Monday, September 27, 2010

I'm giving you an article from the paper today. It comes from a recently asked question from you guys, so it's only fair to share it here.

I'm working on our next story.....Mouthy Monday will appear later in the week...but I'm still here!



Sensitive Ears

By Janet Huntington

I was recently asked how I deal with a horse with sensitive ears.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit if my horses don’t want their ears touched, then I don’t touch them. Unless I have to, then we wrestle.

I don’t clip my horses ears so it hasn’t been much of an issue for me.

To be honest, I don’t think horses particularly like having their ears touched, although they can really get into having the base scratched. There is so little in their lives we let them control I figure they can keep their ears to themselves.

But I admit horses should tolerate having their ears handled. We need to halter and bridle them, some need to be clipped or trimmed and all of them need to let us doctor their ears if necessary.

In the past I had horses come in for training which refuse to let anything or anyone touch their ears.

“He must have been eared down,” is what I’m usually told.

This means grabbing the horse’s ear and pulling it towards the ground. Sometimes an added twist or even biting the ear is thrown in for extra oomph. This is extremely painful for the horse and from what I’ve seen not particularly successful.

It can also tear the cartilage in the horse’s ear and at the very least will make the horse violently opposed to having his ears handled.

The thing is most horse people know “earing down” is a pretty stupid way to try to handle a horse. Since the invention of the twitch and Ace there hasn’t been much need for this maneuver.

So most ear shy horses have not been abused this way. They are either in pain or have been in pain and being a horse, have decided to never have their ears handled again.

They can get ticks in their ear canal or fly bites from gnats and no see-ums. Aural plaques are scaly lesions that form on the inside of the pinna (outer part of the ear). They are caused by a virus and are typically asymptomatic, meaning that they really cause the horse no problems, so vets generally leave them alone. The virus is transferred by fly bites. Irritating, painful little fly bites.

All this action can make for a very touchy horse and is more likely the cause of ear sensitivity than a history of abuse.

Which is part of why I don’t clip ears, I want my horse to have the protection Nature, God or Evolution gave them.

I would never start working a horse with touchy ears until he had been cleared by the vet. I once had a young horse just about take off my kneecap when I reached up to bridle him. He struck like a snake when he felt my hand touch the back of his ear. Turned out he had an abscess in his ear It was a lesson which stayed with me.

I have two approaches to desensitizing a horse’s ears.

Most often I simply ignore the problem and bridle or halter him anyway. Which means I just dive in and do it.

This method takes a willingness and the ability to hang on no matter how far they drag you and still put the bit in their mouth.

I like to place the bit before I bring the bridle over their eyes. Then I put the bridle on the rest of the way.

I don’t use a one ear bridle on a touchy horse and I’ll take the browband off a browband bridle so there’s only the crown to worry about.

I have always been able to get my horses to accept their fate and the bridle this way, as long as I was tall enough to reach them and I could hang on.

Once I wrestle a horse into his head gear I tend to leave him alone. If he doesn’t want me to touch his ears, I don’t.

Eventually he realizes all I care about is getting his halter or bridle on and he knocks it off. Then I’ll add the browband and when he’s OK with that I’ll go to a one-ear.

But most people would rather train their horse to handle having their ears touched. They would also prefer not having a Saturday Night Smackdown in order to go for a ride.

So method number two comes into play.

First off, if the horse is truly manic about his ears I will use a rope halter to catch him and undo my bridle and buckle it over his head while I’m working on him.

I don’t want him to associate our ear discussions with bridling or being caught.
I start by scratching up his neck toward his ears until he gets nervous. Then I back off and rub where he wants to be rubbed.

Then I head back to where he gets nervous, but stay there scratching awhile. Then I back off.
I go back and forth until eventually I get to the ears.

This can take minutes, hours, days, weeks, whatever. It depends on the horse.

I try to stop each session before the horse is sick of me.

I try to start each session after I have worked with the horse on something else and he is calm, relaxed and a little tired.

Eventually I’ll be able to handle his ears.

This is where many people teach there horses to drop their head. I don’t, but there’s about a hundred kazillion videos on the subject so you should be able to figure it out.

Then I bring in my regular halter and bridle.

The key to desensitizing is always the same. Patience, patience, patience zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Good horse training is about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it’s always worth it.

24 comments:

Becky said...

I'm really curious why you don't teach your horses to drop their heads.

Thanks for the good advice--- I feel kind of dumb that I never considered a medical/pain reason for ear shyness--- it makes perfect sense, though.

The Breakable Artist said...

I agree it's like watching paint dry. I get people bringing me problem horses mostly and everyone always wants to watch so they can see the rodeo. I always say they're welcome to watch but grab something to sit on and something to eat and drink.

First i'll do something to get my horse's feet moving, roundpenning, lunging something that will make the horse want to stand and air up.

Then I go to desensitize when my horse is a bit tired. I use the second method, pretty much although I do teach my horses to lower their head first. I am 5'0, so I can't even reach my 14.3 mare's ears if she raises her head.

I usually start with a dressage whip and rub on the neck, up up a bit and retreat when the hrose relaxes. However I sort of ignore the ears, I'll go right over them from neck to head to rub my horse's face. Wen my horse is relaxed about this i'll repeat with my hand. Then i'll rub quickly over the neck or head and slow down as I rub over the ears ( i'm basically just pushing the ears forward or back at this point). If the horse is still pretty tolerant i'll focus more on the ears if not i'll leave that to another session.

I'm with you though, besides bridling or haltering my horses ears don't get messed with much unless that's a spot my horses enjoy being scratched.

Valentino said...

This spring I assisted a dentist with a boarders horse. The horse was strongly opposed to getting floated, and had lots of dental issues so the process was likely to take a while.

After two shots of rompin (sp?) that had zero effect, the dentist asked me to "ear" Cowboy, which I flatly refused to do.

Eventually we switched places and I did some tartar scraping and rasping while the dentist "held" him.

In the meantime the owner and I have been working with Cowboy on shots, loading and other problems. With patience he has come along nicely.

Needless to say that dentist won't be invited back :)

Breathe said...

I had a horse with some white crusty things in his ears. Hated to have his ears touched. Turns out they do hurt if bent.

Got him a one ear and just buckled and unbuckled.

mugwump said...

Becky- It was a time thing.
We had a string of 2 and 3-year-olds + whatever came in for problem solving and then students.
We needed our horses to learn so much in such a short time.
I found out if I just bridled them they adjusted quickly, even if I got drug around a couple times, so I dropped the finesse.
The end result was still a horse who dropped his head. I guess they didn't want me wrapped around their neck!
I did Leland (now known as Dexter) the same way.
I just bridled him. He took it just fine and hasn't tried to evade me yet.

Leah Fry said...

I guess it's an individual thing. One of the ways I reward my App from the saddle is to reach up and take the base of his left ear in my hand and run it through my palm. He even turns his head for it.

The Arab? A whole 'nother story.

Fiery said...

I'm wondering if perhaps you could give me a bit of advice Mugs. I'm working with a long yearling filly in my colt training class at Fresno State. She's been doing well with roundpenning, grooming, bathing and getting used to a surcingle.

But she is HORRIBLE with her head. If I want to touch her face or muzzle, whether it's to pet, hand a cookie, deworm (or like today, introducing the bridle), she is a witch. At the tie rail (wrapped, not tied), she'll tug her head to the ground, swing it back up, smack you with it, swing it side to side, lean on the rail, basically everything she can do to get away from touch. She's even worse in the roundpen. She's fine with grooming/touch everywhere else, though sensitive on her back legs.

I've just been place my hand on her face and going with it, keeping it there no matter what she does, and removing it when she goes still. She won't even take a cookie from my hand if I touch her muzzle. She's much worse if I try and use two hands at once, like with the bridle today. She was so bad, I have bruises and a sore wrist from trying to keep the bridle touching her face (never got the bit in).

Finally she put her head to the ground and I just held the bridle with one hand, keeping the bit pressed against her lips. I'm so frustrated, she makes me look like an idiot in front of the other students. Help!

Becky said...

Fiery -

I don't think you should head straight off and employ the advice I'm going to tell you, but here's something to consider: I once had a similar problem with a yearling filly I was working with. She was completely headshy, and phobic about her forelock being touched. I kept working slowly, trying to get her to accept me touching her above her eyes. I was at it for days, and I never got anywhere.

My friend (who owned the filly but hadn't been working with her due to a recent car accident/surgery) showed up and saw me doing my daily battle with her. She silently grabbed the leadrope from me and went to go touch the forelock--- the filly threw her head and snorted, eyes peeled back, acting frightened--- my friend popped her one in the chest with the leadrope.

The filly jumped, then stood still.

My friend went for the forelock again.

The filly snorted in "terror", swinging her head and clipping my friend on her shoulder.

My friend gave her a no-nonsense kick in the belly, backed her 10 paces, and went for the forelock again.

The filly stood quietly. Submissively.

I hadn't even realized it was a dominance issue. Turns out the filly was actually a pretty dominant alpha mare (she was a daughter of an alpha mare, who was the daughter of an alpha mare, etc, etc), and this was one of her games.

I'm not suggesting you haul off and start physically disciplining your horse right away, but maybe consider that the horse isn't really afraid of having its head touched--- maybe it's just a game she's playing with you to quietly assert dominance. The behavior you described is EXACTLY what this filly did to me, and the more I worked with her and the gentler I approached her "fear", the worse she became. Thirty seconds of "Knock-that-crap-off" interaction with my friend and suddenly the phobia was nowhere to be found.

And on a side note--- no matter how frightened a horse is, they should never be smacking you with their head. Unless she's in a blind panic, setting back and thrashing (which it doesn't sound like she is), she knows exactly where you are, excactly where her head is, and exactly how big of a bubble she should be giving you. Trust me-- that's not on accident. It really sounds to me like you have a fairly dominant filly there who is trying to take advantage of you. The good news: Dominant fillies have really big brains and make AWESOME partners once they respect you. Bad news: It takes a bit to earn the respect and you can't ever give an inch or they'll see right through you.

An Image of Grace said...

When I was a kid my dad would pull on our horses ears and twist them down any time he handled them. It was especially bad when he paste wormed them. By age 12 I took over care of the horses. I didn't touch their ears for some time. Eventually they all came around and were ok with their ears being handled. I got to the point that I could walk out into the pasture and paste worm them with no halter, just put the tube in their mouths. The difference was that I did not approach them from a place of domination.
My current horse loves to have her ears rubbed, especially the tips of them. The ear massage has become a special treat at the end of a ride for her.

mugwump said...

Fiery - I'm completely with Becky on this one. Your filly cannot, ever, ever, ever whack you with her head.
This is also a PERFECT example of why treats don't come into my training.
This filly doesn't want your stinking bribes, she wants you to leave her head alone.
My yellow mare is (was) extremely reactive about her head.
I know her history from birth and she was never beaten or eared down.
Some horses hate having their face touched.She was one of them.
So I didn't.
Except for haltering and bridling.
I did however teach her to be caught, accept a bit, allow me to open her mouth...
But petting or touching never came into it.
It was just part of the deal.
Now, at 7 years old I can pet, rub, even play with her and include all of her face and ears. But she chose when the play and petting came in, I chose what was required behavior.
Does that make sense?
You need to clearly mark some boundaries of appropriate behavior with this filly.
In exchange leave her face alone and quit trying to bribe her with food.
I think the bridling wrestling match was OK. Except she would have been bitted before I was done.
Hold the bit against her teeth and slide your thumb into her mouth at the interdental cavity (gap).
Press with the ball of your thumb. It should open her mouth enough to get the bit in.
I'm not above using a little thumbnail here...just get the bit in her mouth.
No yelling or anger needed, just be business like.
I would have a single piece of leather holding the bit for now. No brow band, no chin strap, no throat latch.
As soon as you get the bridle on back away and leave her alone.
Just walk off and let her think about what's going on.
I bridle my youngsters loose in the arena, never tied.
Once they are bitted I tie them to the tie rail and leave them.
I also bit low so the bit is almost, not quite,loose enough to spit out.
Eventually the youngster will carry the bit where it belongs because it's easier than leaving it hanging.
When I start riding with the bit I tighten the bridle so the snaffle rests against the corner of the mouth (no wrinkles).
But the key is.
#1. Knock some manners into her. She doesn't get to hit you with her head.
#2. Only handle her face for business, not pleasure. Find another nice itchy spot on her as a reward.
#3. Ignore the other students. At least you're working it out. When you get a handle on this filly you will be head and shoulders above the smirkers in your knowledge.
Be grateful you have a horse filled with holes. You're helping her be an animal with a hope of living out her life and you're becoming the real deal. A horse trainer.

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Quckly, from work...

My mare *hates* one ear bridles, and too tight or even just firm, browbands. Would bash me with her head to avoid when I first got her (that was corrected quickly, btw).

However, she loves for me to clean the earwax out of her ears. Yup, all the way down the canal, bring up that black gook, and go again. When I am done with one ear, she turns her head for the other.

Weird, huh? I'll have to video it when my (cough, cough) horse-related-stupid-accident-thanks-a-lot-Starlette-broken-arm/elbow is healed.


Jackie

Heidi the Hick said...

Luckily I work slow, and I like working slow.

And I don't like being dragged around, or having to get out a ladder to put something on a horse's head. I used to put up with that crap but I'm old now, haha!

It's true that most horses don't like having their ears fiddled with, but the two I have now both darn near turn themselves inside out with happiness to have their ears rubbed. It's helpful when I want to put "swat" in their ears to keep the flies away. I don't clip ears either. I don't even like how naked horse ears look.

Great article, as usual! Keep up the good work!

quietann said...

My mare is pretty good about having her ears handled. She loves to be rubbed at the base of the ears, but doesn't especially like having anything put into them. The insides of her ears were clipped for showing last year, and she's much easier now that the hair has grown back. For neatness' sake, I do the pony club "taco fold" where you fold the ear so the sides touch and only clip whatever hair sticks out beyond the edges. I really think horses should have the hair in their ears, for their own comfort.

On teaching a horse to drop its head -- we are struggling a bit with this; she understands what down means but is not always obedient, and once she drops her head she sometimes pops it back up right away. So we need "keep it down" -- how??? (Teaching this mare to *do nothing* is the most challenging thing!)

quietann said...

Oh, one other thing: if you use a browband, make sure it's big enough! My mare was fussy about her bridle until I changed to an oversize browband; it leaves her ears more free. The rest of her bridle is a mix of pony and cob size parts; she's a Morgan and like a lot of Morgans, has a big brain, LOL.

Whinny said...

Thank you! That was great advice, both of you! I completely agree that this filly isn't scared. She is smart, dominant and a brat- according to my professor (head of the horse unit), she is the worst out of any, including the stud colts. I picked her because of her delicate, intelligent head- I didn't want to train a dopey QH, I wanted to learn. I actually thought of Sonita as I chose her. Well, I guess I am learning a lot.

I feel that at times she deserves a good smack/whack because she tries to push me around on purpose. I have no problem with this, but it can get awkward in front of the other students. The other day, I fiercely wanted to get the bit in her mouth (even if I didn't get the whole bridle on), but I felt I had to stop after everyone kept staring. I don't think they get it, the whole 'don't give in' thing. I think they just see me being "mean" to the horse when I raise my voice or shove her over, and that I don't know what I'm doing.

I will make those boundaries, I agree she doesn't give a damn about the treat. I was able to put my thumb in her mouth several times, opening it. But as soon as I lifted the bridle, and reached to open her mouth (like bridling any horse), she just freaked out, hitting me in the face like I said. If I keep pushing (and this goes for anything, like deworming), she'll rear. How should I approach this? She just loses it if I bring two hands near her head.

Oh, and if you're wondering, we did have a graduate student last year who ran the barn and did all the training. Not the nicest person, but she could sure break a colt nicely. Unfortunatley, she left to Cal Poly and so now our only 'teacher' is the head of the Equine Science dept/head of the horse unit. Brilliant woman, but older and can't do much physical horse training anymore. And so, that's why I'm posting for help. Thanks!
Thank you so much.

mugwump said...
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mugwump said...
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mugwump said...

Uh Whinny.....? Sonita is a "dopey" QH.

glenatron said...

Whinny, another technique I've been shown for asking a horse to accept the bit, rather than popping a thumb in the side of their mouth is to pick up the bridle in your right hand across the top. With your left hand ask the horse to bring their head around to where you can put the bridle on them. If they can't do that you need to work on getting them to follow a feel until they can.

When they can do that, rest your forearm over their head ( or above their eye if the head is too long for that ) with the bridle hanging down towards their mouth. Lift the bit so that it's between their lips. If they don't open their mouth to accept it, turn your right hand over on the top of the bridle, thumb-up then back around so it's thumb down. That will be rubbing the bit from side to side along their teeth. Most horses figure out pretty quickly it's easier to open their mouth than put up with that. Because you're doing it all with your right hand you have your left hand free to do other stuff if you need to.

I'm not saying it's better or worse than the more common method, but I was taught it by someone who has started a lot of colts and it's the approach he uses always. In my experience it works pretty well.

Fyyahchild said...

Mugs, I have a question for you.

I'm currently responsible for the basic care and feeding of an ex-eventing horse that was retired due to a suspensory injury in his right front leg. He's had an injection and my understanding is that no one has done anything with him since to see how effective it was, but he's sound enough to do what he does which is hang out with another buddy in the pasture. His mom now lives in Washington DC for college so he doesn't get a lot of attention. His quality of life as a pasture pet seems good but last night we had a minor colic scare. As I was waiting for the vet I decided to try to take him down to the barn so we could have some light. That of course caused a major commotion between these two buddy sour horses. I was told the sick one can be a bit of a handful but didn't know what that meant until last night. As we got into the barn his little TB brain shut down and he panicked about not seeing his buddy. He was pretty good about staying out of my space but wanted to charge off and when I tugged his lead to get his attention he started tossing his head violently and threatening to rear. With most horses that would lead to me lunging their little butts off until they decided to calm the heck down. I wasn't going to lunge this horse at this time because 1) I don't know what is ok on his leg and 2) he had looked about to colic minutes before. Any ideas for what else I can do to get him to pay attention? I thought about throwing a stud chain on him and also a regular lead so I could correct him if he started the rearing thing and then back off with the regular lead if he was good. I'm just worried if we ever need to handle this horse in a non-medical situation where he is sedated he will be too much to handle for most of our novice feeding crew. The barn manager is also worried about it and willing to let me work with him if his mom approves and I think after how happy she was with how I handled last night she would probably say ok. Should I talk to the owner and vet about if he would be okay for light lunging if he's moving ok? That seems best but I don't know much about this injury.

Just so no one worries, the good news is all that activity got his tummy working better and by the time the vet got there he had some gut sounds returning after they think just a mild gas colic from the heat and dehydration (Really? At the end of Sept?), just a mild fever and elevated heart rate from the pain. We gave him meds and he's been fine since and I got out of night duty when the barn manager got home from Seattle at 10pm. Oh, and I got to see the hot vet I'm currently crushing on. Yay, for cute vets! :)

Fyyahchild said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fyyahchild said...

Sorry, my last post should have read, that I'm worried about someone having to handle him when he's NOT sedated.

BrownEyed Cowgirls said...

So glad to read your opinion of the earring down Mugs. I have found that most horses these days are nasty due to lack of discipline vs. 'abuse'.

I just recently found out about the ear virus condition. Thanks to a stout little gelding I am working with. I had originally started working with this horse a few years ago and never had a problem with him. I left for a few months and when I came home, he was n.a.s.t.y about his head (he about knocked me out). I blamed my brother for messing him up. He slowly came out of the problem that fall and was fine before being turned out for the winter. The next spring...fine. I got off track with him that summer (actually an entire year) but brought him to CO with me this spring. He was initially fine about his head and then one day he about knocked me out again. The fight was on after that. He got so bad that I could barely get a rope halter on him so usually just led him in and out with a twine. I started doing some research and ran into articles about the virus that horses can get in their ears. It's apparently another form of the herpes virus and is extremely aggravated by insects. Well, since I live in a mostly irrigated area, we have no-see-ums, knats by the kagillions and mosquitoes by the hordes.

It was too late for me to fix the problem for this guy this summer, but since we are headed into fall, he has returned to normal, with only a residual head yank when being haltered. Next year, I plan on getting him ear protectors and putting them on before the problem starts. I also read that in these horse's cases, it is better to clean as much hair away as you are comfortable with, keeping them coated with a salve and keeping ear protectors on as much as possible.

Now that I know this, I suspect that virus is also present in another mare we have that has always been nasty about her head and was most likely the culprit for yet another horse (long gone) that was nasty.

I hope if nothing else, I hope people stop automatically blaming 'abuse' on a horse's abberent behaviour and start thinking outside the box.

As to Valentino's comment about the dentist not being asked back. He's probably relieved. No one likes to have to work on other people's problem horses. If I hire someone to do work on one of my horses and I know they are not going to be particularly nice about it, I always let the practitioner know up front. If things seem to be going south, I simply ask them to stop and I will have them back out another day...AFTER I have hopefully fixed the problem.

BrownEyed Cowgirls said...

So glad to read your opinion of the earring down Mugs. I have found that most horses these days are nasty due to lack of discipline vs. 'abuse'.

I just recently found out about the ear virus condition. Thanks to a stout little gelding I am working with. I had originally started working with this horse a few years ago and never had a problem with him. I left for a few months and when I came home, he was n.a.s.t.y about his head (he about knocked me out). I blamed my brother for messing him up. He slowly came out of the problem that fall and was fine before being turned out for the winter. The next spring...fine. I got off track with him that summer (actually an entire year) but brought him to CO with me this spring. He was initially fine about his head and then one day he about knocked me out again. The fight was on after that. He got so bad that I could barely get a rope halter on him so usually just led him in and out with a twine. I started doing some research and ran into articles about the virus that horses can get in their ears. It's apparently another form of the herpes virus and is extremely aggravated by insects. Well, since I live in a mostly irrigated area, we have no-see-ums, knats by the kagillions and mosquitoes by the hordes.

It was too late for me to fix the problem for this guy this summer, but since we are headed into fall, he has returned to normal, with only a residual head yank when being haltered. Next year, I plan on getting him ear protectors and putting them on before the problem starts. I also read that in these horse's cases, it is better to clean as much hair away as you are comfortable with, keeping them coated with a salve and keeping ear protectors on as much as possible.

Now that I know this, I suspect that virus is also present in another mare we have that has always been nasty about her head and was most likely the culprit for yet another horse (long gone) that was nasty.

I hope if nothing else, I hope people stop automatically blaming 'abuse' on a horse's abberent behaviour and start thinking outside the box.

As to Valentino's comment about the dentist not being asked back. He's probably relieved. No one likes to have to work on other people's problem horses. If I hire someone to do work on one of my horses and I know they are not going to be particularly nice about it, I always let the practitioner know up front. If things seem to be going south, I simply ask them to stop and I will have them back out another day...AFTER I have hopefully fixed the problem.

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