Doctoring the Defensive Horse

So this latest blog came to my mind as one of the young horses I have in training put a nice little puncture in his front leg half way between his knee and the point of his shoulder.  It seems to be a “rite of passage” as I can’t remember how many four year old geldings I’ve seen that seem to have the “need” to put a hole in their leg…

Anyhow, this particular horse came to me pretty defensive about most things in life and certainly when it came to anything around his legs.  His nature in general would appear to most horse folks “relaxed” or “quiet.”  What I was “translating” was that he was mentally shut down, or unavailable, and his resistance made him appear, slow and quiet, whereas I saw a horse constantly looking for “a way out” from anything associated with humans. 

I’ve mentioned in past blogs about Not Embracing the Brace, Filling the Holes in your Horsemanship, and so on… this horse is the absolute epitome of why I at times might seem a bit “over the top” in really laying down the basics and creating clear communication.  Any time something concerned, bothered, or worried him, he’d mentally check out and physically “lock up” or “blast” his body in any direction possible, including considering running over the top of me.  In scenarios away from the other horses he’d seem like he was “in your pocket,” but in reality it was the lessor of two evils- him being alone, or him being “with” a human. 

With the distraction of other horses, if he was loose, I witnessed him actually consider climbing my four foot metal gate to put himself back into the pasture to be with the other horses.  Even in the herd, he had a hard time respecting the “leader” and had quite a few marks from his “delayed response” after being warned by the herd leader. 

The first time I was working him in the round pen (he happened to be trotting) and the horses on the outside of the pen moseyed off; he literally turned and ran straight into one of the pen panels.   

When his brain “checks out” his eyes literally glaze over and he looks “empty.”  Then when he checks back in, it is as if a lightning bolt cracked him on the backside and his body will spring into multiple directions at once.  Watching him loose trying to make up his mind just as to which direction in the pen or how fast he wants to move would be stress inducing for the folks who’d want to “do it for him.” 

I honestly believe he never was asked to think before he got here.  This is not at all to nay say his owners who specifically took their time to go slow and not rush him.  The problem is their lack of experience and ability to recognize and translate his behaviors has now led to a horse whose level of anticipation about “anything” about to happen is pretty extreme.

But horses are amazing… In just a few weeks he learned he could use his brain to make decisions in a reasonable manner, participate but be respectful while being groomed, tacked up… He learned about yielding to and following pressure.  He learned that he could move backwards when asked.  He learned how to move one foot individually without a chaos.  He learned how to “wait.”  That he didn’t have to “flee” anytime anything more than a walk was asked of him.  To literally look and think to his right and left before he moved.  To increase and decrease his energy, to line up to the mounting block (loose), to be able to be “sent” through obstacles on his own without mentally checking out, to push his way through hanging tarps, to work at liberty in a 100x200 grass arena… To jump over cavalleties, etc… And to bring himself “in” to his night pasture when his name was literally called from the opposite end of the property.

But there was still a very long “list” that I wanted him to learn to be reasonable about.  On that list included movement near his legs… He’d tolerate (which did not mean I believed he was “okay” with it) ropes swing on top of his neck, back and rump, but as they slid down to any of his legs he’d either try to flee or slightly kick out at the rope.  I’d been working his front legs in being able to just dangle a rope to rub all over them, and then with each end of the rope held in either hand to gently apply pressure against his leg, releasing as soon as he “followed” the pressure I was applying.  I didn’t want to just see him physically yield his leg, but rather to feel better about the moving, touching, etc. of his legs and feet.

And then I walked out one morning and there was the swollen knee and upper leg.  It wasn’t extreme, but I realized the smooth scratch about the width of my pinky I’d seen the day before, really had a hole under it.  I’ve dealt with many wounds that turn most people’s stomachs… and this one was a pretty petite one.

So I had an already defensive and anticipative horse, who now was 100 times more on edge with the pain of the wound.  Which meant that even when I just stood on the side of the wound and patted his neck, he’d try to turn his head to block me from getting anywhere near his injured leg.

This is where revisiting the pre-established basics comes into play.  Although he was pretty much dead set that there was no way I was getting near the wound (which he communicated to me with offerings to strike out, run backwards/sideways/forwards and considered running me over, locking up his body so that any moment of touching he would go straight up in the air, bracing his neck in his “got to bail” position over his right shoulder with his left shoulder trying to “push” on my personal space to keep me at bay, etc.

Now my “scale” of extreme behavior is pretty crazy compared to what the average horse person has seen, and by no means was this horse particularly “creative” in his resistance.  What really intrigued me was the way he “held” on to his anticipation causing him to emotionally come completely unglued mentally.

Lips curled up and pursed, chest muscles twitching, tail wringing, neck so rigid you could bounce a coin off of it, the whites of his eyes showing… He just knew I was going to saw his leg off, except because of his insecurity, as his defense he tried everything he could to avoid looking at me, thinking about where I was asking him to stand, or staying mentally “tuned in” as I touched him (not on the leg.)

So each time he presented a way to “avoid” mentally addressing me, I had to get him to “let go” of what he was trying.  It was a bit like an emotional roller coaster for him which was mirrored with dramatic movement; he’d initially lock up, then try and have excessive movement, then lock up, then tune in to what I was offering, and then start to take baby mental and physical steps/movement, then would take a huge sigh or blow his nose, and instantly all of the signs of stress and anticipation would dissolve from his body language.  Then I’d go back to whatever I’d originally been asking, whether it was where I was touching him, or with how much “energy”, etc.  Keep in mind my standard for him standing quietly was that I could “work on him” with him standing ground tied (the lead rope loose on the ground.)

Although my “goal” may have appeared to doctor his leg, it really was to help this poor horse feel better about life.  He had no trust that I was going to help him relax.  He had no belief that I’d really “follow through” until he made a change, which is why I believe he hung on to his extreme mental resistance for so long.  But as soon as he “let go” of his anticipation it was like he turned to putty in my hands- literally.

Eventually on day one I got a hose (by the way I don’t think he’d ever been hosed/bathed) on him for twenty minutes while he stood with his head low and relaxed and with a hind foot cocked.  That afternoon I put a sweat on his leg which involved applying ointment with a Popsicle stick (he would have sworn it was going to be a knife), seran wrap, cotton and then vet wrap.  The irony was that he didn’t care at all about the crinkly packaging of the vet wrap and cotton rolls or the actual touching of his leg as I applied the bandaged.

The next day I applied a new bandage after he’d gone through the night without one, and the swelling was definitely going down.  I don’t work by the clock, and although initially met with the similar “the world is going to end” resistance as the previous day’s initial session, in less than a quarter of the time he completely relaxed and let me doctor him.

That evening after he came in from grazing I asked him to stand (totally loose) and I was able to approach, although for one moment he thought about fleeing the opposite way from me, and then he took a deep sigh and stood relaxed as I undid his bandage and inspected the wound.

On day three of doctoring he just about put his leg in my lap to inspect; all signs of swelling were gone as was the heat and he was totally sound.

The next day when I actually went to “work him” his entire attitude and body language from the start was much softer and more participative without me having to “do” so much to get his brain with me.  We still have quite a ways to go, but it was like he realized I was there to support him through worrisome scenarios, rather than scare him through them.

So as much as it was on my list to gently and slowly address working around/with his legs and desensitizing him to movement, pressure, etc., by having him get hurt, it fast forwarded his “learning” how to be reasonable in a situation he clearly thought was going to kill him.

Every single one of the “tools” I used in how I communicated with his brain and then body was through the over simplified points of yielding to pressure, directing his brain, influencing his energy and a clarity of when something he offered was “correct” or not the desired response. 

I could imagine many other folks attempting to “take on” a horse like him, who to a certain extent you could probably “bully” into tolerating a scenario, but I’d hate to imagine where that sort of interaction might lead in the long run.  I’ve already witnessed a few of his “light switch” dramatic moments, and in my mind, “challenging” a horse like this to “get it right” is like lighting a fuse on the end of a stick of dynamite.

Over the years I have heard quite a few stories of the “wild and crazy horse” that of course gets hurt, and in the human’s commitment to “doctor” that horse, where under other circumstances the human would never had spent so much time with the horse, that the horse and human actually built a very trusting relationship and “fixed” a lot of the horse’s initial “problems” without realizing or trying to do so.

But all too often people wind up being distracted and aren’t really “committed” themselves to mentally focusing on their horse until the moment of an emergency.  So instead of “waiting” for a scenario like that, for those who don’t have an injured horse, maybe experiment with interacting with your equine partner as if it were as important as attending to a wound.  You might be surprised by just having the thoughts in your head how the difference in your energy and intention will be perceived by your horse perhaps causing a change for the better in him.

Here’s to “TLC”,


Filling in the "holes"

I’ve had a new horse come in for training and in between this crazy ongoing rain I head outside to work with him.  He is a four year old that has had a lot of handling, though his owner’s experience is limited, she has gone “slow” with him…

It is my job when a horse first comes in to evaluate “where the horse is at,” mentally, physically, emotionally and experience wise.  So I thought I’d share with you some of the more common “holes” I tend to find in working with horses of all ages…  I believe a majority of the time the holes are present because owners and horses learn to get comfortable with how or what they present in a scenario.  The horse learns what is expected of them and then can comply.  The problem occurs when the “rules” or expectations change.

One of the most basic and common initial scenarios is a horse that is totally “light” on the lead rope when you are walking him in the “normal” position (standing somewhere near his head and drawing him forward with the lead rope.)  The problem appears when you attempt to stand ahead, or off to the side, and are about a lead rope length away.  When attempting to “draw” the horse forward without physically walking off.  “All of a sudden” there is a brace (meaning the horse stands rigid and leaning back against the rope).  The horse has no concept to “follow the feel” of the pressure the lead is creating, instead, it is a game of “tug of war.”  This basic resistance towards pressure affects all “tools” the person from the ground and while riding must have.  Many horses that have issues with “brakes” while ridden are completely resistant to any pressure with the lead rope.

Another leading “issue” is the horse is walking at a reasonable pace next to you, and you ask him to increase or decrease his energy in time with you increasing or decreasing your physical movement and using the lead rope to encourage him to walk faster or slower.  Perhaps as you walk faster, the horse just stretches his nose and neck as far forward as he can and gets “heavy” leaning on the lead rope because he has made no change in his walk speed; or as you slow down, he plows on past you because he has “only one walk speed.”  Again, while sitting in the saddle I ask my horses to have ten different energy levels within each gait, so why not establish that standard form the ground first.

In their attempt to desensitize their horse many people have offered to “touch” their horses all over their bodies, etc. to get them used to stuff rubbing on them such as a saddle pad.  The problem arises when “movement” occurs, rather than “quietly” presenting something to a horse.  In the case of the saddle pad, many people walk up as close to the horse as possible, take their pad and gently place it on the horse’s back.  No problem, horse stands quietly.  But when someone approaches and from about a foot away “swings” the saddle pad up on the horse’s back, a lot of times the horse may jump forward, sideways, or brace up with anxiety.  Why is this an issue?  Well standing on the ground presenting “unexpected” movement is a lot safer than when: in the middle of mounting (such as if you are wearing a rain coat in this crazy weather) and having “excess” movement, riding through the woods and having unexpected movement such as a branch swings against/towards/away from the rider’s body, when the rider leans over to pass something to someone on the ground or on another horse, they are just a few of the many scenarios that can occur.  Why not address your horse’s concerns about unexpected movement beyond his vision while your feet are still planted firmly on the ground?  

Speaking of saddling many people try to “sneak” the saddle on the first few times, and then let the horse to sort out (i.e. fleeing around the pen, bucking for five minutes, etc.) how he feels about having an object strapped to his back.  For me, I’d rather initially have “tools” or options established in how I communicated with the horse, that way, when he shows concern, insecurity, fear, etc. I have a “safe” and previously clearly understood manner of communicating with him in order to help support and influence him as he sorts out and learns how to accept the saddle, and still be able to let go of his emotional stress…

The amazing thing with horses, is they are such a clear reflection of oneself… And they are totally honest about when they “get it”.  If they really make an emotional/mental change in how they feel about something, it sticks.  So when I hear people tell me, “Every time I present ________________________, it just feels like we are starting over each time.”  That translates to me that the horse may be “tolerating” the stressful scenario, such as passing/walking on the ________(tarp, water, loading into the trailer, etc.) but he has never changed how he FELT about doing such activity, therefor every time the scenario is presented, it is still an “issue.”  Change how he feels about the issue, and the task at hand will be “easy” for the horse to accomplish.

Another common mentality in working with young horses is the “no distractions” theory.  Meaning that while working with a young horse often people want to be “away” from any activity, possible distractions, etc.  To me this is just “sneaking” through asking the horse to mentally be with you.  I often joke young horses have ADD and their ability to focus is for very short periods as they can often and easily be distracted by anything.  I once had an OTTB that would get distracted by small 2-4 seater planes flying overhead (you couldn’t even hear them.)  BUT if you’ve ever had to the opportunity to watch a young horse in the herd, as much as he may “mess around” and cause havoc, when the leader of the herd communicates with that young horse, he is at total attention.  So in my mind, the same standard should apply when I’m working with a youngster.  When he is with me, he needs to not just be physically next to me, but he needs to mentally commit to addressing me at all times; even if the “real world” has lots of stuff going on it.  I find it is easier to set the standard of respect, communication, etc. from the start, than to ask for just “some of his focus”.  If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Let’s see how he does,” this usually comes from the horse’s brain not really addressing what is being presented and the rider just “sneaking” through the scenario without tools to influence the horse.  It is safer, and easier, to establish from the ground the standard and clear communication before you get in the saddle.

Speaking of the “real world,” I find many times horses learn the “pattern” of focusing while in a training scenario, such as being worked in the round pen, but in the time of being handled between the pasture and the pen, all “quality” in regards to respect, communication, etc. towards the human disappears…  It is the human’s responsibility to mentally participate if they expect their horse to participate.  All too often the human is distracted, and during the catching, leading, (grooming, tacking, etc.) are brainless and do not ask their horse to participate (so you see behaviors in the horse such as hard to catch, the horse “leading” the human, fussiness/fidgeting while being groomed tacked, etc.)  As the person and horse enter the “magic gates” of the arena or round pen, the human “suddenly” expects their horse to be attentive, focused, participative and up to par.   As with most things in life, but certainly with horses, the phrase, “Expect the unexpected,” is all too true.  So why would someone “only” have a standard for what they would like of their horse in one scenario but not another?  You never know what unforeseen scenario may arise as you are working with your horse, why not always have the same standard for his brain and body when you are around him?

“Whew… the session is over!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a “great” training session, and as soon as the “magic gate” swings open, the horse’s brain is gone.  I’ve heard about so many accidents that have occurred when least expected after a ride that had gone “so well…” At all times, whether from the ground or the saddle, human and horse need to participate and remain present.  People are quick to blame their horse for inattentiveness, but as an instructor, I find the horses focus way easier than most people do.  It is the person’s job to constantly assess what/how/why they are communicating with their horse, before they critique the horse; in 90% of the scenarios I see, once the person makes a change within themselves, you can see the immediate change in the horse.

Routines, or what I call “patternized” behavior… As people in general become more open minded to working with their horses from the ground first to assess where their horse is “at” mentally, emotionally and physically, before climbing into the saddle, they need to “keep it fresh” in what and how they ask something of their horse.  (As a side note I’d like to mention in my definition, working from the ground can occur during something as simple as leading your horse from the pasture to the grooming area, it doesn’t have to involve a “40 minute session in the round pen.”)  Sometimes depending on the facility, the person’s schedule, etc. people get into the habit of always presenting the same thing in the same place at the same time.  Same time of day rides, same area to groom and tack, same spot you mount your horse, same direction you start off riding in the arena, etc. these all create “patternized behavior.” 

When a pattern has been established, the horse appears to “be listening” and “respectful.”  The problem is, as mentioned at the beginning of this blog, horses easily learn routines or patterns and therefor can often “offer” something before the person has asked.  Often people will say, “Look how good he is by doing that, and I didn’t even ask.”  Well it might seem like “good behavior,” but the problem is, if a horse learns to “take over” and make decisions before asked by the person handling/riding him, what happens in an unforeseen scenario?  The most natural defense a horse has is to run.  So if the horse has learned to “take over”, and something that bothers, scares, etc. him arises, will he really stop and ask his rider, “How would you like me to respond?” or will he most likely make the decision on his own in how he reacts with a “Flee the scene,”  mentality?  Again, the standards you establish during the calm, quiet moments solidify the quality of relationship (which will affect both you and your horse’s safety) during the “eventful” moments.  The time to “fix” or set a standard in your relationship is not in the moment of panic or emergency.

There are many other “holes” I could mention, but the above are the most “common” ones I initially come across.  So the next time you head to work with your horse, take a few minutes to assess your standards, communication, possible routines, or other “he just always does” scenarios to clarify just how quality is the foundation of you and your horse’s relationship.

Filling in the Holes,

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