Where to start in groundwork with spooky, buddy sour 9YO OTTB?
I've had my 9YO OTTB gelding for 2 1/2 years. He came to me in bad shape, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. I don't know all of his background, but do know that he was pulled from a stall full of manure at a "facility" that was "training" horses to run on the Mexican bush tracks around Chicago. He was a rack of bones with an old bowed tendon. And his right ear was raw and hairless from suspected ear twitching.
He is now in good physical health and weight. I've had him worked on by a good equine chiro, dentist, farrier, vet, etc. I've also addressed saddle fit to be sure that his tack has continued to fit as he gained weight and muscle. He lives out 24/7 on 5 acres with my son's pony and another gelding. Has access to a round bale of good hay and a nice run in. I also go out daily to feed him a meal of beet pulp, ration balancer, and fat supplement
So here's the issue. He really doesn't have any self-confidence. He loves to work, but introducing anything new is very nerve wracking for him and myself. Sometimes he takes new things in stride without any issues. But other times he has explosive responses of shying, spooking, bucking, bolting, kicking out, rearing, tooth grinding, etc. These responses are way worse outside the arena or off the farm. Trail riding is a disaster. It's almost like he mentally meltsdown and just check-out of his body.
To top things off, he's become super attached to my son's pony, but only when riding or working outside the pasture. When they are seperated while turned out (one taken in to work while the other is still turned out), there are no issues. But if they are both being worked and the pony goes somewhere else (trail riding for example), the meltdowns begin. When I take them somewhere off the farm (ie the local saddle club arena), my boy is a mess. He will spin and bolt to wherever the pony is in a panic.
When he's good, he's oh so good and so very talented. But when he's having one of his "moments", he's frighteningly upredictable to the point of being a dangerous. It's obvious to me that he doesn't trust me or view me in a leadership role. But he does enjoy being worked. I know that groundwork would be a great tool to help with this. I just don't know where to start. I've worked with many, many horses (foals, starting undersaddle, spoiled lesson horses, etc). I've always been the one people bring horses to when they're having training needs. Being in this position is just a bit overwhelming. The trainers I have access to (or that I know of) either don't work with this type of horse or their training style is way too rough for this guy.
Sounds just as you said, that your boy has extreme confidence issues, both in himself, his environment and his handlers. My best advice would be to take it slow and dont be worried if he takes awhile to come around.
Start with confidence games. I wouldn't even bother riding him outside of a pen until he truly hooks up and sees you as a leader he a trust.
The reason he is so buddy sour is because he sees the pony as a security blanket who will take care of things if they get stressful.
When you are out alone with him he feels that he is completely alone and must handle the situation on his own, which may put him on hyper-alert, causing him to spook and react badly.
The best confidence games to start with is with a simple training stick and string. Get him comfortable with you throwing it around, over his back, neck and legs. If he gets nervous, walk away (have him on a long lead so that he can back off if he feels he needs to) and twirl the string or smack the ground as you walk away.
Approach and retreat is critical in these circumstances. Give him room to move around and away from you so that he does not feel trapped.
Other exercises include getting him to move every part of his body using direct and rythmic pressure by increasing the pressure until you get a response, then let off and retreat.
Dont push him over the edge, if he starts looking unconfident and the head comes up high, back off and give him a second to realize that you are not going to force him.
One problem alot of people have is giving the horse what he needs. If he needs space, give it to him. If he needs to retreat, allow him to but bring him right back again and again.
If you leave his comfort zone and he becomes panicky, take him back. Work him there until he becomes calm and then lead him off again. Do not try to force him to comply and leave because that is when things go wrong and then your horse truly will not see you as a worthy, trusting leader because you are not taking his emotions into account.
Above all, do not feel as if he is getting the better of you because you took him back. That is not what he is thinking in those panicky moments. Sometimes you just need to break the cycle and take him where he will calm down, reassess the situation and then bring him out again under a different mindset.
Also, dont feel bad about getting off when you are away from home on the trails and leading him for a ways, or doing some ground work right there where you are. It is safer for both horse and rider and you can control his energy and the situation better from the ground. Some nervous, buddy sour horses also prefer to have you on the ground because they dont feel so alone.
When you know he is settled down, get back on. This is not a horse that is messing with you, he needs your support and understanding in those moments so none of this will cause bad habits, so long as you know why he is doing what he's doing when he is doing it.
If that makes any sense lol
I hope you are not allowing his previous life to control how you work with him. A horse doesn't know if his stall is dirty or if he's thin. He doesn't even know what he looks like as he can only see parts of himself. Race horses have little training and are always around other horses which represent a lot of security. There is groundwork you can do to help get him over this but it takes time and patience. When the pony is out, set a pan of feed outside the gate, allow him to eat and put him back. Each time you feed, even a handful, place it farther and farther from the gate but so he can still see the pony. Then start keeping him out longer while you give him a brushing. Each time putting him back. You can do this 3 or 4 times a day if you wish. After about a week, set the pan a few hundred feet away. He may get a little nervouse but he's also looking forward to the pan of feed. When he's done, put him back. When he's comfortable with this distance, begin grooming him again as he know he'll go back when you are done. Only this time maybe pick out a hoof or two. As you get farther begin extending his time out. Just be sure he's ok with the distance first. It may take several weeks or more but he's leaning how to trust you and trust that he's ok when he out alone. If you want, when he's good with a few hundred feet add another couple of hundred feet and so on. Don't rush this as it will pay off in the long run.
Believe it or not I had a horse just like this. We were lucky to find a trainer who could work with him and get him okay mentally but he still continued to do this stuff whenever he felt panicked. He was severley herd bound to our other horse as well. I would suggest beginning in a round pen slowly. I know a lot of ground work consists of desensitizing and such but what really helped my horse was just spending time with him in a controlled environment. He could back away when he felt cornered and have a mental holiday.
We didn't involve any tack or other training equipment, just time and patience. We also didn't take him off the farm at all to reduce stress. When he began to relax we started to lunge him with no tack on just to put a bit of the 'work' ethic in his mind. Through this all my goal was to notice what he did before, during, and after he got scared and then the best ways to prevent it/cope with it. (Talking to him was a big help!) When he began to relax with that we started to put a saddle on him. (It was a western saddle which was the same discipline that he'd been abused in), and lunged him in that. It took A LOT of time to get him to the point where I could even get on him and walk/trot. Honestly a big self confidence booster in my opinion is exactly what your doing, leaving him with other horses and out. Our horse was terrified of people and anything new so everything had to go four times as slow. Another thing that really helped, suprisingly, was teaching him tricks. I know that depending on your horse he might not be comfortable with this but it never hurts to try, right? Because ours was so unpredictable we taught him to bow where he would extend his leg out and duck his head to his knee. We soon found that when he had bad anxiety's we could help deter him from bucking by keeping his mind off of it.
We didn't take him off the farm because we wanted him to relax and fully trust us in an area where he knew he was safe. If you do take him off the farm I would suggest doing it on the ground, feed him some treats and make it a good experience for him. Treats will help keep his mind off some of the worries hopefully!
That's the best tips I can give, if I remember anything else that we did I'll post them. Good luck! :)
Perhaps a way to start getting him comfortable being away from the pony would be to feed him his beet pulp, etc. in the arena or some other location where he can't see the pony. (If this is too much for him at first, you could start feeding him outside of the field where he can still see the pony and then gradually move farther away).
Just a change of emphasis might help you find a solution. Your horse is not "buddy sour" he is "buddy sweet". He finds safety and comfort around his buddy and that makes the buddy the sweet spot for him.
I know this sounds trite, but when I started thinking this way I quickly managed to wean Filly off her attraction to the school gate and made the center of the school the sweet spot. I did this by making her work hard near the gate, but get rest and treats near the center of the school. Now I just use random spots in the school for rest and treats so that the center does not become too sweet.
Also bear in mind the number of hours your horse spends each day with the buddy and how many with you. I bet the ratio is at least 12 : 1. Therefore to make yourself the sweet spot you have to work 12 times harder at it than the buddy does.
Something else you can try, altho my previous thread works the best, is to take the horse from the field and the moment it begins to get upset walk him back to where he relaxes then head back out again. The distance will gradually get farther and farther as you continue to go back and forth. What this does is it creates stress whichis relieved when you return, stress, relief, stress, relief. A horse, even people, can do this only so long and soon relax. But, it may not have a long term effect as when offering a little feed.
I like your perspective Pegasus. He's not 'buddy sour', he's 'sour' to being dealt with by humans, especially when out of his comfort zone - eg. his herd mate. Instead of 'working' him, learn to *play* with him and develop a good trusting relationship with him, in the paddock with his mate first & foremost, before asking for **gradually* more challenging things, *being considerate of the reasons for his fears/reactions.
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