Warning, long: When is it time to get off the horse?
My question is specifically to dealing with an established problem horse.
So I am working on getting my Equine Canada certified coaching license (exam in a month, yikes!). Not saying the license is an end-all, be-all or anything, but it hopefully goes to show I am not a green rider. I also do some part time work for my coach, training green horses on the ground and under saddle, and also training some problem horses.
I have found the green horses are SOO much easier than a problem horse that comes in because they have been getting away with bad behaviors at home for years. But I find the more challenging ones teach you lots. So I've had horses that bolted under saddle, especially if outside, herd-bound/barn sour horses, rearing horses, one little bucking bronco who was kind of fun, but after I just rode it out for two rides she settled right down and is now a kids horse, never offering to buck again. All of these things dealt with fine.
I have heard different things from different trainers- some try to ride it out and some get off and go back to hard ground work when a horse is misbehaving. I have done both, but I'm a little fuzzy as to when to do which. Case in point:
So yesterday I took this mare out on a trail ride with a group of fairly beginner riders- I wasn't coaching, just along for an extra person. The mare I rode has been getting away with problems outside for ages, and came in for training. She is herd bound, will try to run back, spins, rears. Anyway after several weeks of training the issues resolved and she was good, beautiful under saddle, so calm and steady. Then her owner rode her again for a month or two, and yesterday was the first ride I had on her after that- she was horrible! She wouldn't stand still if we were waiting for the lead horses to cross a stream, was prancing around, then she backed herself into a tree stump prancing and got all upset about it, tried to bolt (she didn't, I didn't let her), she reared and got a crop to the head...anyway, I figured the group with me wasn't super experienced and I didn't want the other horses feeding off her, so I got off. The group went ahead without me, and she had to stay, and we did the trail on foot, not in visual or calling distance of the others. If she was being bad she got to back up on the trail going butt-first, which she did not appreciate so she calmed down quick. We got to the barn and she worked hard. Worked well on the ground and under saddle, but periodically if any other horse went by the arena, she'd throw a fit. Once they were gone it was fine, then if it happened again, she'd do it again. So I think we rode for over an hour, and the minute she made consistent progress once or twice I got off her. It was baby progress and I was not incredibly happy with it, but it was time.
Anyway, she is now in a separate pen by herself, learning to be away from other horses, but I felt like yesterday was a huge defeat! I definitely did not get off at a good training time even though it may have been safer...what are your opinions on riding it out vs getting off and demanding good ground behavior? She was perfect on the ground by the way...
I don't have any advice to offer but I do at times experience similar behavior with my mare and I am curious in knowing what others might suggest.
I think that each instance is going to be dictated by surroundings. For instance, you were on trail with a bunch of beginners who may or may not have been able to control their horses while you schooled yours. Safety for the group dictated that you get off the horse and work on the ground away from other riders. Once they were gone and I'd decided she had found her head, I might have tried to get back on, but YOU have to follow your gut on whether that's a good idea or not.
My rule of thumb when schooling or re-training a horse is: whenever I get an honest TRY from the horse, I will quit and let them think it over. Not necessarily for the rest of the day but for a couple of hours at least. My old trainer would say, "When she thinks it's a new training session is when it's time to start again.". So, after she had eaten or taken a nap or seen the farrier, anything that broke up the day from training/something else/training.
Agree wholeheartedly with DA, how you handle each individual situation will depend on the circumstances of each individual situation.
Sometimes you do have to make the sacrifice of losing a particular battle with a horse to either ensure your own safety or the safety of those around you. You can't win all the little battles, but so long as you win the war, that's all that really matters.
In my experience, ground work does not always transfer to under saddle work, but sometimes it is just more safe to get off. It's also a case of, if thing A doesn't work, then you have to try thing B if you want to make any progress. I think you might have made some progress since you said she did respond a little right before you called it a day. You rewarded her effort, however small. A horse is going to understand that.
Being with a group of beginners definitely reduces your options. I think you did the wisest thing. I did the same a couple years ago when riding a TWH with a couple kids who were on very nice horses. Just not worth getting the kids in a mess.
Yesterday wasn't a huge defeat, just a delayed opportunity for you and the horse.
So, the riders are safe, the horse is safe, you're safe... what are your plans for the horse? You may not know what type of handling she receives once away from your barn (welcome to training outside horses).
And, I wouldn't let this eat away at your confidence going into your coaching license. You kept everyone safe. That is generally the first priority in any riding situation.
I spent the better part of 50 years re-training spoiled horses. The methods I have come to use have evolved quite a bit over that span of time.
I started out just trying to get a little improvement and trying to find a good place to quit. I counted on each ride getting a little better and the horse finally deciding it was a lot easier to comply than refuse to do what was being asked. I found that using these methods avoided most out and out confrontations and fights, but many of the horses also went back to bad behavior as soon as they had their owner or another novice rider on them. They really had not given up the bad behavior -- they just knew they had to do what 'I' wanted. It did not carry over very well to other riders. I also found that any time the horse got excited or mad or upset, they went right back to the bad behavior. In other words, I really had not re-trained them at all. I reality, they had trained me how to get along with them.
The longer I took in spoiled horse, the more I came to realize that they had to 'want' to do the right thing. It had to be their choice to 'give it up'. I found out that I could make them give it up much more quickly when the wrong thing made them miserable and they gained nothing from it.
I also figured out that I was just spinning my wheels when I tried to train a horse that was mad, scared, upset, lonesome, frantic or ????? [This is what this horse was when you tried to make it stand and it reared, spun around and in general acted frantic.] A horse that is doing any of the above is in a 'reactive mode'.
Horses only learn when they are in a 'thinking or responding mode'. If a horse is in a reactive mode, it must be ridden or worked so hard or you must be so rough on it that it HAS to start thinking and responding or you have to let the horse fight itself until it decides to start thinking and responding. It is easier to let them fight themselves that for you to fight them.
I have retrained many horses that literally would have worked until they dropped or crippled themselves before they would have 'given up'. Hot-bloods like TBs or Arabians are the worst, but others can be just as bad.
I have found that it is much better to tie them up and leave them alone and let them paw and fuss and stomp and whinny until they give it up. Then, they are ready to listen. You can literally wear yourself out and accomplish absolutely nothing trying to turn one around and back one up and on and on and on until it settles down. The only thing you accomplish is to get them more frantic and rearing from trying to hold that negative energy still. They settle much more quickly when you do not give them YOU to fight with. Let them fight with a tree or other immovable object.
For this to work, the horse must be tied in a safe place well away from any other horses. I have had it take as long as 3 days -- tying one out from morning after being fed until evening when it was time to feed and close the barn up. I will offer them a drink mid-day and most will not take it. I have never had it hurt one and I have never had it fail to work. When the horse can be tied out and it just stands there and rests a hind leg, it is ready to train and learn.
Now, to the situation you were in: You could head off the other direction and take the horse off trail and let it scramble through the roughest footing you could get it into. This would get it thinking and not reacting. You could tie it up to a tree and let the others go on. [I always ride green horses with a halter and lead under their bridles. More than once I have just gotten off of a horse that got dangerous and tied the dummy to a tree for an hour or two. Next trail ride I will lead that horse a ways, tie is up and get it later. I might do that several times but you can bet I have gotten smart enough to NOT just go toe to toe and fight a horse.] I figure some way get the horse back into a responding and thinking mode without teaching it more bad habits from fighting it.
'Restraints' work very well to get horses back into a thinking mode.
Simply tying one up well away from the other horses is usually the only 'restraint' most herd-bound horses need.
Horse that are much more spoiled than that, respond very well to hobbles, sidelines and 4-way hobbles. Again, the horse will fight an inanimate object or himself for only a short time where he would fight a person for hours and very possibly win or badly hurt the person or himself. A horse in a reactive mode will hurt or sometimes kill himself. You make the process much safer and much easier when you set them up to fight themselves or an inanimate object.
You will find that re-training spoiled horses is not worth a penny if the horse does not completely give up the bad behavior.
What she said!!! ^^^^^
Thank you so much for your reply everyone, and I would like to give you guys an update. I know when a horse gets themselves into a panic there is no learning to be done, and since their reactive side often overrides the thinking part, you essentially have to wait it out. Which is what I had to deal with this time.
As I mentioned, I rode this mare after we got back home until she started doing a bit better (so we have a big ball in the arena, and her owner said "she's always hated it", which meant that as she got close to it she rears, spins, loses her mind the same way she did on the trail. So my goal for the day was for her to push the ball with her legs several times without arguing. I would wait til she got out of her frenzy, then try again. She figured it out and did what we asked. We quit).
The next two days I worked with her on being away from the herd- I put her in a separate pen, fed facing away from the herd (she didn't eat for a day because she refused to turn away from the direction her friends were in, even though she can only periodically catch a glimpse). I also worked with her on some basics, lungeing, some ground respect. I figured we'd start at the beginning.
Yesterday I got on her in the arena, and we rode. She was great. Gave me one sass when she tried to trot off the second I hit the saddle- but she was corrected quickly and no more problem. Then we went outside with 2 other people. She led, she followed, she stayed between the two and walked beside them. One of the other horses threw a fit but she didn't feed off him at all, she was calm and super responsive, light on the bit. I was SO excited.
So I put her in a stall to get some food and water before I turned her out, everything was good. Then as I went to take her out, a little girl trying to ride needed a bit of help and I just tied *my* mare quickly to a post with a quick release tie to go over and help her. Now a little background information is needed. While working towards my license, I am working with two other trainers that are knowledgeable and certified, one of them trained in Europe. When outside horses come in we talk to and have a questionnaire for the owners to identify what kind of problems the horse is having. The owner told us that this mare (she is a 8 yr old OTTB) has never had any problems tying at all, so we weren't worried. And we use cross ties primarily in the barn, and she's never given us any trouble. But my guess is that she has always used cross ties at home (I know the place) and has never been trained to be tied anywhere else. Because I tied her, and the second I turned my back she pulled back, and just LOST it all over again. Luckily the little girl was in the fenced indoor arena and the only other people there were myself and one of the other trainers. So she threw her head so hard she broke the first halter. So we figured we can't let her learn that she can pull and be free, so she was tied up again and we just waited with her. She would pull, process, pull. And go forth. So when she was processing we tried to go over to her and praise her, but she wouldn't let you near her. She tried to strike and a quick three crops to the chest stopped that, but she wouldn't stop pulling. She yanked so hard she landed herself on her butt and put extra pressure on her face. We made her get up by giving her a tap on the butt for incentive, and she did.
So we weren't trying to meddle per se, and we were trying to let her figure out that standing still wasn't putting any pressure on her and it was really just the simplest way, but we couldn't leave her alone to figure it out either- on the third blowout she yanked on the rope, put some pressure on the halter and tried to lie down and just give up. We had scissors and a knife on hand and immediately cut her lose so she wouldn't choke, and she was fine.
She would come down and process for a few minutes, and then fight again. I don't know WHERE her thinking side was, but nowhere to be seen. Anyway. This lasted for over 4 hours! We were done at 1 am.... Then she stood. Still. And stood some more. And then we gave her a bath and some food.
And so now my next question is...what would you guys have done? I mean at one point I felt it was dangerous to her to continue because she was just trying to lay down and give up, and had we not been prepared with scissors and a knife she would have choked herself. And on the other hand, this was SUPER dangerous behavior and it would be a hazard to any of her future handlers if she was let to get away with this kind of behavior without dealing with it. But I wondered how you pick and choose your battles like that? Like I said, I have had lots of stubborn and green horses and sometimes both, but I've never seen one like this.
The sad thing is, she really is a smart, beautiful mare and she is friendly and goes well under saddle, she has beautiful movement and is responsive to a rider. But it's like somewhere along the way, probably when she was trained at the track or trained afterward, a critical step got missed in her training that led to these kinds of problems. And she has been allowed to get away with this kind of behavior, having led to her owner not being confident around her, and letting her get away with even more behavior.
It makes me so sad :(
As an edit, I also volunteer at a horse rescue organization on the side, and I have seen some disheartening stuff. I help train and do groundwork with horses that will later go up for adoption, and I have to say I have never seen a horse this stuck... even in the most severe abuse cases.
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