Halter Resistance and Angry Eating
I have a problem. It’s with haltering an 11yo Arabian-Andalusian mare. I’d love to get some help/insight/suggestions.
Background: Aria lives in a pasture. When I work with her, I’m alone with her, and her buddy Old Man. By “working” with her, I mean that I catch her, groom her, and do some light groundwork.
Before I started working with her, she hadn’t been interacted with by humans for about 2 years. Her owner (who isnt around right now, and left her in my care) is pretty intimidated by her because Aria can get dramatic and aggressive. Aria developed some snapping/biting behavior when she wanted to get her way, as well as what I would call “food aggression.”
Now...my experience has been that Aria started out very defensive, insecure and lacking confidence. When I first interacted with her, everything was a battle, and I used the firm, strict, no nonsense type interaction style I learned back in English riding school as a kid.
That worked okay. But I didnt like that everything was always a struggle.
So I got a book called “Horse Talk,” which is all about communicating effectively with your horse. I spent a lot of time on boundaries, watching Aria’s reactions, and especially making sure Aria knew that I’d secured her environment, I would fight off all the evil, scary boogeymen. I stopped acting like I was in charge OF HER, and started acting like I was in charge of THE WORLD, and she was something I had to protect.
This worked GREAT. She softened right up. Everything got easier, and we started to really progress.
Then, we did a session with a trainer that screwed up both me and Aria’s confidence. After that, Aria decided she didnt want her halter put on anymore.
Ever since then, if she sees me coming with a rope and halter, she sticks her head to the ground and eats grass in a way that to me seems almost neurotic. It’s like “stress eating” or “angry eating.” As I get close, her ears go back. It’s all I can do to correct her before she snaps at me. And even though the halter goes on—and she’s fine after that—that “struggle” of getting the halter on just doesn’t feel right.
The worst part, is she knows WHEN I’m going to halter her. Its always after I work with Old Man. Back before the trainer, Aria would prance around and follow me and old man. Now, she knows the halter is coming, and she gets defensive waaaaaay in advance.
And the thing is, she doesn’t walk away from me. Or run away. She comes up to greet me when I come to the field. So it’s not like she hates “people” in general. She doesn’t even dislike the groundwork we do. (Though I admit, she is more reluctant to leave her comfort zone now.) I just cant figure out what’s up.
At first I thought she didnt like what the halter represented—handing over control. Then I thought maybe I was thinking too deeply, and she just didnt like it being put on her face...
I’d like to really work on this more specifically, but I can’t seem to figure out the right way to get over this hurtle.
Here is what I’ve tried so far:
1. Catching her with a rope first, and leading her that way before putting on halter. —This seems to annoy her even worse than the halter.
2. Making her back up, and/or do circles before halter goes on. This, also, has not helped and only make her grumpier. (And me grumpier, honestly.)
3. “Making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.” —I call this “annoy them until they do what you want.” And while this has worked fine with the cold-blooded horses I’ve worked with, Aria just gets more and more irritated, and hence digs further and further into her cycle of anxiety/frustration/defensiveness/stubbornness.
4. Just getting through it as fast as possible without making a big deal... this, if anything, has worked the best. But...there’s still that Flash of aggression. What I want is to get rid of even the FEELING of aggression. Not just the behavior.
5. I’ve even tried getting a different halter, smoking it in incense so it smelled different, having her eat treats in the halter—all in an effort to create a positive association. Yes, I know this is silly, woo-woo and turned out to be futile, but I’m at my wit’s end.
So, yeah. I can get on the halter. And do every day. But its always a tense moment.
Some people say that you should “never let the horse win.” But, I just dont feel that works with aria. My experience has been that any time I get to the point where its me vs her, I’ve already lost. Yeah, I can get her to do what I want, but... she does it in a brittle sort of way that doesn’t feel right. It’s a million miles away from the soft, supple, relaxed way she is when we are on the same page.
So I know this has been a novel, but that’s all the background.
Does anyone have any suggestions? I’d especially appreciate suggestions that have worked with hot-blooded, nervous, anxious and spooky horses.