Sunday, March 16, 2014

Difficult Horses

                                                by Laura Crum

            Advance warning—this is not one of my “feel good” posts.

            I have an acquaintance who rides what I consider to be a difficult horse. I’ve known this horse, in a roundabout way, since he was born, and I knew some of his relatives, and I can attest to the fact that they were all difficult to some degree. This gelding was started by a competent guy (not the current owner), who rather rapidly discovered that he didn’t care for the horse. He got him broke so that he was reasonably useful…and he sold him. The horse had some ability, but he remained nasty.
            What do I mean by nasty? He would and will kick at people or horses when he is so inclined, including when he is being led and when under saddle. He balks at any new thing, and if it strikes him as a real problem, he is willing to escalate his resistance so far as rearing and going over backward. He launches into bucking fits at unpredictable moments. And he will pull back for no obvious reason, and keep pulling until something breaks.
            The guy that has this horse has been persisting with him for years. He got the horse cheap, and you CAN rope on him. He knows how to do it and though he is resistant, he can perform. He is reasonably athletic. You can gather on him and ride him through the hills, too—as long as you’re willing to put up with his crap. He’s dumped his owner a few times, and kicked more than one person and quite a few horses. He dumped (and hurt) a child that his owner was dumb enough to put on him (just meaning to lead him around with the kid on his back). He appears lazy and calm until something lights his fire—and then he is violent. He is, in short, a supremely untrustworthy horse.
            His owner is a middle-of-the-road type of horse owner. He knows a little, not a lot. He “gets by” this horse by persisting, but he is not changing the horse’s attitude or fixing his problems. To be frank, I strongly suspect that even a very skilled horseman would have a hard time doing this. In my view, the horse’s bad attitude is partly genetics, and he has had many years of getting “solid” in his negative behavior. He could get better, sure. I don’t think you could ever trust him. I think he will always be willing to kick you…or dump you.
            Now if this is the kind of horse you want to ride and own, well OK. I sure don’t. But I totally respect each horseman’s right to choose the horse that he/she wants to work with. I don’t look down on “Frank” for keeping this gelding. But I damn sure am not going to put up with Frank endangering me or my son because he’s riding this horse.
            Because Frank can’t control the horse’s impulse to kick. And I have numerous times been riding alongside him, talking, as we all do, and the gelding has kicked out at my horse. I’m pretty good at reading horses, and I usually saw it coming and Sunny is wary and so far the piece of crap horse has not connected, but I am this close to just not riding with/around Frank ever again. I have told my son not to get close to him on horseback. And you know, it’s awkward. But that horse’s bad habit is truly a danger to others—both horses and people. One of the few fatal riding accidents that I personally know of was a child riding in a group lesson who was kicked in the neck by another horse in the group. The child was wearing a helmet--they all were-- but this was no help. Not to mention all the horses I’ve known of who had their legs broken by being kicked by another horse. It is something to take seriously.
            The thing that gets me is that one day when Frank’s gelding kicked at my horse for no good reason Frank looked at me and said, “I sure wish he was more like your horses. He’s a real pain to deal with.”
            Now my horses are not perfect equine saints. But they would not fire at another horse while I’m on them—to be fair, Sunny will hump up and aim a “fake kick” occasionally at a horse that crowds his butt on the trail. But kick hard at a rider alongside? Never. I’m not saying this is because I’m such a great hand. But I do know enough to pick out horses that are reasonably well-mannered—and to have trained quite a few horses that are reasonably well-mannered.
            So when Frank said this I was quick to answer. “You could find a rope horse that was as well-behaved as my horses. There are plenty of them out there. You don’t need to ride that bad-tempered SOB.”
            Frank shrugged. And that was the end of that. I did not pursue the subject, feeling that it would be rude.
            But I would like to put something out there to the world. I (again) totally respect Frank’s right to want to keep and work with his horse. I also am NOT willing to put up with being endangered by a horse that is not my horse and that behaves in a way that I absolutely would not tolerate. If I owned that gelding, I would sell him so fast it would make your head spin. And I would buy a gentle, solid horse that was deserving of the very good forever home I provide for my horses. Those who know me know that I do love my horses and take really good care of them. But I have no interest in investing such devotion in a horse like that gelding.
            (Most of you know that when I bought Sunny I found that he was willing to offer a sort of “bluffing” kick at someone who walked out to catch him. He never connected, mind you, and he wasn’t kicking hard. Even so, I was very close to rejecting him for this behavior. I took him on a trial basis, and rapidly realized that Sunny was merely testing. Once I established that I was in charge, he did not offer that behavior any more. In effect, I found that I could train him out of his negative behaviors—though it was more like reminding him of his manners—and since he was in every other way a reliable, willing trail horse he became a “keeper” for me. But had he persisted with the kicking behavior, or EVER kicked out hard in an effort to connect with a person, he would have gone straight back to his former owner.)
The point of this post is not to discourage or denigrate anyone who has a cranky, kick-prone, difficult horse that they love. Though I would suggest that it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that horse does not endanger others, not the responsibility of the others to somehow know that they must grant an absurd amount of extra space to your horse, because of its issues. But I would like to say, to anyone new to horses, that all horses are not created equal. Think twice before taking on a horse with a cranky, difficult attitude that is prone to violent, dangerous acts, in the belief that you can “fix” the horse with love and treats. Be fully aware that it is perfectly possible to choose a horse with a calm, sane attitude—one that is very unlikely to ever hurt you. Think hard about what you want your life with horses to be like, and what will give you the most joy. If there are children in your family, think about their safety, and what will help them have a good experience of horses. And think about how you will feel caring for and handling this horse for many, many years when it is past riding age.
            My advice would be to reject that pretty critter that is so prone to pinning its ears and kicking, and so resistant when you are on its back. Go look a little further. And see how you feel when you are handling/riding a horse that isn’t so adversarial and does what you ask willingly. Don’t be too fixated on “pretty” or color or such. Don’t put “rescuing” a particular horse in need as your bottom line. If that sucker cripples you or even kills you (and it does happen), it will not seem worth it. If you want to compete at an event, certainly you’ll want a horse suitable for that event. But even within those parameters, there will be sane, willing horses and resistant, difficult horses. I know which one I’d choose.
            Finally, different horses work for different people. The folks who had Sunny before me had a bit of trouble with him, from what I’ve heard. But I get along with him really well. So a horse who has a “bad” attitude for one person may be cooperative for another person. Also, when you buy a green horse or an unbroken horse, how that horse turns out will have a lot to do with what kind of training you put into it. And I don’t mean to “dis” rescue horses; some rescue horses are jewels. I have known several horses (like Wally’s Twister or our Flanigan) that came to us with an untrusting, fear-based attitude, and over the years we owned them proved to be wonderful, reliable horses as they learned to trust us. And there is that thing called persistence. Many unlikely seeming horses became great partners for their person because that person persisted (those were damn lucky horses, in my opinion.)
 What I am trying to say here is that just like people, some horses are saints (like our Henry), some have quirks but within their parameters will give you SO much if you are the right match for them (this would be most horses I have known), and some are resistant by nature, including a few that are downright nasty—and they won’t be trained out of this attitude. I know a lot of horse lovers won’t believe this, and also won’t like to hear it, but in my lifetime of training, owning and riding horses, I have known quite a few horses with this sort of resistant attitude. And my choice is not to own or ride or interact with this type of horse. It is so frustrating, and a novice horse owner is so often defeated and discouraged (not to mention frequently scared or injured) by such a horse. I’m not a novice at this point in my life, and I’m quite aware that this sort of grief is completely avoidable. There are so many good horses in the world that really need a forever home. It’s win/win when we choose one of these for ourselves and give them that home that they deserve.
            And hey—I’m happy to hear dissenting opinions. I’m sure that everyone who has a cranky mare that likes to kick but is, in the owner’s opinion, a great horse, will heartily disagree with what I’ve said here. Fire away.


e.speth said...

I agree with you on this issue. I've wasted a lot of years and injured time off from riding trying to finish a thing I ill-advisedly started. It's so important that this remain a joyful thing as much as is possible. Always a pleasure to ready your blog. Thank you for writing it.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. That is exactly my perspective, too. In my younger days I trained a lot of horses and owned quite a few, and I wish I had understood this then. It would have saved me a great deal of stress, though I was fortunate not to be seriously injured. My life with horses is a far greater pleasure to me (and I am sure to the horses), now that know enough to choose horses that work for me.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Totally agree with you. There's enough good horses out there that there's no excuse to hang on to a bad one. At my age, a horse with a difficult temperament doesn't belong in my life. My totally novice (to horses; he's a former dairyman) husband can handle Mocha without my worrying that he'll get hurt, and she's got LOADS of sting when I need or want it. So, IMO, it's possible to own a horse with a good temperament who isn't a deadhead. Period.

Gayle Carline said...

We have a lesson mare who needs a large personal space bubble. She is great with beginning riders and only does the ears-back-squeal-cow-kick when she is crowded. (At 25, her kicks aren't very high or hard.) We are aware of this and do two things: 1) We are constantly vigilant to keep other horses away from her rear, and 2) we use her behavior as a teaching opportunity, to talk about not assuming that all horses get along with each other.

Just like my dogs, if I know that one of my animals can strike out in a given situation, I'm going to keep them out of that situation.

Anonymous said...

There are people who enjoy trying to figure out what's going on with horses like this. I think some of them can be successful in most cases. There aren't many people who can do it. If you don't know one of those people, or if you know one and they can't take the horse, I wouldn't hesitate to have the horse put down. I wouldn't sell it, I wouldn't want an unsuspecting person to go through this.
I've known one person who fit the above description, and she died last year, so I have no "go to" person anymore. I knew of one horse she wouldn't work with, and she told the owner under no uncertain terms to have the horse put down as soon as possible. I'm no where near the horsewoman she was, and my riding skills aren't what they used to be either, so I wouldn't even try to deal with a horse like that anymore. I think you're right not to put your son and your horses in danger, not to mention yourself.

Unknown said...

I think the most interesting part of this story was the fact that this horse came from a line of horses with a perpetual bad attitude.

I had a neighbor once who bred Quarter Horses. She had one old mare (in her 20's) who looked like she was much younger than she was. This mare had the best temperment, and all her foals had that same sweet easy to get along with attitude. She also had a younger mare who looked like she was old, who had a nasty attitude and her foals were all the same. Just plain mean.

I often asked whey she continued to breed that mare who put nasty minded colts on the ground. She said it was because they were pretty. Which takes me to my number one pet peeve in the whole wide world.

If you aren't breeding for the whole package (health, mind, and looks) then you are breeding irresponsibly.

Of course I realize that has nothing to do with this post, but in my mind it starts with the breeding and then goes to the handling.

Some people can work with horses like that, in fact they make big money doing so. I totally agree with your decision to not ride with that guy. Who wants to spend their riding time worrying if someone elses horse is going to try to injure you or your horse?

Laura Crum said...

Some very interesting points here--thank you.

Joyce--Yes, I have had horses like this, and, in fact, in his younger days, Henry was such a horse. An effective competitor and completely trustworthy with a beginner.

Gayle--That makes sense. And a responsible, effective owner can certainly deal with a horse such as you describe. It would still be my personal preference not to have such a horse around children, though.

redhorse--I have seen horses like this go to a truly competent horseman and become a lot better behaved. I've also seen them go to homes where they were pasture pets and everybody was happy. It's a good point that euthanizing may be a better solution if such a home can't be found.

Cindy D.--I agree with you 100%. This horse came from a line of horses that were mostly resistant, and guess what? All big, pretty horses with flashy markings. Same logic--the horses were good looking so they kept breeding them, and ignored the fact that most of them had a bad attitude.

Gayle Carline said...

Laura, I should mention that this mare does seem mindful of her rider and will put up with more when someone is on her back. Mostly, it's in the cross-ties, where we teach the kids to stand away when we're putting another horse in the cross-tie next to her.

RiderWriter said...

I agree with you 100%, Laura. I learned this lesson with pets, actually, back in my teen years working as a veterinary assistant. People would bring in these nasty, snarly, ill-tempered animals that tried to take a piece out of EVERYBODY, including their owners, and said owners would be all, "Sorry, but she's just so PREEEEETTY," or, "I paid a thousand bucks for this dog so he ain't goin' nowhere," or, "He's not always like this/only bitten my kid twice." I was just always agog that anyone would have an animal that they truly didn't even ENJOY (and didn't try to train). Animals are just too much work to have one that's trying to kill you or somebody else all the time!

That said, I'm glad there are folks in this world who ARE willing to put up with ornery critters, because otherwise they'd all be homeless. I'm just not one of them. I will carefully select my animals for temperament, then health, then looks, and go out of my way to find breeders who value those traits the same way. Not to say I couldn't find one at an animal rescue - in that case I'd be glad to take the word of an expert evaluator.

It's very ironic that I saw this post today. I attended a show on Saturday (a statewide breed organization's), and there were flyers all over the showgrounds advertising a free horse. Said horse, a mare, came from great bloodlines (even I could tell with scant knowledge of this breed) and was being given away with the caveat that the taker had to "promise" no one would ever try to ride her. This was a young horse, too, maybe five? The reason was given pretty much as "trust me, you don't want try and for more details please talk to the trainer who had her for nine months last year."

Naturally the flyer went on to say the mare was maiden and a perfect candidate for breeding. :-/ Why do I think that maybe isn't such a hot idea?????

Unknown said...

Yep, yep, yep. People let their hearts overwhelm their brains and persist with the wrong horse even when they could both be happier with other partners. Bummer all around for the horse and rider and the bummer trickles down to their riding buddies!!!

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--It sounds like everyone involved with the mare knows how to deal with her.

Riderwriter--That is just so typical--fancy mare with a bad attitude (so bad she can't be ridden and is given away) is promoted to breed babies. Yuck.

Bird--I know you know. It's a very common problem. I read horse blogs and often think, really? Can't you see how much better off you'd be with a different horse? (People having terrible anxiety issues and getting hurt--all because they are trying to keep going with a horse that is either a) too much horse for their skill level, or b) a genuinely resistant, difficult horse that would be hard for most horsemen to get along with, or c) a poor match for the individual.

Val said...

Once I made the mistake of trail riding with a group that I didn't know. One ladies horse took off with her and she screamed at the top of her lungs. It was totally unnerving. She fell, broke her nose, and switched horses with her trainer. Apparently this was not a singular event, but a serious mismatch of horse and rider. Thank goodness Harley smelled crazy and didn't feel the need to run after them. The horse behind us attached himself to my horse tail for moral support. That situation was no fun for anyone and dangerous to boot.

My original dressage instructor put down a horse that kicked her after getting lose (repeat offended for the running off part). I loved riding that horse and was devastated, but I could still see her point of view. She couldn't stand the thought of the horse hurting one of us.

Laura Crum said...

Val--Horses that will kick hard at a person with the intent to connect are truly dangerous. Horses who "bluff" (humping up the back end and sort of half heartedly popping with the feet--not aiming to connect), like my Sunny, usually aren't dangerous in the hands of a competent horseman. I can only assume your instructor felt the horse was in the truly dangerous category. But still, very sad to put down an otherwise good riding horse.

Anonymous said...

Laura, as always you sum up the way a lot of us horse people feel. I worked for two years with my beautiful horse who was mean as the devil. I sent him out for 90 days of training on two separate occasions and he came back just as mean and dangerous. I finally gave him away (with full behavioral disclosure). I can't describe the relief I felt when the trailer door closed. My new horse looks like he is made from a bucket of spare parts, but he is brave and kind and that is what I really wanted all along. Now I look forward to the time we spent together instead of being filled with dread every time I pull up to the barn.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--Thank you so much for your comment. That was really the intent of my post--to say that there is no need to struggle with a truly difficult horse. So many horses that are brave and kind (like your new horse) really need that good, forever home. As I said in the post, it's win/win when we choose a horse like this. Good for you and many wishes for a happy future with your horse.

Anonymous said...

There are many riders who are seriously over horsed - this is often a trainer's fault.

And there is a difference between a horse exhibiting dangerous behaviors - bucking, bolting, etc. - and a horse who is fundamentally dangerous. That's not saying that dealing with a horse who has some dangerous behaviors is for everyone. Red had a number of dangerous behaviors when I got him but they were inconsistent with his core personality, but I needed some professional assistance to work through them - and I'm glad I did as he's a truly wonderful horse. And many horses who are unhappy/cranky/sour have very good reasons to be so - pain or expectations about how they're going to be treated by humans.

And then there are dangerous horses . . . I've met a couple, but one stand out. My daughter, who is a fine horsewoman, took on a 10-year old mare with excellent warmblood breeding who was dangerously aggressive - attempt to kill you aggressive. The mare had never been abused - the history was known - and all physical issues were evaluated and dealt with. My daughter managed to work with the horse over a period of months and got her to the point that she could be handled and ridden, and shown, by my daughter.

But then my daughter was away for a time at shows in Florida, and one day, the mare just snapped and attacked a barn worker who had gone into her stall to fill water buckets - the woman was lucky to escape with her life and was injured but not seriously. My daughter had the mare euthanized shortly thereafter - once the mare had her "break" she was dangerously aggressive again. We speculate that it was a neurological issue, perhaps of genetic origin, but who knows? A sad story.

But even garden-variety difficult horses can be very hard to deal with, and should be undertaken with caution.

Laura Crum said...

Agree with what you say here, Kate. I had to digress in the post to point out that my Sunny had the impulse to kick, but he wasn't/isn't a dangerous horse with the right owner. And I think that would be you and Red, too. Some horses just need the right person/situation, and they are fine, even great horses.

i remember the truly dangerous mare you talked about--I remember how sad it was when you chose to put her down, but at the same time, clearly the right choice.

I'm not sure what the best solution (in a perfect world) would be for the horse I wrote about in the post. I honestly think his issues are partly genetic, but whether a truly competent horseman who could possibly form a bond with him could turn him into a reliable, willing horse isn't clear to me. What is clear is that the guy who owns him isn't improving him, and that the horse is a danger to other people and horses. It's also perfectly clear to me that (from my point of view) this horse would not be a pleasure for most horseman to own and ride. I certainly wouldn't want anything to do with him, knowing how many good, kind, willing horses need a forever home.