Sneak Peak excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners, due for official publication in winter, 2010

Chapter Four

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.

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