Suggestions on gaining trust? (Really long post)
I've mentioned this little guy a few times on other posts, and would like opinions/suggestions on a particular issue I have with him, which is his lack of engagement and trust , whether it be with me, anyone else, or other horses. He obviously has issues, which is why this is so long (to give insight).
The other horses are playful, bright eyed and just act like normal horses (they are 6 and 7 years old, he's 2) and will try to play with him, but he just acts annoyed in general and wants no part of it. Occasionally he caves in, but as soon as he seems like he's having a good time (ears prick forward, etc) he shuts down. He will be around them, but he doesn't even seem to really have a place in the "herd". They don't pick on him, or bully him (when they were first put together, they had their pecking order going on and he held his own, but more in a "just leave me alone" way). He's a herd of 1.
He will play by himself. He likes to go swimming in the pond- I mean, out to the middle where his feet can't reach, he just doesn't seem to know how to play with others. If the other horses seem interested in what he's doing, he quits. (They don't approach him in a dominant manner, just a curious manner). He is INCREDIBLY smart, probably the smartest horse I've met. He figures out how things work very quickly- knots, latches, clips, gates, buckles, whatever.
While working him, he is respectful (now). He listens, he pays attention and (at this point) has become willing- but he is extremely standoffish. I am now able to handle all parts of his body- feet, belly, head, ears, tail, even the dreaded sheath- with little or no objection. But, even if I scratch him in "the good spot" (which for him, is under his chin/neck/chest) it's like he locks down and doesn't know how to enjoy it. Kinda like.. He likes it, but it makes him uncomfortable to like it. (Best way I can explain it).
I don't particularly care if he "likes me" (that would be a plus) but what bugs me is that he doesn't seem to enjoy anything, and I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions as to how to get him engaged and learn how to like being a horse and loosen up? (Why so serious?)
About his history and my work with him so far:
He was found as a stray, the sheriff said he knew where he came from and "shouldn't go back to that place". Didn't give any info otherwise. He was very underweight, though not critically so- he wasn't gelded. Vet said he was about a year and a half. The day after he was gelded, I picked him up. He was pushy, but not overly so (no more than a horse without training is). So, I worked on leading and general handling, he quickly learned about not being pushy. The first day he trailered fine (hesitant, but not anything out of the norm), and I got him to back out of the trailer fine with the normal amount of struggle.
His automatic reaction to anything unpleasant was kicking- including water hoses, handling feet (or anything touching his feet), touching anywhere behind his withers, etc. (The vet had sedated him for his gelding and evaluation, but didn't see anything wrong with him aside from being generally underweight and not cared for). I didn't do ground work (aside from leading and handling) for the first 3 months (he needed to improve physically and I had a fractured ankle). Aside from being massively over reactive with his kicking action, he didn't direct it and didn't seem aggressive. He did start off being a little bit aggressive with food, but that was checked early on and didn't have issues being aggressive with food afterward. (I don't put up with that at all)
The first day I worked with him on ground work, I suspected no real problem. There was no real red flags that arose suggesting anything out of the ordinary, aside from the food (which again, was resolved quickly). He only pinned his ears in uncomfortable (to him) situations, but never directed it toward me, and got over those things without any real incident, just time. I knew he wasn't very trusting, but he hadn't displayed anything incredibly bad, so I was more or less just going to evaluate him and see if he knew anything already (which I doubted) and just work on sending and yielding. Nothing to major, right? Short and sweet.
Well, that didn't happen. I tried to send him, he didn't budge. I urged him forward, nothing. I tapped him LIGHTLY (this was a stick he was familiar with, as I had used it before to desensitize his body to touch) and ... Well, he moved, that's for sure!
He started kicking and going bats***. I ignored this, knowing how reactive he was to touch and just wanted him to figure out "forward". Well, he eventually figured out the forward thing, just not how I expected.
He lunged toward me, striking at me with teeth barred, and from that point forward was a whole different ball game. He decided I was the threat. I was not incredibly ready for this, so we went at it until he backed down and moved forward, without rearing, flipping, striking, kicking or charging toward me. Then I stopped, let him rest, and tied him up for the rest of the day til I figured out my game plan. (He was used to being tied, at this point)
Knowing that this particular reaction was something that HAD to be dealt with, we continued working everyday for about a week- and worked for as long as it took to get to a "good point" whether it was half and hour or two hours. My goal was any kind of progress, I wanted a little bit more each day. I also continued working on handling his feet, etc as to establish something he was (by then) comfortable with.
Eventually, I figured out, by working with him and really paying attention, that he is just very insecure, and fearful- it's like he ALWAYS felt trapped and needs to fight, once he figures out there's another out, he takes it, but it's incredibly hard for him to find it, and his natural tendency is to fight.
He doesn't fight anymore. Occasionally he'll "kick out" if I surprise him, but that's few and far inbetween. He's slowly figuring out there is another out aside from fighting, but it's still not his automatic reaction and you you can tell he try's very hard to fight the urge. (Instead of kicking, when he has the urge, he pins his tail and swishes it vigorously. When picking his back feet, I have had to tie his tail up with a rubber band so he does beat my face up, but he's okay with that now).
All around, he's gotten better. Way less tail swishing, way less kicking (no striking, charging or biting) way less ear pinning, etc. knowing that he can explode and will explode, I push him "just this side" of that breaking point whenever I work with him, and we get a little further each time I work with him.
I have gotten to wear I can saddle him, I've laid on him and made him walk in a circle on both sides (not actually sitting, as I want an easy out if he does flip out). He's responsive with ground work, yields well, flexes well, he does fairly well at backing, but he struggles a bit. He does do it, to a certain point and then sticks and gets uncomfortable with it. Each day, I get him to take a couple more steps.
He's turning into a good little horse (still has a way to go) but I just can't hit that "breakthrough" where he really seems to accept things. Not particularly trying to think of him in a humanly way (which I know I have been referring to all along, but that's because I'm human and it's the best way I can describe it) but he seems like there just this giant wall around him, and he's always "just this side" of flipping out. He just doesn't seem to enjoy anything, he just "deals" with it. (By anything, I mean, anything involving any other creature- including human).
Although I trust at this point that he won't attack me (though I'm still careful) I can't trust he wouldn't if pushed too hard too quickly, since you can see fighting is the automatic reaction (and you can really see when he is pushed he tries very hard to "not go there" and not panic, but it's still there.)
Also, I'm hesitant to do any real work under saddle until I can get some kind of eagerness from him. The last thing I want, seeing that he has that propensity to become overwhelmed and possibly blow up easily (even if it hasn't happened in awhile) is to be on his back when that happens. When I did lay over him and make him walk and flex, he showed absolutely no problem with it, so that was encouraging. He was slightly hesitant to move, but seemed okay with the change up of me being on him, rather than on the ground. He didn't act like he was anywhere near blowing up, but I didn't really push it either. Since he was doing so well, I left it at that. Despite his issues, he's actually fairly willing to accept new things. He's definitely NOT spookey, his issues seems to come with anything that appears aggressive to him, but he try's incredibly hard. (And I really think its more panic than aggression as we've progressed and I've worked with him).
Sorry for length! But, I've never seen such a young horse so completely on guard, but I've seen glimpses of what can be a great little horse, and want to try and encourage him to let that side of himself out. I just think that if I can get thru to that, he will be better and more willing all around. I've got the respect, but I'm having a hard time with the trust part, and would like suggestions on breaking through.