by Laura Crum
This is a trendy word nowadays. What I actually want to talk about is the lines that I will not allow my horses to cross behavior-wise. However good they are, however much they do for me, however much I trust them, there are things that I will not allow any of them to do. If they do these things they get reprimanded. The severity of the reprimand depends on the horse. Some only get yelled at. Some get a light swat with the leadrope. Sunny gets a good hard swat with the leadrope.
I am not talking about a young horse or a green horse here. The rules are different with a horse who is learning what right behavior is. I am talking about a broke horse who understands what is expected of him. Such a horse only crosses these boundaries for certain reasons. 1) The horse does not respect you enough to heed the boundaries. 2) The horse trusts that you and he are partners and that you’ll let him get away with this transgression. 3) The horse needs to test to see if you’re still dominant. 4) The horse is scared enough to forget about the boundaries and 5) The horse is angry/interested in something else enough to ignore the boundaries. In 4 and 5 the horse isn’t thinking enough about you. In 2 and 3 it’s actually part of a healthy relationship. 1 is just no good. But in all cases but one the horse needs a reprimand of some sort (in my opinion). The only exception is 4. Sometimes the horse needs to sort out his fear (if it is genuine) a little before he can obey. It really depends on the circumstances and the horse how you handle 4.
I am assuming here that the person is a halfway competent horseman who is not pushing a horse to do more than he can reasonably be expected to do, or expecting him to handle something he doesn’t understand and has had no experience with. In either case, even a good horse is liable to rebel.
A lot of people don’t like these words “reprimand” and “punishment.” They want to use other words. I really don’t care what words are used. What I mean is this: I let the horse know in a way he understands that the behavior is not OK. And I let him know clearly and effectively enough that the horse ceases the behavior—at least for that day.
Also, I correct every horse as his personality requires. With a good hearted horse like Henry who occasionally forgets himself, I’m firm but kind in reminding him. With a tough-minded horse like Sunny who likes to test, and did, in fact, end up kicking his former owners, I’m considerably more emphatic in my corrections. With gentle, sensitive horses like Plumber, Gunner and Twister, who are aghast at the notion of being reprimanded, I stick to a firm word and a gentle tug as a reminder to pay attention. They don’t need more.
And finally, I don’t pick on a horse about stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. If you constantly nitpick a horse, you WILL end up with a problem. That said, I also think you need to consistently enforce certain boundaries, or you will end up with problem behavior in your good horse—behavior you don’t need to have.
For instance, if you have a good, reliable trail horse, like my Sunny, who is also on the lazy side, that horse may offer a balk at the foot of a steep climb that he’s done before and knows is hard work. If I ask Sunny to go on, and he takes a step backward and switches his tail, I immediately over and under him. In other words, I reprimand him in a way that gets his attention and gets him moving forward and obeying my cue. Let’s say I don’t do this. Let’s say I kick him rather ineffectually with my spurless boot, and he takes another step backward and makes an effort to turn around and go back. Let us then say that I stop urging him forward toward the hill, and shrug and say, “Oh well, guess you don’t want to go up that hill today,” and I go another way. What do you think is going to happen the next time I want to ride up that hill? My good, broke and very smart little horse is going to balk once again, and when I urge him forward this time, he is liable to be pretty determined about his resistance and escalate to crowhops and such. I have just created a problem that I didn’t need to have.
On the other hand, there is no point in punishing a horse for certain things. Let’s take my Sunny again, for an example. Sunny rarely spooks, but when he does, it’s a genuinely startled response. I ignore it. I let him look at the thing until I can tell that he isn’t afraid any more, and then I ask him to go on. If he is still worried and sidles by it, I ignore that, too. On the rare occasions when he is feeling a bit up, and tries to retreat or such, I do reprimand him and make him go forward, because I know Sunny, and I know he is not truly very afraid.
There is also the situation (rare with Sunny, but it has happened) when a horse refuses to cross something (like a downed tree or a muddy ditch) because he is truly concerned about it. This sort of thing I play by ear. If I feel a little concerned, too, and the horse is an experienced trail horse, I will often let his decision stand. If I feel confident we can get over the obstacle, and I want to do it, I just keep the horse there and keep asking. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes I need to distract the horse from the issue at hand, sometimes I let another horse give us a lead, sometimes I get off and lead my horse, if I feel the horse is truly worried, and even a following a buddy doesn’t help (I’ve done the leading thing twice—both times with reliable horses and bridges that they had never been on before).
I never punish a horse for jigging. It’s a wretched habit, but punishment will not help. Some horses can’t be cured of it. I prefer not to ride those horses. Most horses can be out-figured. There are many methods. With Sunny, I found that he only jigged (just a little, at the very end) when I did the same route too often. He was bored of it and eager to get done. Once I sorted this out I mixed up the routes and he hasn’t jigged with me going home in years. But I never reprimanded him for it—simply because it doesn’t work. Same for a horse that is high as a kite in the team roping box, or the start of a race/ride. Or fretting because the other horses have left him. This is anxiety and excitement and you will do no good with a reprimand under those circumstances (with most horses—there are always exceptions).
That said, there are certain behaviors where reprimands work incredibly well--again, with most horses. I am assuming that we all have behaviors we find completely unacceptable. The horse that tries to kick or bite you, or pushes through you on the ground…etc. If you don’t find this sort of thing unacceptable and deserving of correction, than we are way too far apart in our thinking to have much of a conversation. The thing is, I think that you need to stop/prevent that behavior before it ever gets to a dangerous point—because that behavior can get you hurt or even killed. Thus my boundaries.
So here are my boundaries for broke horses.
1) The horse may never make a nipping gesture at me. None of my horses would actually dare to bite me, but that fake nipping gesture is absolutely not allowed. Many horses will assay this gesture when being cinched. They always get a sharp punch in the nose for it. I ignore ear pinning or the slight shake of the head. That’s just expressing an opinion. But the nipping gesture is a form of aggression toward me, and it’s not acceptable. And what do you know—none of my horses have EVER nipped me.
2) No horse may make a kicking gesture in my direction—under ANY circumstances whatsoever. This includes if they are really kicking at another horse, or it’s feeding time, or I’m doctoring a painful cut on their leg, or whatever. This is non-negotiable, because it’s too dangerous. My horses must be aware of me and careful not to kick in my general direction at all times, under all circumstances. If any kicking gesture is made when I am behind or near a horse, that horse gets a severe reprimand. And, yes, none of my horses have ever kicked me.
3) No horse may crowd my space when I am leading them or when I am in their corrals. I am very strict about this. As in the above example, including when the horse is just not thinking. I require them to be aware of me and careful about my space at all times. No matter what is going on or how distracted they are by other things or how scared. It’s too easy to be knocked down and severely inured by a horse that doesn’t respect your space.
4) No horse may step toward my foot—accidentally or otherwise. Same principle as the above. Sunny will try the oh-so-casual purposeful step toward my foot sometimes when I’m saddling, and I always kick him in the ankle, hard enough to hurt. He usually doesn’t try it again for awhile. And he has never actually stepped on my foot. None of my horses have. Of course, I stay aware of where my feet are and their feet are at all times—which is a necessity, because I often handle them in sandals. So far, not one smashed toe (!)
5) No horse may move off while I get on—ever. This is particularly important to me because I am short and getting older and very vulnerable to losing my balance when I mount. All my horses stand perfectly still for me to climb on. If they don’t, they get corrected. Every single time.
6) I will tolerate a horse letting me know he wants to stop and take a break on a ride, or have a good look at something, but the horse must move on when I say so. I try to be thoughtful. If my horse is truly tired, I allow a good long breather; if my horse is truly worried, I allow plenty of time to look and relax. But when I say step forward, I make that happen. See my example above about balking, and where it leads.
7) No horse is allowed to eat under saddle or to jerk his head down to graze without permission when being led. I’m very strict about this. I understand that endurance folks WANT a horse to graze under saddle, and this makes sense. But I am here to say that for those of us who don’t do endurance, there are few more annoying things than to ride a horse who firmly jerks his head down to eat when he feels like it, or grabs at the tall grass as you ride through it. Someone let our good horse Henry do this in the past, and it is a habit that remains, despite many corrections. It’s perhaps the one true fault in this very good horse—and it is always an effort for my son to ride Henry across a meadow, due to this vice. None of my other horses have this objectionable trait, and unless you are an endurance rider, I can see no reason to let this habit occur. The same for allowing a horse to tug his head down to graze while you are leading him. I do hand graze my horses from time to time, but I give a very clear signal that permits them to graze, and they are reprimanded if they try to graze without permission, or tug me towards a patch of grass. It makes them much more pleasant to lead and handle and ride.
8) I tolerate spooks and feel-good crowhops without a reprimand as long as the spook or crowhop is just a one shot thing. Spooking and then spinning or bolting is absolutely not allowed (if it’s genuinely fear-caused it’s treated very differently than if it’s an evasion—one has to know the difference). Bucking that’s due to cinchiness is treated differently than bucking used as an evasion. A horse that bucks because he is cinchy is like a ticklish person. They just can’t help it. My much-loved Flanigan was a cinchy horse and I was always very careful with his saddling and warm-up protocol. As far as I was concerned, it was my fault if he bucked with me.
Anyway, there are a few boundaries that I think are important to set. Perhaps you can suggest some others. Or let me know why you disagree with mine.
I consider all of those things just being a good citizen. Even if I never ride Skeeter, by God, she's going to learn to be a good citizen. We're still working on a few of these things. Recently, she pawed at me for attention when I turned away, like a puppy would. The difference is that she's 900# and I don't much like having my calf touched with her hoof. She got a very quick, very harsh correction that seems to have stuck. Like you said, there are some behaviors that are just too dangerous to allow.
Agree with you completely on all of these points. I'll add to it that I expect Mocha to turn and face me in the stall when I open the door, and that I expect her to stay facing me until I tell her to go when I turn her loose, whether in the stall or in the pasture. I also expect her to come to me (or at least face up to me and not walk away, especially in a herd situation) in turnout and if she won't come, I'll send her away with a spin of the lead rope until she tires of the game. I do give her a bit of leave when she's with the herd, just because of her temperament within the herd hierarchy--she prefers not to push her way forward but to wait until I'm twenty feet away, and then she walks to me (after I've dealt with snoopier, pushier horses who are above her in the herd hierarchy).
I am pretty picky, though, because if she's allowed to slide she gets more pushy. I like having my polite, respectful horse. I will also ungirth her and slide the bridle off, but make her stand until I pull the saddle off and give her a release cue. That's just because it's useful to me to have a horse I can park reliably in the arena while I'm doing something, and I want her to be that way until she gets a release cue.
GunDiva--yeah, Skeeter is still learning the rules.
Joyce--Really good points, as always.
You've got it all right, Laura. Personally I don't always it find it easy to lay down the law with my horse! Qrac is pretty gentle and well behaved, even more so since he's no longer a stallion (best decision I ever made as far as his quality of life and my peace of mind is concerned). He'll still occasionally spook/spin super fast, most times I'm simply not quick enough, let alone strong enough to stop him dropping his left shoulder. But he's never bolted (touching wood). I've taught him to stand still while I get on with the help of horse treats, he's now like one of those supermarket electric horses where you put a coin in and then they start! He turns to look at me as if to say "where's my treat"! However, he did walk away before I was totally on him two weekends ago at a show and, like you, I'm no longer as quick or supple as I used to be and he almost had me off in a muddy puddle... I should have reprimanded him immediately but was too show-stressed to do so. But you reminded me that I must be strict with this. Thanks for another good post, and for putting the cover of Mucho Caliente on your Facebook link to the blog ;) Sweet of you. xxx
You're welcome, Cesca! And I forget to correct my horses, too, when I'm distracted. I'm always sorry, though, because the next time they always seem to repeat the behavior and be more determined about it. I never try to correct a horse for spooking, but I don't care for the spin part. One jump forward or to the side is just being startled--in my book. The spin (especially if repeated every time) tends to be an evasion, and can merit a reprimand. I guess it's just a judgment call.
I agree with what everyone has said and will add, with my current horse, who can be a bit of an airhead, I work on getting his attention and keeping it the entire time I am doing anything with him, whether I'm in the saddle or on the ground. Whatever I am doing is always more important than anything else, even if there's a mountain lion in the trees. I used to work on improving his attention span, or improving his focus, now I've just drawn a line in the sand. I have to admit, he's gotten a lot better since I've done that. It's funny how you get a better response when they are actually paying attention, instead of, first you have to get their attention, then you ask. I was just reminded of that this morning when I was turning him out.
He's really a nice horse when you turn off the "la la la la la, what's that? Oh squirrel!" tape playing in his head. It's so much easier to get a saddle on his back, and to have him stand still while I get on. And that's what I care about these days. I'm strong enough to ride if I don't have any problems.
Your mention of cinchiness just reminded me of the horses that I used to teach lessons on. At some point, the volunteers became overzealous about tightening girths. Many of the horses became angry and some bad behaviors started. It took a long time to fix that situation. I was particularly pissed when a leader allowed a pony to nip at me as I was helping a student (the leader's job is to mind the horse at all times). Not only did she not restrain the pony, but my back was turned and my focus on the student instead of the girth-shy horse. We had to retain the volunteers and the horses.
Actually, even endurance riders find an obnoxious horse obnoxious! :-)
In regards to eating along the trail, which we encourage in our sport, taking a bite of grass is cued by the rider, not initiated by the horse. Here's a video that demonstrates the technique:Swampland trot (and snack break): http://youtu.be/C50JZPxzZjU
The key here is that the horse is trotting along at a working pace. When the rider gives a verbal cue, the horse steps off to the side to take a bite of grass--she doesn't yank the reins down to grab food in between her front feet. After a few seconds, the rider gives another verbal cue, the horse picks up her head, and they resume trotting down the trail at the original speed.
I had both hands on the camera while filming this, so all of the cues used were verbal/seat. No yanking or pulling allowed!
Aarene--That makes sense to me. Clearly our Henry was ridden by someone in the past who DID let the horse yank his head down and eat, and to this day Henry still tries to do this when crossing a meadow. If a horse were never allowed to graze under saddle except when given a cue, it ought to be about the same as the way I cue my horses that they can now graze on the leadline. Good point.
Val--Yes, a person needs to be thoughtful about cinching up--start with the cinch quite loose and tighten in two stages, with walking in between, is how I do it.. That, and also be very clear that no nipping gestures are allowed--ever. Two different aspects of the same situation.
redhorse--Good point. I never thought to say this, but the foundation of much that I do is that the horse must be paying attention to me at all times when I interact with him. I often am not asking much of my horses--just walking down the trail, but I expect their attention to be partly on me (and partly on what they are doing) the whole time.
Aarene--Also, I require my horses to be able to stroll at a relaxed pace across a meadow and not grab for grass--which is a little different than trotting across a meadow and not grabbing--most horses will do that--forward momentum plays a role. But in my view a well broke saddle horse does NOT grab for grass under saddle, including when walking across a meadow. And none of mine will do this obnoxious thing --except Henry.
I agree that you should gear your expectations of boundaries according to the horse and situation. For instance what I would expect from a therapy horse is completely different from what I would expect from a racehorse in the saddling stall. Sometimes just getting the racehorse saddled, and the jock up, and to the pony with everyone alive is good enough. That being said, my racehorses were generally well behaved and most went on to second careers without much fuss, but I did have the occasional nut and I had to make compromises.
I met my current trail horse when a local riding instructor called and asked me to help with one of her boarders. He is a APDX QH about 15.3/16, 8 yo then. His owner was an early 20s woman with limited horse experience but she knew enough to know she was in over her head. AJ was a complete ass, on the ground and under saddle. He had every trick and she didn't know how or when to discipline him. Walking up to him he would pin his ears and that set the tone. While grooming and tacking he would bite, push into her, swing his head into her, kick, all the nasty habits. She couldn't get the bridle on because he would evade up, down, sideways and use his head as a weapon.
Riding was just as bad. He was in charge and he resisted every attempt to steer, change gaits, or stop. I got on him and I could tell someone had totally blown his mind. He was a weird mix of an asshole and a panicked horse. He totally tuned me out and I could not even get him to walk quietly on a loose rein. He drug me to the middle of the arena, he tried to jump out, he tried to rub me off, he threw his head straight up, he put his nose on the ground, he tried to bite my leg. You name it, he did it. I tried different bits and a sidepull and it made no difference, he was the same. A vet had done his teeth, and saddle fit and any areas of pain had been ruled out.
I told his owner that in my opinion he was too much horse by far for her to deal with and she agreed. She put him up for sale and I went out each time some one came to try him. She told each person what he was like but amazingly enough there were people that still wanted to try him. They all talked a big game but it only took a few minutes of his bs and they were done. Needless to say, he was getting worse with every person that unsuccessfully rode him. Then she tried to give him away but still no takers.
The final straw for the BO/instructor was when a woman came to look at him and someone pointed him out in the pasture and she walked up to him and he charged her, bit her in the head and knocked her down. He had to go.
I decided to try him on trails and he had issues but he was much better than in the arena. Since that is primarily what I do now I told her I would take him and see how it went. His main problems on the trail was he walked as fast as a horse could possibly walk and he had no whoa. Absolutely would not stop for any reason from the time you left until you got back. He would run sideways, backwards and pop up in the front end, but he would not stop.
I rode him the day after she gave him to me and the next day I was in a very serious car accident. I was in the hospital for 5 wks and in the hospital bed at home for another 8 months. It was a long road of PT and finally transitioning from a wheelchair to a walker. My husband knew I was in no shape to deal with AJ and even though I did some grooming, I knew I couldn't deal with him. We sold him to one of our Amish neighbors with full disclosure and he sold him to an elk hunter with full disclosure. I regretted selling him but did it anyway.
Sorry this is so long. I will write Part 2 tomorrow.
Laura, good point re: walking instead of trotting.
At a tough hot ride (like the one we just completed) my policy is not to walk unless she has food in her mouth. The Renegade ride was so technical that I wanted to spend as little time as possible not moving forward...so she would grab a single mouthful when directed and walk, and then when her mouth began to empty I would direct her to grab another and walk on. Always on command--with the Dragon, this is essential! She got good at grabbing while moving, but always to one side (I alternated sides) and always with the verbal command.
Jan--This is not boring at all. I am holding my breath wondering how the story turns out. AJ has/had more vices than I would be game to deal with, that is for sure.
Aarene--That is very educational for me. I simply have not run across horses (after all, I don't do endurance) that only grazed under command while being ridden. All the saddle horses I know (ranch horses, cowhorses, rope horses) are mostly taught not to graze under saddle, and when one that has been allowed to get away with it in the past (like Henry) tries to do it, it is always in the form of grabbing at grass or yanking the head down--and it is really a vice. So thanks for the clarification.
AJ Part 2
Alvin, the Amish neighbor I sold AJ to, trains for a living and does a much better job than most Amish around here. He attends clinics and has tried to learn more than just point them to town and go. He's actually a pretty good hand. He rode AJ for a couple weeks before he sold him, and he told me he had never ridden a more aggravating horse in his life. He thought maybe he would make a rope horse but AJ convinced him in a big hurry that he wouldn't.
He then sold him to a guy that wanted a stout horse to take Elk hunting in the Rockies. He tried him out, took him home, and put him out with his other horses and didn't ride him. His daughter later tried to ride him, unsuccessfully, and then they sent him to a NH trainer, where he flunked out. NH trainer said he was resistant on the "games" but finally got better, but he could not get it to transfer over to under saddle work. So he sent him home.
The owner brought him back to Alvin to ride for 2 wks before they went hunting. Of course he didn't get fit enough for mountain riding and on the 1st day of hunting he quit on him. Just bulled up and wouldn't go. He said they tried everything ( I hate to think what that involved) and he just wouldn't go so eventually the guy rode him back to camp and rode the pack horse the rest of the time. He turned him out for the winter and sold him back to Alvin this spring.
Alvin had been working with a NH trainer some and they played the games with AJ but just like the other NH trainer couldn't get it to transfer to riding. My husband saw him in Alvin's pasture and told me. I had always regretted selling him so I went up to see him. Alvin said you're the only one who likes this sorry sob, I'll sell him to you for what I paid for him. I took him home and rode him because I wanted to make sure his problems hadn't escalated in the year he was gone. Same old aggravating AJ, no better and no worse. So I bought him back.
Part 3 to come later and I swear that is the last installment. Really!!!!
Jan--This is a real cliff hanger. I have my fingers crossed that AJ improves and makes a decent horse and I REALLY want to know how you did it. Seriously and in detail. I can't imagine "fixing" a horse with all that water under the bridge.
I was just thinking of a passage in Siegfried Sassoon's 'Memoires of a Fox-Hunting Man' where he complains about a horse that jigged on the way home. So that annoyed people a hundred years ago too.
I suppose that I want my horse not to treat me as she would another horse. So no physical dominance, neither threats nor deeds. And not carelessness either. She needs to know the difference between a person and a horse.
She can tell me that she doesn't understand, that she is afraid, wants to drink, and so on. These are communications to a leader, not horse-gossip. I can deal with these.
My mare spent some years in a riding holiday centre so snatching at vegetation is a firm (and annoying) habit. This is worse (actually much worse) when the field is thin, just before the herd is due to circulate to a fresh pasture. In that case I try to feed her a bit extra before riding so that she isn't distracted by hunger. (We're talking about not a lot of feed and slow-ish rides.) Anyway she's not a thin horse and she is very food-focused: which in many ways is a good thing for a trail horse. As is a willingness to drink from streams and puddles.
In conclusion I have a good idea of what is acceptable so I'm not figuring out whether she's doing right moment by moment. Sometimes I do need to reflect on a behaviour. However overall I have a regime and apply it.
AJ Part 3
I got AJ back the first part of May and I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do, but I knew it had to be something that no one had done before. The one thing I was certain of was I wasn't going to fight with him. I spent a couple of days just grooming him and working around him. When approached his first response was always to pin his ears and sometimes snake his head around at me. So I just totally ignored the ear pinning and did nothing until he did more. I knew this horse had learned to fight and I was going to have to avoid engaging in battle. When grooming or working around him in his stall I was always hyper aware of what he doing and did not trust him at all.
I tried to use the lightest touch or signal to ask him to do something, and didn't get into a let's see who is stronger or meaner game. And most of the time I was able to make it seem like he was punishing himself. For instance if I wanted to put the halter on and he would sling his head at me to avoid it, I would put my hand up as he was swinging towards me and he would hit my hand, but I wasn't moving it towards him to hit him. If he was putting his head up or down or away from me I just got ahold of the bridge of his nose and held until he gave (sometimes it was quit a struggle) and then put the halter on. Or if I was brushing his head or neck or combing his mane which he hates, and he would snake his head around at me I would put the brush up where he would run into it and say sharply QUIT! Then go right back to brushing or whatever and not pick at him or engage in a struggle. If he truly came after me with mouth open and was intending to bite I would wallop him good once with hand, brush, leadline, whatever and then ignore him. He only did that twice and hasn't tried it since.
If I wanted him to move over I would touch his side, or shoulder, or hip as lightly as possible and cluck. I kept a screwdriver in my hand and when his response was to swing into me I would put the screwdriver up and let him run into it. Then ask again lightly and it only took a couple sessions for him to decide it was easier to just move over. Other than QUIT! I didn't yell at him, threaten him, or pick at him. I just went about handling him like he was an ordinary broke horse. He got much better to handle in just a few days.
He had always been really bad about fly spray and trying to hose him off, so I tackled those next. I gave him a chance to stand for fly spraying and he wasn't having any part of it. So I took him out and tied him to a tree. I got the pump up sprayer that I fog the barn with and put water in it. I didn't want to waste fly spray and that sprayer is powerful enough that I could spray him and stay far enough away. So I sprayed him and he had a fit, running around the tree one way and then the other and pulling back. I let him settle a few minutes and then did it again. I repeated this maybe five times and he got better each time until last time he just stood there. I took him back to the barn and tied him where he was before and sprayed him. He wiggled around a little but after a couple repeats he stood still. That was the only time he did all that. Now I can spray him tied up or loose in his stall, or even in he pasture and he doesn't move at all. I did the same thing with hosing him off. Tied to the tree and hosed and backed off and repeated , and it took maybe 3 minutes for him to stand like a broke horse.
I will have to finish this later because the blog told me I wrote too much so I had to delete the rest of it. lol
whp--Your mare sounds a bit like Henry. He is not a "slim" horse and he is very food-foused. I think that "type" if you will, is often a very steady, reliable trail horse. A sensible horse. And I agree, I do not worry if my broke horses are "doing right" moment by moment. I just respond as seems appropriate. I had to stop and think for awhile before I wrote the blog post. The "rules" are not something I had previously formulated and consciously enforced. I simply distilled what I do into a set of rules for the purposes of the article. Good point.
Jan--Can't wait to hear the rest of the story. What you are doing makes sense to me, and I have done many of the same things. The only comment I would have is that I think it is a matter of semantics to say you did not fight with AJ. I would say rather that you set the fights up such that you would win, and he would get the point. And that you realized that hitting or yelling at this particular horse wouldn't work. Sunny had the same issues with fly spray--in Sunny's case I just ignored him. I sprayed the horse next to him and sprayed him only as absolutely needed and just ignored his antics. Within a short time he could be fly sprayed like any other horse. But Sunny was in a very different mental space from AJ. Though it does sound to me, reading your latest installment, that much of AJ's behavior was testing behavior.
You are right Laura, I am in a way fighting with him, but I am trying to stack the deck in my favor.
When he was at the boarding establishment where I first met him I watched other people work with him, and a lot of the time it escalated into a fight, and I mean a big fight, and usually AJ eventually won because he just wouldn't back down. I saw a guy leading him and AJ pushed in to him with his shoulder and knocked him into a gate post. The guy smacked him across the chest with the rope and AJ slung his head into the guys head and knocked him sideways. The guy started jerking on him and hitting him with the end of the rope and AJ kept coming at him. The guy got him to the round pen and chased him around forever and then took him back to the same gate, with a chain over his nose, and AJ plowed him down going through the gate again. The guy started a full on war and the BO stopped him because AJ wouldn't back down and it was turning into a dangerous situation. She said just turn him out, he's not worth it.
I saw another guy spend at least 3 hrs making circles out on the trail, trying to get him to slow down and stand still, and he never did.
Those are just a couple of many examples of once you start a fight with him, you better pack a lunch, because he will not give in. So when I think of fighting with him that is what I think of.
That is really interesting. What I take from that is if AJ perceives it as a fight with a person, then he's not backing down. But if he perceives himself as merely struggling against an inanimate object, so to speak, then he rethinks what he is doing. Sounds like a very smart horse.
My Sunny was a little different. If you let him know in no uncertain terms (including being walloped) that you were not putting up with his crap, he mostly just dropped it. He had been trained by some tough cowboys and knew how to act right, but he is one to test and a previous owner let him get away with a lot.
That's it exactly, Laura. I just don't have your literary skills to describe it so accurately.
He is extremely smart and I think he just needed consistency without confrontation. Once he understood the "boundaries" and that they were non-negotiable and they never changed, he became an entirely different horse on the ground.
Like I said AJ is a completely different horse on the ground. He always has his ears forward, he is very interested in what I am doing and is always watching me. He is the first one to come cantering up in the morning when I holler. He shows no threatening behavior or disrespect when working with him on the ground.
Riding is still a work in progress. I rode him a few times at home just walking, and worked on steering and stopping without fighting, and got a little improvement.
My husband and I went to a local conservation area with good trails. My husband rode a bombproof horse. AJ was good to tack up and get on but once my butt hit the saddle he was on fast forward and he walked as fast as physically possible, leaving the other horse far behind. If I tried to circle back I lost all steering and he would try to pull the reins out of my hands, or put his head straight up. Or crash into the trees. Anything to evade. And forget stopping, it wasn't happening. These trails are adjacent to his former boarding barn and he remembered the way "home". When we got to a Y in the trail he was determined to go the way he knew and threw a shit fit. He hopped up and down, he ran sideways, he ran backwards, he was not going the other way. My husband caught up and then AJ ran sideways and crashed into his horse. I told my husband to just go on and see if he would follow. He did finally decide he was being left and cantered sideways down the trail until we caught up, and then did the dreaded jigging all the way back to the trailer. I had multiple fractures in my right leg and foot and after going through all that I was hurting and not amused. My husband said what in the hell are you going to do with this #%*& idiot? Normally with a horse like that I would just ride in a controlled environment, like an arena, and get him broker but he is even worse there, so I knew I had to think of something else. So that was our oh so not fun first trail ride.
Come on, Jan, you're killing me here. This is a real cliffhanger. Did he get better? What did you do? He sounds like a real handful to me.
We live in the middle of an Amish community. We are the only "English" in our neighborhood. There is usually someone outside at their houses in the summer. In the garden, at the barn, kids playing, harnessing or unharnessing, there is usually someone outside. So I saddled up AJ and told my husband I was going to visit as many houses as it took until he stood still and chilled out. I rode down the road ( country gravel road) and starting going up lanes (driveways) at each house and talking to whoever was around. AJ had a meltdown at the first two houses and was pawing, bouncing around, trying to drag me into their barn or over to the hitch rail where horses were tied, or spin and go back down the lane. One 4 yo boy named Joseph told his dad that Jan was riding a big black horse and he was very, very naughty. And was he ever!!! He was better at the third house and by the time I got to the fourth house he gave up and stood. I was prepared to do it all day long but it only took about 45 minutes. That was our first breakthrough at stopping and standing, and we repeated it several days and he was doing better each time. But when I took him trail riding he got frantic again and bounced down the trail and lost his whoa again. I tried everything I could think of to get him to relax including have my husband pony him, but nothing worked.
Finally we were riding on a trail with stirrup high grass next to it and I thought if I could only get him to stop long enough to eat he would calm down and stand. I know Laura, your pet peeve! So I turned his head into the grass told him whoa and pushed down on his neck. It took a couple of tries but he finally stopped all four feet and took a couple of bites. Then he took off down the trail again I kept repeating it, always with the command whoa and the push on the neck. He started stopping as soon as I did it and would actually stand long enough for my husband to catch up. And when he would move off again he was definitely more relaxed and before long would walk slowly beside my husbands horse. That was such a welcome relief after charging in panic down the trails. It took a couple of rides to get him to this point.
We live right on the edge of 400 acres of woods and fields that we can ride on so I would take him out either by himself or with my husband along, and we continued to work on it. I slowly started introducing the whoa without the push on the neck, and he was able to stop and stand more and more without losing it. He still gets rattled now and then, mostly when he decides to take a trail that leads home and I ask him to go a different way, but it only lasts 5-10 secs and he is over it. Interesting enough, sometimes when he starts to get upset about something he will stop abruptly and turn his head towards me like he is saying please can I eat? The second my hand pushes he dives into the grass and always gives a big sigh after he gets a couple mouthfuls. Like he is using it as a coping mechanism and calms himself before he melts down. I know there might be problems with snatching bites in the future, but it has made a huge difference in him. I simply couldn't think of another thing to try and thankfully this was the answer. Until I read this blog I never knew this cuing to eat was a thing endurance riders do too.
Trail riding is 100% better and I am ready to try to ride him with other horses now. I will pick them very carefully because I know this will likely set him off again.
Wow again. That makes perfect sense to me. All rules depend on the situation. It's very clear to me that letting him eat was a GOOD idea. It equated to letting him relaxe. And that was needed.
That is so true, with horses all things do depend on the situation. When I bought him back a friend said, "You know, when I think of a horse for a 59 year old woman than needs a walker, this is the last horse that I would think would be suitable". It's all situational, just like you said.
As with everything with AJ one thing doesn't necessarily transfer into another area. I don't have an arena but I do have a relatively flat, rectangular, grassy area fenced on two sides. When I ride him in there either before or after a ride around the property he reverts back to all his bad behavior. No steering, no whoa, trying to run me to the barn. So that is one area that still has to be sorted out. I don't necessarily need to school him, or arena ride, but I feel like I need to "fix" all areas of his misbehavior to have a truly solid, trustworthy horse. It will continue to be a work in progress but all I really want is a good trail horse and he is 90% of the way there.
Thanks for letting me hijack your blog. I never intended to make such a saga out of it, but there was too much backstory for me to figure out how to shorten it much. If any one else actually read the whole rambling mess, thanks.
Well, I read every bit of your story, Jan, and found it very interesting. I would never have taken AJ on, to be frank, but given that you did, I think you came up with very logical and creative ways to work with him and solve his problems. If there is one thing I truly believe it is that all horses and situations are different. What I do works for me with the horses and situation that I have, but it obviously does not apply to all horses and all situations. It's interesting to hear about other people and what they do. And I think you are very brave to choose to work with AJ, given your own situation. Here's to him making a great horse for you. Sometimes these smart horses are the best, once you get them sorted out. My Flanigan (best trail horse ever) and my current trail horse, Sunny, were/are smart, quirky, opinionated horses that others failed to get along with (sometimes spectacularly), and I really value/relied on their intelligence and ability to think for themselves.
Thanks again for allowing me to monopolize your blog.
If I hadn't had AJ the first time and worked with him a little bit before that, I never would have taken him on at this point in my life. You know how some horses you get on and it just feels right? Even at his worst, being on him just feels right. He is tall but base-narrow and that doesn't hurt my hips which has been a big problem in the last 10 years.
When I was lying in the hospital in pretty sorry shape, I thought about him a lot, and about what I would do when I got back to riding. When it turned out that I wasn't going to return to my "normal" life I let him go and always regretted it. I think buying him back was partially showing myself that I was not going to let the accident define my life, and I could reclaim my horse life even if it will never be the same. I at least wanted to try and it wasn't like he was working out in any other situation, so if I failed he wouldn't be any worse off than he was before.
Crazily enough I never really felt unsafe on him because he has a well defined sense of self preservation. During his worst shit fits he is not going to put himself in a position to get hurt, so as long as I stay on top I'll be fine. I have ridden too many horses who lost it and self preservation was the last thing on their mind. Those are the dangerous ones and no way would I ride one of those now.
I agree the hardest ones sometimes make the best horses in the end. I can tell from your books and your blog that you also are very good at reading a horse and working through his problems.
I hate seeing so many horse owners struggling with their horses, and their boundaries, and not ever really being able to read the horse or the situation. As our population gets further away from our rural roots and kids don't have access to grandpas farm or an aunt or uncle with a few cows and a horse or two, they never learn the basics of animal behavior. So they "love" horses and buy one and unless they have an excellent support system of trainer, BO, horse friends, someone to help them learn, it usually turns into a disappointing, often times dangerous experience. It was nice to read the other responses on your blog and to see that many people do understand the importance of boundaries and are enjoying their horse life. Too often all I hear about are the failures.
Thanks for providing a very useful tool for bettering our lives with our horses. I enjoy reading about how others think and feel about the various issues you bring up.
Jan--We had a horse named Freddy that was like AJ in that if you could stay on him you were fine. Freddy had a lot of issues but a fine sense of self preservation. He would go over/through an arena fence when he felt the need, but never got a scratch. You just had to stay on him.
And I have had horses--Flanigan was one--that had scared other people a lot, but I always felt perfectly safe on his back, so I know what you mean. It's a "feel," not logic.
I also really appreciate your point that if people don't grow up around livestock it takes them awhile to learn to "read" a horse, and many never get there. I was lucky enough to spend much time with horses in my childhood. My son, though not passionately interested in horses as I was, has been raised with them, and it amazes me how well he reads them and how he instinctively responds to the things that come up with correct interpretations and responses. I don't think I could teach that to a kid. You just have to grow up with livestock.
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