... then eventually walk past it. It worked very quickly. Soon, if we confront something scary, she would immediately look at me, and I would just have to say something comforting or pat her and she would be fine. Now she can't even be bothered to look at a truck barreling past us, as long as I am there and also not bothered.
I am not a professional, so people might disagree with this method. But I just dissected what I felt my particular horse needed or lacked, and then devised a strategy to confront and overcome it.
Similarly, the join-up worked wonders for her confidence in herself. We did a few sessions and after each one she was a completely different animal, so it worked on so many more levels than just improving the horse's trust in you as the human, it really improves their confidence in themselves. Makes them 'grow up'.
And if you don't have a round pen, any smallish enclosure would do, even if its not round.
And please take it slowly, don't ride a spook prone horse until you are both very comfortable at your groundwork! And lunging for that matter! This will take a lot of time, but it will be worth it, he is a beauty!
So out in the field, she felt better and safer, because she trusted her horse friends, and could gauge situations better with their support.
Agree with your post Muumi, except the bit about 'join up', tho it does depend how it's done. Especially agree with this bit ^^ While if you can't even get within cooee of a scared horse, starting in a smallish area to teach it you're OK to be near, I do like to teach the basics to a horse in as low stress & non confrontational way as possible & that will often be loose in the paddock with their mates.
Agree with your post Muumi, except the bit about 'join up', tho it does depend how it's done.
Ah yes! I forgot to add, that I did the join-up with my trainer, and because he suggested it... He did it the first time round by himself, and then the second session some days later I did under his supervision.
I was amazed at how wonderfully it worked, because I was a bit skeptical, but will have to admit that it worked mainly because I was being coaxed and trained by a professional the whole time, and not because I am a horse-wizard. Because I am not.
I would suggest to the OP if she has no experience with it, but wants to try it, to look up professional help, as it can be very overwhelming and confusing for horse and human to try to figure out, and may not be for everyone.
I have had experience with joining up with 4 different horses, and have no qualms with it or the process. It's quite enjoyable at the end, and is worth the effort. The only thing preventing me from joining up with Snowball is the fact that there are two enclosures on my step-father's land: the fence that goes around the entire 47 acres, and the small 8x8ish "stalls" made from cattle panels that we put the horses in for suppertime (relax, we rarely close them or keep them in these stalls; it's mostly so they don't run over each other and fuss for food). We are working on building a barn, and will hopefully have a round pen set up soon. Aside from lining up tractors and cars to make a new pen, there's just not much I can do on that front. He also remembers the time at the rodeo very well; he pulls away when he sees you're about to lunge him, and does a skippy-buck-hop when my step-father forces him to go in a circle with the whip (which I abhor, I prefer body language and I'm sure Snowbutt agrees). I know that they lunged him with that cinche on, and he is still holding on to that memory. I've never known a horse to hold on to the past so firmly, but Snowbutt just refuses to let it go. I'm hoping to do some formal joining-up when we have a round pen (or at least an enclosure bigger than 8x8!) to teach him that the rope isn't needed and he can trust me to lead him right.
I spend a lot of time with him in his supper-stall, just scratching his withers with my hand shaped like a horse's mouth, rubbing his neck, massaging his back, and scratching his hard to reach spots. I groom him and introduce him to every foreign object (curry comb, pick, halter straps, etc) and he'll sniff it and let me know if he has a problem with it. He's gotten better about getting the halter on. He used to avoid it at all possible costs, which always led to a long conversation about how it's a good thing and isn't to be feared. I started rubbing it against his sides, legs, and eventually his face to show him it wasn't going to attack him. We still have a few issues going "immediately" into the halter, but with a few calm words and a small "not going to geet yoo" rubbing sessions, he'll lower his head right into it without much of a fuss. I will admit, I was very nervous in our first session on account of being stuck in such a small pen with such a spooky horse. But he isn't aggressive, which raised my confidence immensely. He's just scared. He's never charged but once when I opened the gate. I was stupid and stood in front of him with my arms on either "wall" and told him firmly "no." He stopped in an instant and allowed me to settle him and rub him. I told him he was allowed to leave when -I- say it's okay, not when he decides to run off. We've never had a fuss about it since and he now waits for me to leave the pen before he makes his exit.
I am wary of treats because it's so hard to differentiate between a treat and a bribe, and I don't want him to feel like I'm bribing him. I also want to make sure I don't spoil him. One of my cousins lost a chunk of skin because he spoiled his horse and it got nippy and full out bit him when he didn't bring it a treat. But if I do go about giving him treats, what do you guys suggest? Should I get something with similar flavoring to his feed so it's something he is comfortable with, or should we be adventurous and go for apple crips or sweet nuggets? Posted via Mobile Device
Krazinik, I too had a horse like yours only much worse. I say had because he is now a completely different horse and yes, I still have him. I'd run out of ideas, he could be compliant and do Parelli but he was either running on auto-pilot or jumping out of his skin. I was at a loss when I came across Carolyn Resnick's web site. She has a few videos on youtube. Read everything you can about her methods of interacting with horses. You don't need to purchase anything. If you then google Erin's Carolyn Resnick's Notes, Erin has each step listed in the menu which opens up into explanations. This was the breakthrough for my horse. Progress was slow, it can't be rushed but the horse learns to trust. You will spend time with him asking nothing, just sit and read. Don't look at him and allow him to come check you out. Don't reach up to touch him. Do this every day for a week. It seems the more people ignore a horse, the nosier it gets. Don't do anything else with him for now, no grooming, saddling, absolutely nothing. Let me know how it goes if you try it.
I don't have much to add; I'm a huge fan on starting with Join-Up. This way it grows the horse's confidence in himself AND you as the herd member to look to for guidance.
Something to think about: why do you think he's so much more comfortable in the paddock then when he's not? Watch his interaction with the herd. Really study him and get to know all of his minute body language changes. Being observant has helped me, personally, grow to understand what he wants, what he needs, and what you can do to help him transform into the horse he can be and the horse you strive for him to be.
Above all, be patient. Don't think about saddling or riding him until he is the most relaxed, supple horse on the ground.
Good luck to you, I think you're doing a phenomenal thing!