Sneak Peak excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners, due for official publication in winter, 2010
Turning Mean to Green
Most mean horses are smart. They’ve learned, through ongoing
provocation, to terrorize human counterparts who have
taught them to resent training. Granted, some are born mean
with bloodlines being the cause, but most are conditioned to
behave badly through a trial–and-error process where they find
viciousness their sole recourse to alleviate agony.
Bertha came to us as a transition project, having served as a
former hard-knocking racehorse, and more recently, an intended
broodmare. After a two-year period of nothing but pasture
time, we got the call for the career change. A cyst was discovered
on her ovary that would require an operation for any
possible success in breeding attempts. The owner had recently
died, and the widow decided not to invest in the operation.
She shipped Bertha to Halcyon Acres to be retooled as a riding
horse. The cyst also affected her behavior — in bigger ways
than we had initially imagined. This growth ultimately presented
considerable issues on the ground, although we were able to
correct problems under saddle.
The agent handling the mare warned us she was nasty, aggressive,
and destructive, but her lovely gaits, large-boned
frame, and size made her a good prospect for competitive arenas,
particularly as a dressage performer. We also wanted to
start her over fences to determine her proclivity for jumping
and to explore other possibilities for this mare.
The first month was a nightmare. While we were able to deal
with some of the socialization issues by pasturing her with our
clever lead pony Porky, handling and under-saddle challenges
were immense. She was vicious in the stall, leaving a bruise
on a handler’s arm the size of a grapefruit, after a bite with no cause.
She shattered boards in the stall as she lambasted the
walls because feeding wasn’t quick enough, or the turnout routine
didn’t suit her, or simply because she felt a need to intimidate
the horse next to her. She charged a naive photographer,
teeth bared, as he entered the pasture, uninvited and unaccompanied,
thinking he could slip in to capture images of this
mare. She couldn’t even walk a twenty-meter circle sans rider,
without falling toward center, because she was so unbalanced.
Bertha’s meanness was evident on the ground, but we were
curious to see if this would also be an issue with under-saddle
training. This wasn’t a mare that would be fixed by groundwork
as her behavior was induced by the cyst, and the owner and
agent were in a hurry to find her a new home. . . .
The initial concern, namely eliminating the meanness, was a
relatively easy task under saddle, once she understood that rewards
came when requests were met. Bertha wasn’t a typical
mean horse, in that her attitude stemmed from a physical issue
(the cyst) that made her hormones go haywire. Over time,
we found there was little we could do about her destructive behavior
during nonriding hours. Fortunately, she learned to enjoy
training and the activity gave her (and us) a respite from the
chemical issues that made her difficult during the rest of the
day. . . .
Sometimes, simply being able to recognize what allows a
horse to shine and accepting the things you’ll never be able
to change is enough to enjoy what a horse can offer. In Bertha’s
case, we’ll be glad to see her leave our farm, where fitting
in with the crowd and embracing the routine is a requisite for
long-term tenants. Still, we imagine her new owner will find
her a delightful performer and a welcome companion — particularly
if she’s stabled at someone else’s facility. It is amazing
with this mare how easily and adeptly she embraced undersaddle
work and came to eagerly enjoy the lessons. Daily riding
definitely improved her demeanor in the stable, so it’s likely an
owner focused exclusively on this mare will be able to reach her
in ways not possible at this farm.