Can an old horse learn new tricks? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 5 Old 10-04-2013, 10:20 PM Thread Starter
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Can an old horse learn new tricks?

First off a little background about my horse. Indy is a 21 year old dutch warmblood. He was imported from Europe when he was younger, and lived mostly at big show barns doing hunter shows. When he was about 15, he was sold to a middle aged woman who had little horse experience. After a horrible year with him, in which he walked all over her, bucked her off constantly, and was just an overall terror, he was sold into the lesson program of the barn I was at. He was perfect there for about 6 months (long enough for a 14 year old me to fall head over heals for the fancy boy!) before he had a mental breakdown and completely refused to continue jumping. He stayed in their program, but was barely used for lessons and pretty much became my play horse because no one else wanted to ride a horse that wouldn't jump. For the next 4 years he stayed there, barely being used in lessons and gained about 300 lb. I messed around with him as much as I could between my lessons and working, but he certainly didn't get the attention or work that he needed.

In 2011 I left the barn due to a bunch of drama. I was unhappy and since I still had friends there, I learned that Indy was being left in his stall (a 12x12) for 2 weeks at a time, never being actually worked with, and was still gaining weight. I was able to convince my parents to buy him for my senior project in school, and our true adventures started there. In 6 months he had lost all the weight he had gained (my vet said he had developed a metabolic issue and pointed me towards some helpful supplements) He was jumping again for the first time in 4 years, and was going on trail for the first time in his life. We even rode in my town's fourth of July parade (oh did I mention he used to be afraid of his own shadow?)

So that brings me to now. Indy does everything I could dream of in the saddle, but when I try to teach him tricks or anything out of the ordinary, he doesn't seem to understand it at all. I don't think he was ever worked with on the ground until I got him, and he is definitely a senior horse. I decided I wanted to attempt bitless riding, but quickly learned he doesn't respond at all to voice commands, which is pretty import to make him stop! The past few days I have been attempting to teach him that Halt means to stop. Woah has always meant slow down for us, since I use it while jumping. I work with him in a round pen, and have been working on walk to halt transitions, but after working on it for a week I don't feel that he has progressed at all. In order to get him to halt I have to practically move in front of him, and even then he acts like he has just shut his brain off. It has been that way with every trick I have tried to teach him. If treats are involved he is even worse, since all he focuses on is getting the treat.

My trainer told me he may be too old to learn something like that since it was not something instilled in him during his younger years. After so many years of just sitting as an unused school horse, I kinda think if she is right. Does anyone have any suggestions about how to train voice commands, or even how to work on bitless riding without voice commands. I haven't even started to think about how to approach bitless riding once the voice commands are down. Thanks for any advice!
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post #2 of 5 Old 10-05-2013, 08:49 AM
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People often overuse "whoa". Whoa should mean stop moving your feet, now, not when the horse decides. This is something you must be consistent with both on the ground and on his back. Try "easy" when asking him to ease up. Regarding bitless bridles. If you are referring to a Dr. Cook or Nurtural, or similar, I've seen horses bull-doze thro them especially when they figure out to raise the nose. Stick with your bit, it's what he's familiar with.
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post #3 of 5 Old 10-10-2013, 01:24 PM
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never too old to learn
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post #4 of 5 Old 10-11-2013, 11:56 AM
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Do you mean bitless or bridleless riding? It sounds like lots of basic ground work is needed. I have never attempted bridleless but I want my horse to work on a loose rein and take cues from my seat and legs and as little pressure from the use of rein as possible. I have seen riders also use a neck rope as a rein when riding without a bridle. I think you have a lot of work ahead before you get to this point.
Others are going to give you lots of tips. I just want to say I think he is a lucky horse to have you! Trail riding and a parade? Cool! How nice after all those years in a barn and arena.

If you ever find yourself in a fair fight, it's because your tactics suck. ~ Marine 1SGT J. Reifinger
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post #5 of 5 Old 10-17-2013, 04:52 AM
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Hi, Firstly, in answer to your main question, yes, absolutely. Old horses(& dogs... even people... even your trainer probably could!) can definitely learn new stuff. Just that new 'tricks' may entail 'unlearning' previously learned behaviours & attitudes, which can make it harder, depending on the situation. Eg in this case it may be that previous 'lessons' have caused him to 'shut down' mentally or otherwise get too stressed when confused.

Originally Posted by InDisguise View Post
before he had a mental breakdown and completely refused to continue jumping.
Poor boy! Glad you got him out of that bad situation! Of course, it may have been a purely behavioural thing, perhaps that he just got 'sour' having to teach people to jump, but this sort of thing is very frequently due to physical problems - pain. I would consider this carefully, especially at his age & with his previous management, and rule out/treat any physical problems or don't jump him. His 'metabolic issues' due to being overfed & underexercised, for eg could be at the root of it, as in mild laminitis.

but when I try to teach him tricks or anything out of the ordinary, he doesn't seem to understand it at all.
What & how exactly are you trying to teach him?

I decided I wanted to attempt bitless riding, but quickly learned he doesn't respond at all to voice commands, which is pretty import to make him stop! The past few days I have been attempting to teach him that Halt means to stop.
If you want to ride with only voice cues, he needs to have reliably learned that well before you want to go testing it out! But not that I'm sure you mean just bitless or without any headgear either. By the sound of it and the questions that you're asking, there is a LOT of basic communication you two need to learn between eachother before I'd dream of getting on a horse without any means of control aside from voice - think of that as your Doctorate degree, whereas it sounds like you're barely into primary school with him.

If he's already well trained in basic yielding & you want to teach him voice cues, I'd be just pairing the verbal cues you want to teach him(or halter rein cues, seat cues, etc) with the regular ones he already knows well, to form the association with the behaviour, to begin with. Once you think the horse has made the link, then you can start giving the verbal cue first & backing up with the rein cue if/when needed. Pretty soon he'll respond to the first cue to avoid the pressure from the rein/leg. You can do the same sort of thing with anything new. Eg. if you want to ride him in a halter, I'd put a bridle over the halter, reins on each, but only use the bit reins to back up other cues.

In order to get him to halt I have to practically move in front of him, and even then he acts like he has just shut his brain off.
If he is so uneducated on the ground, then I would be starting at the very start there, teaching him basic yielding to begin with. If he's never been taught anything on the ground, the same cues from the saddle won't necessarily transfer either - horses aren't good at generalising. Setting up the situation to make the desireable behaviour as easy as possible for him to do. Eg. getting in front of him is a clear, 'easy' message that he must stop. The normal way however, of asking for a slow/stop on lead, which he very likely understands is to just put some backward pressure on the lead to get him to stop. Without knowing how you're goiing about it, can't really offer specifics.
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bitless riding , dutch warmblood , senior horse , tricks , voice commands

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