Encouraging a timid equine

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Sneak peak excerpt from Chapter Six of Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners (due for release in winter, 2010).

Timid horses are very different than those that have been
conditioned to be scared. Usually, they’ve been rushed and
overwhelmed. Consequently, a timid horse is generally insecure
about surroundings and new experiences but not terrified
about how their handler or rider will react when the horse responds
with a fearful instinct. While many of the strategies in
dealing with a scared horse apply to the timid mount, the process
for undoing the damage is often considerably easier and
less time-consuming. It’s critically important, however, not to
reinforce the learned fright by overfacing these horses. Slow
and patient introduction to lessons and challenges is essential,
as is being able to read the horse’s readiness to proceed, if your
intent is to turn your mount into a reliable and confident steed.

Exorcizing the crazies
Spook was a claimed four-year-old Thoroughbred filly immediately
deemed crazy by the new trainer. We were told she had
spent little training time on the track, instead logging most of
her exercise days in the pool, presumably due to behavioral and
resulting soundness problems. She was promptly sent to Halcyon
Acres for some reprogramming to settle her mind and enhance
her conditioning for sustained soundness. Obviously, the
endgame was to improve her racing performance.

When Spook arrived, we discovered that the perceived crazies were merely an expression of her insecurity, likely exacerbated by fearful riders who bolstered her concerns. We weretold later that exercise riders working for her former trainer were terrified of this gal, and proven right as her behavior deteriorated.

Sometimes, it’s amazing how much the humans handling a horse can unknowingly dictate the horse’s attitudes and reactions.

As is the case with most tentative horses, this filly needed
some basic groundwork to build her confidence and learn to
trust people. We started in the round pen with tack for a day or
two. She almost immediately relaxed and settled into a comfortable
routine that asked no more of her than she was ready
to handle. We were able to hop on her back pretty quickly. Of
course, consistent focus on praising her for quiet and responsive
reactions to our requests was an important step in gaining
her trust and confidence. Once she was calmly walking the
perimeter of the arena, stopping and proceeding to walk when
asked, we brought her to the center of the round pen and lowered
a stirrup to climb up on her back. Interestingly, after a couple
of days of discouraging her penchant for ripping around the
round pen’s perimeter, while encouraging a calm and slow approach
to training requests, Spook didn’t blow when asked to
stand and bear weight on a stirrup, likely for the first time in
her life. (Few Thoroughbred racehorses ever learn to stand
on their own and bear weight on their left side prior to a rider
landing in the saddle as they are generally held by a handler
who “legs up” a rider by tossing him into the saddle.) Still, we
took our time and watched her eye, bellying over her first before
slowly and gently swinging the right leg over her back, after ensuring she was relaxed and ready. The first two days under saddle were spent walking and stopping. Sessions lasted less than
fifteen minutes.

Once we were convinced that this filly trusted her rider and
was ready to proceed in a slow and composed manner, we
hit the trails. The first few days, we only walked. Interestingly,
she tackled challenging terrain and the steep hills with relish,
gaining confidence from her rider and blossoming from the
praise she received for handling requests boldly and artfully. Of
course, Gatsby, our canine assistant trainer, helped her tackle
the goblins along the way by forging ahead to prove scary-looking
objects wouldn’t attack. It was critical to never react anxiously
to her fear. She had already had enough of that. Instead,
calm, patient, and insistent reactions to encourage her to proceed,
while giving her time to assess and accept the sights and
sounds that unnerved her, was a necessary approach.

Nanette Levin


Nanette Levin is a writer, author and equestrian specializing in young horse training and horses with issues. Look for Horse Sense & Cents titles on Amazon, Audible and other major online retailers.

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