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Ask the Trainer: Panic Problem & Dangerous Behavior

Topic_Info: Panic Problem & Dangerous Behavior
Location: Alabama
Date: April 08 2011
I bought a new horse about six months ago and he is a super sweet boy. He is five years old and there is a good chance he was abused before I bought him. The only problem he had when I bought him was that he would stiffen his front legs and panic when you tightened his girth. I found that if I took my time, left him untied, and walked him during the process he would do fine. Last week, I was taking him to a trail ride and when I started to load him, he pulled back, panicked and threw himself over on his back. He has done this one other time also, when he was tied to the trailer. Panic, then right over backwards! I really love this horse but I'm starting to get afraid that he will panic and flip over under saddle. This is a hard problem, do you have any advice?
Your horse is mentally "checking out" when his stress, panic, worry, fear, insecurity, etc. takes over. Horses don't just randomly one day start acting out dramatically, so my guess would be he probably showed signs of stress that you either didn't recognize or were not addressed in a way that made him feel better so that he could mentally and emotionally "let go" of the worry and replace it with confidence. The scenarios such pulling back when tied, panicking when the cinch was tightened, etc. present that your horse is having issues with pressure- towards him, on him, around him, etc. The issue itself is not dramatic or unwanted behavior, but rather why his brain is getting so stressed that he's acting out as he is.

Horses are herd animals, and especially with young ones, they need a confident leader in you who offers them clear communication to help them mentally slow down and address any concerns they have. Naturally they physically react to something, then stop and mentally address. For the sake of both our and their safety, and in teaching our horses to be reasonable when they are having a problem, we need to teach them to stop, address, think and then move.

Right now your horse is mentally unavailable to "hear" you and does not currently ask "What would you like?" Instead he "takes over" in a situation as a matter of self preservation- not because he is trying to be "bad."

If your horse has felt "ignored" by you or other people in his past, he now makes decisions on his own with no mental availability towards you when he is having a melt down moment. A horse's physical actions are a direct reflection of his mental and emotional state. The more "warm and fuzzy" he feels on the inside, the more he'll look relaxed on the outside. The more stress he is carrying inside of him, the more stress you'll see in his physical behavior that can lead to dangerous behavior.

Your horse does not want to reach a point of "panic" but he's probably pretty convinced at this point that people are not there to help him through a stressful scenario. The more dramatic the behavior, the worse the horse is feeling.

I'd say you're going to have to go back and revisit the basics and assess the quality of clear communication you have with him (or the areas that may be lacking) so that you can establish effective "tools" when you work with him. You're going to have to offer him a "clean slate" and assume he knows nothing so that you can find the "holes" in his training and address those in order to get him mentally, emotionally and physically feeling better about life.

Trying to address your horse the moment he is physically exploding is too late and after the fact. You're going to need to be able to influence his thoughts, energy within his movement, respect of personal space, etc. You're going to need to recognize when your horse starts showing the slightest signs of being stressed and stop and address them. Many times people "push" a horse through a situation they think is "no big deal" not realizing even if the horse "goes along" with being forced through it, that he is still carrying a lot of internal stress that continues to build until he can no longer handle it. This is where you hear people say "he blew up all of a sudden." Well no, it wasn't all of a sudden. The stress may have started a month ago, last week, or this morning, but because it wasn't addressed in a way that the horse could diffuse and let it go, it had to come out at some point- like the "needle that broke that camel's back."

You want to be able to influence your horse ahead of time, rather than being reactive towards what he offers and always reprimanding him for getting something wrong. People who try to be "nice" or "loving" to their horse create a "gray area" in communication- the horse operates in the black and white. He needs to learn where the boundaries are so that he can operate within them. If you're not consistent, then he'll always have to be searching for what you want, which will lead him to soon ignoring you. The more you are clear, specific, and intentional by addressing every step with him, the better he'll feel about life. The more his confidence will increase and the dramatic and dangerous behavior will dissipate on its own.

Finding a "safe" place such as a round pen and starting while working him from the ground you're going to need to re-establish clear communication using effective "tools" that you will eventually transfer over to using when you are riding. You may work at liberty (with your horse loose) and/or you may work with your horse on the lead rope (using the rope as if it were like a rein when you ride.) When you do something, it must MEAN something to your horse. If you are hopeful (meaning you ask something and then wait and see if your horse eventually addresses you after he has quietly tuned you out) when you communicate with him and allow for him to ignore or "take advantage" of you on the ground, the same behavior will continue in the saddle.

You'll need to be able to "break down" asking your horse to first look (literally) at different "things" without moving. This is asking for a mental commitment. He'll need to learn that ignoring or tuning you out when you're specific, doesn't work and that he must address you mentally. Then you'll need him to understand to "mimic" your energy so that as you increase or decrease your energy so should he. If he can first mentally address, and then physically "softly" move towards what you've presented, you're on the right track for creating a quality ride.

He'll need to understand to change his energy by either a physical aid (such as bumping the stirrup by his side) or a movement from you. Most people stand still or sit still in the saddle hoping the horse will figure out what speed they want. Instead, you must "take your horse for the ride" by offering what you want him to do. I tell people within each gait there should be ten different energy levels. This should first be established from you working your horse on the ground. If he's unclear with you on the ground, he will not just "figure it out" when you're in the saddle.

Too many people are unclear in what, where and how they communicate with their horse. They "challenge" the horse into guessing what they want; reprimanding the horse every time he can't figure it out. Or they present the same manner of communication repetitiously driving the horse bonkers until he accidentally figures out what the person is asking. The more the horse has to "guess" at what the person wants, the more they tune out the person's aids or communication.

The more specific YOU can mentally be in presenting literally one-step-at-a time scenarios, the more your horse can "get it right." The more he realizes he can be successful when addressing you, the more he'll want participate and offer you. One quality step will turn into three and then 10 and then eventually a whole circle and then the entire ride. But it takes clarity and awareness of riding every single step to "help" your horse find the right answer, rather than forcing him to guess. The more clear your communication is, the more your horse will respect your aids, the less effort it will take from you to get him to happily participate.

Good Luck,

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