Working with scared horses
Horses who have learned to view human contact with terror are relatively easy to reach with a patient, consistent, and confident approach. It takes time, but teaching these over-reactive mounts to calm down and gain courage is certainly doable if the handler offers assurance through kind, safe, and steady guidance. The biggest issue with these horses is not the initial concern, but the escalated craziness that occurs as they anticipate the punishment for their fear. The best course of action when they blow, and then really blow, is to do nothing. Merely wait out the ordeal with a steady, patient, but insistent attitude that makes it clear you are not going to attack them for their fear but will not proceed until the tantrum ends. Generally, a willing attitude to proceed calmly and quietly ensues. Initial work off their backs is key for these characters, as you won’t gain their trust while mounted until after you have been able to convince them that they need not explode when handled from the ground. Be careful and watchful, though, because you can easily be caught in a bad and dangerous position if you aren’t ready for, and mindful of, their likely next move. Once you learn to read your horse, predicting his or her blow becomes relatively easy, albeit not foolproof.
Instilling soundness of mind and body
Nette needed some reprogramming. She had been broke, but arrived at the track as a nervous, erratic filly that had no self-confidence and little trust in riders or handlers. Her reactive behavior was likely a large contributor to some subsequent soundness issues that had her on respite by the summer of her two-year-old year. Bloodlines were considered a huge contributing factor, as the stud was known for producing crazies. She arrived at Halcyon Acres that winter.
Groundwork was critical in the beginning to reshape this filly’s thinking and reaction to stressful situations. We spent a lot of time during her stay at the farm working on simple tasks in the stall with ample grooming and quiet contact that helped her learn to trust her human handlers. It was important to reassure this wary filly with calm and pleasant interactions with people. Making attention a welcomed treat versus a frightening experience was an easy initial and ongoing exercise for us and critical to Nette’s continued progress. Each day, a good half hour of time was devoted to currying, brushing, combing her mane and tail, picking feet, and getting Nette used to being tied to the wall (a black rubber tie with double-ended snaps is generally best for this as it stretches quite a bit and will break when the situation gets dangerous) for happy handling in the stall. Seemingly simple tasks such as grooming, leading to and from the paddocks, and merely getting her into the routine of the facility were not so easy for Nette. She overreacted to everything and expected harm with each new experience. It was important to address Nette’s anxiety with quiet and nonreactive time to prepare her for effective under-saddle work.
The second day Nette was at the farm, she spent a full twenty minutes rearing, nonstop, while being led home from the pasture. This was five feet from the barn entry door after calmly handling the trek from the paddock. We don’t know what set her off, but it doesn’t really matter. Ghosts, or imagined horrors only the horse can see from his mind’s eye, are as prevalent in panic attacks as reasonable issues with these scared characters. Nette must have gotten perpendicular to the ground at least thirty times during this tantrum. Initially, she tried bolting toward the door each time her front feet touched the ground. She was eager to join the other horses, but quickly became consumed with terror over what would beset her after her instinctive move.
We stood our ground, but otherwise did nothing. Finally, she calmed down and willingly and quietly walked into the barn. That was the last time this leading issue surfaced. It was amazing to see this filly begin to transform after this single incident. Once Nette realized her reflexive, excited move wasn’t going to prompt a beating, her fear subsided, she settled down, and she was willing to ponder a new paradigm.
Several factors were critical in making this incident so landmark for Nette. It was important that her fear was not reinforced with the aggressive reaction to rearing she was expecting. Doing so would have confirmed her expectations and reinforced the reactive, escalated behavior. Equally significant was the handler’s ability to weather this tantrum with a quiet, fearless, patient, and steady response. Scared horses have a keen sense for when the people working with them are afraid and respond in kind with intensified reactions. In addition, it was critical to keep a hold of this filly without injury to either horse or handler. We always work with long lead ropes that are either leather or cotton to give ample room to deal with explosive situations and reduce the likelihood of a tendon injury or burn if the horse gets tangled in the line. When dealing with scared horses in particular, it is imperative to stay with them – whether on the ground or their backs. These equines rarely want to go it alone and tend to get more anxious when they’re solo. They often run blind when released and can easily get hurt crashing through obstacles or running onto unsafe ground. Ensuring you maintain your contact with them (in a kind way) helps them calm down and gain confidence. With other types of horses, such as alphas or mean horses, a release would indicate a reward for their bad behavior. This is rarely the case, though, with scared horses, even though most have endured cruel or ignorant human handling.
Nette’s behavior and demeanor as she walked off the trailer led us to suspect she was taught to be reactive, but this incident underscored the fact that her fear was, at least in part, learned, as she became more explosive after her initial outburst. This type of heightened response to a misstep is a key clue in determining when you are working with a scared horse.
We didn’t even hop on Nette’s back for two full weeks, instead opting for early handling and grooming lessons supplemented by training activities in the round pen. While we try to get out of the round pen as quickly as possible with a horse, we do find this space a great tool for horses that have had a communication breakdown with the people they’ve encountered. Nette was no exception. The circular nature of the space and required close proximity of the handler to the horse provides a useful environment to establish a connection. Body language is the first step to drive, encourage, or stop the horse. Putting yourself behind the horse’s center drives them forward. Moving your body toward their shoulder or in front of their head (while in the center of the arena) should slow, stop, or turn them around. If you want them to accept your approach as nonthreatening, turn your back to them (this helps with persuading them to stop, too). . . .