Friday, May 6, 2011

Who's Scared, Her or Me?

This was my horse page article for this past week. I might be slow, but I always get there eventually.

When the Boogy Man Comes To Stay
By Janet Huntington

When my yellow mare was a three-year-old she showed an early talent for cattle work equaled only by her foolishness. Silly and emotional, she had an inclination to whip into a spinning, bucking, twirly thing when she didn’t feel secure. My approach was to work her hard, try not to over-react and to keep exposing her to life’s up and downs. I figured she’d get her head on straight as time went on.

Unfortunately, my previously tried and true method wasn’t working like it normally did. She was getting bigger, stronger, more physically fit and much more athletic. Her spinning, bucking, twirly thing was getting harder to sit and she was getting a little more loft every time she went for it. If I’m being honest, I have to admit she was beginning to make me nervous.

One afternoon the boss and I had finished a good solid work out on buffalo. He opened the gate and followed the buffalo out to drive them back to their pen.

This was usually my job and my little filly decided to take offence. She hollered and launched into her routine. By the time my boss came back I was puffing, she was sweat soaked and we both were about to go at it again.

“What’s going on in here?” he asked.

“She’s losing her mind,” I told him.

“Then why are you still standing there letting her rest up! Get her to work. Make her work until the only thing she has on her mind is what you want and how fast she can get it done for you.” He shook his head the way he did when he was ready to throw his hands in the air and just give up on me. Then he left to change horses.

So we went to work. My bratty little horse still thought she should try to squeal and buck, but I kept increasing what I asked from her and demanding I get it, all at a pretty good clip.

When the boss came back with his next horse he told me to take my filly outside and work her alone.

“Don’t quit until all she wants to do is stand quiet with her head down and wait for you,” he snapped.

I sighed. Then I went out to do what I was told.

My nerves were zinging a little, but not enough to admit it to my boss. Our workout ended up being pretty intense. By the time I had her where she should be the boss had ridden through all his colts and I was three or four behind. But my filly was quiet. She was tired but not exhausted. She was respectful. She was calm.

“That’s how your horse needs to start her day,” my boss and mentor told me.

“Huh?” I replied. Nobody has ever accused me of being the sharpest tool in the shed.

“When she starts the day with the same attitude she ends with you’ll know you’re getting somewhere,” he explained.

This became my standard gauge for when my horses were ready to go. When they started the ride with the same relaxed demeanor they ended it with I knew they were on the right track.

These days my horse training gig is over and I’m riding my own for fun. I have also found myself dealing with my yellow mare sliding back into her old behavior.

She’s being a snorty, spooky little freak. Her anxiety is through the roof when I take her anywhere by herself but the arena. Even when she has a buddy, if she’s in the mood to cause a problem, it can get ugly.

She’s making me pretty irritable. I’m having to fight the urge to get angry. There’s no way she’s as scared as she’s acting. She knows better. Right?

Here’s the kicker. She doesn’t. My confident little show horse is fast becoming a neurotic wreck and it’s my fault. All mine.

I don’t ride her as often as I used to. I have changed what I ask from her. Instead of a regular routine of arena and cattle work we’ve been out on the trail, riding in groups and alone and working on maneuvers different from the reined work she knows so well. She became a little boogered. She also has become a little buddy sour. I’ve been letting it go.

Old me would have pushed her through this with a vengeance. She would have realized I wasn’t asking her to do something dangerous, there was nothing she needed to be afraid of and we would have gone on our merry way.

New me has become hesitant. Am I pushing her too hard? Am I expecting more than she could handle?

Old me expected results from every horse on every ride. I knew how much each horse could handle and expected 75% effort from them every day. I didn’t always get it and some days I got more, but I had a clear goal in mind.

New me might go play in the creek, work on strengthening or bending in the arena or just let her graze while I groom her.

I’ve been falling down on the job. I haven’t been expecting my horse to begin her day as calm as we end it. I can’t because I haven’t committed to riding her until she is completely calm.

In her horsey little brain this has translated to thinking her hissy fits have merit. If I take her home when she’s being a spooking fool she is going to think her spooking got her home. Before long the spooking will move from silliness to anxiety to outright fear. I wouldn’t take her home when she was scared if she wasn’t right, would I?

It’s the same with a horse who pitches a fit when he leaves his buddy. If I cave and only ride with the buddy he’s going to think there really is something to worry about. Because you would have made him go if there wasn’t. All of a sudden wanting to hang with his homies turns to real fear and then a real fight in no time.

This stuff can inch up on you, it certainly has me. The fix? Only take on what you have time to finish.

If I only have 20 minutes I’m going to lope some circles. Maybe somebody else will do some ground work or just groom, but try to make sure your horse is relaxed and well behaved before you put them up.

If I have the afternoon ahead of me, then I’ll go tackle the scary trail or riding over to work in the FRRC arena at Metcalf Park.

Get to your trainer if it’s more than you can handle, but make sure you get some instruction for yourself.

I also finally realized what my boss was really after on that afternoon. My little filly wasn’t the only one who needed to work through some issues. I was letting her nerves get to me. A few wet saddle blankets built my confidence as much as hers.

It’s not just my horse who can turn a silly spook into a serious spook and move on into fear. I can jump at the boogy man as well as anybody. Boo!


Minus Pride said...

Good message. Definitely something I have to remember with my young mare.

strivingforsavvy said...

Great post. Thanks!

Whywudyabreedit said...

Very helpful, thanks! They are beginning to get there when they start off as calm as they finish. I can use that! And in the mean time they tend to tell us Exactly what they need to work on! LOL! Mine does anyway...

HorsesAndTurbos said...


The braver I am on my mare, the braver she is. Who makes me braver? My big-moving green gelding. After riding him (he's very very forward, big strides, and fast) my mare is *easy* even with her spooks. My gelding does wild gallops on the trails which I am riding through because I want him to stop tossing his head every time I ask him to slow down (and he does)so we gallop until he does what I ask - we've even galloped down hills. My mare is starting to open up and gallop on the trails...remember she was crazy to ride on the trails the first year, and I made her already-too-slow-gonna-spook canter be okay as long as she was cantering. Now I want a relax canter & gallop, and she's giving it to me.

Thanks Mugs!


Becky said...

"Before long the spooking will move from silliness to anxiety to outright fear. I wouldn’t take her home when she was scared if she wasn’t right, would I?"

Heavy, man. Heavy. I never even considered this before - I always thought it was just about "winning" so they didn't get spoiled. That just changed my whole way of thinking about it - I've got to mull this one over for awhile!

Jenn said...

This is true for all animal work. I come over here and read about horse work and then apply it to dogs and agility training.

Thanks so much for your all your words!

Unknown said...

Stop. Spying. On. Me.

Lol. You've nailed my mare lily. And I really have to consider whether i have the time to do this for her. She is going to a trainer/friend. Then I need to decide if I'm doing keeping her is occasional riding school.

Shanster said...

Nice article! Thanks for sharing!

Candy'sGirl said...

I really like that way of looking at it!

Okay, so along these lines here's a scenario:

Six year old Arab. I've had him for three years and have done 99% of his training myself - with a primary focus of sanity on trails because I want to do endurance with him. I ride mainly English and take the occasional dressage lesson from an Olympic level trainer when I can afford it.

I've mainly succeeded. I can haul him all over creation and still have a relatively sane horse (okay, so occasionally we have Arab moments - he only turns 6 tomorrow). We managed to complete a very technical 25mi endurance ride three weeks ago and he was a total rockstar especially considering he's never been around that many strange horses that were that keyed up in his life. In an indoor arena, I can put beginners on him and he'll w/t around like a pluggy school horse.

The issue:
I have no one to ride with on training rides. He's more or less okay with this and the more I ride him, the better he gets (surprised?). However, there is one spot that no matter how many times we've gone down the road, he's a nutjob over. There are several 'problems' with this area. The first is the bridge (gravel road, newer concrete bridge). He's never been a fan of crossing bridges, but usually he'll go without too much fuss. This one he objects very strongly to going over. The second problem is that there is a pasture full of about 30 sheep at the top of the hill just after the bridge. He is beyond terrified of them. It doesn't help that the second we get to the top of the hill, they all start making demon noises and run at what I assume to be top sheep speed to the other end of their field.

Up until yesterday I've always been able to get him across after a short argument. Normally he'll spin and try to trot off the other way a couple times and I boot him in the ribs (no spurs) and tell him to knock it off and he resigns himself to walking over the bridge sanely. As soon as we're across, we pick up a trot and he dances around and shakes as we go past the demons/sheep, but he gets over it about 100ft past their pasture and is fine. I usually just ignore the dancing and shaking and just carry on.

Yesterday he was flinging his head up nearly bashing me in the face, popping his front feet off the ground, trying to spin and BOLT and just generally being really dirty and a jerk about the whole thing. At one point all I was asking for was a step forward in a sane controlled manner and he was still just flinging his head and trying to bolt. I managed to get one sane step forward and got off. It wasn't worth the risk of getting dumped. I have a pretty good seat and can stick most things, but he was working himself into that point where he was starting to get beyond caring about even his own safety. Then I went to lead him over the bridge and past the sheep and he was hopping and slamming into me and working himself into quite the panic. This is a horse who NEVER touches me in hand otherwise. Normally if I get off and ask him to follow me somewhere that was scary when I was on his back, he's totally content to follow me. Not so yesterday.

Candy'sGirl said...

Part II

I didn't have a halter/lead on him so I didn't push the issue too far because he was getting to the point that he was flinging his head and yanking hard enough on the reins that I was afraid he was going to either break the bridle or get loose - or both.

I walked him a few feet away, calmed him down and then got him to sanely walk a few feet back toward the bridge. I quit there, walked farther up the road, got on and we went a different way.

I really don't want to just avoid that road because once past the sheep, its a fantastic route with great footing.

My biggest problem is there's nowhere but the gravel road to be. The road goes across a ravine/creek and its wooded and a creek on both sides of the bridge until you're up by the sheep. Once you're up there its still wooded on the left and fenced off for the sheep on the right. If I had somewhere to do it, my solution would be, retreat, work the dickens out of him and try again. Rinse, lather, repeat until he gives in and goes across. The work really hard over here or just cooperate with the ever so much easier task I asked you do to in the first place is not a new concept to him at all. Its my usual method of dealing with him refusing to do something.

Problem is he was SO dang worked up yesterday that he was becoming dangerous and there's really nowhere (nearest place to work the crap out of him would be about 1/8mi down the road) to *go* to have a knock down drag out argument. And he got to that worked up state ridiculously fast. It was less than a minute from his first hesitation before he was flailing around and trying to bolt. I've never really seen him do that before, but he's too smart for his own good and I suspect next time I take him there I will get the same - or worse reaction. So next time I go, he'll have a halter and lead on and I will be fully prepared for whatever needs to happen. I'm just not 100% sure what it is that needs to happen...

What would you do here? I need some Mugs advice!

mugwump said...

I sent this column up to the Big K. He said - "Amazing how you put my thoughts into words!"

This of course cracked me up, because it took me 5 years to figure out exactly what he meant.

But it's also how we communicated.

mugwump said...

Candy's girl,

If I was in a dangerous spot like that one and alone I would get off and lead him.
I would dismount BEFORE he started getting stupid and not remount until he was OK.
I would have a pretty tough workout at home about how we behave on the ground.
I know he's usually mannerly, but he's needs to be more worried about what you'll do to him than what the boogy man is going to do.
So worry him. When you say clear off he needs to say,"How far and how high?"
Then it will be an automatic response to get off you when he needs to.
I would look at this as the place I lead him for as long as it takes.
Don't get hurt!!
Anybody else?
We could use some input on this one.

Anonymous said...

Very timely for me as well. I have a 20 year old QH mare that has become buddy sour and afraid to go out on trail alone. I definitely will be following your advice on making sure I have the time needed to deal with her goofy behavior before getting into that situation with her. And working on basic manners and obedience in the arena. It's my own fault I just haven't been riding enough due to my own confidence issues. It is interesting though how wet saddle blankets benefit both the horse and rider!!
Thanks again for a great post Mugs!!

Anonymous said...

I just spent 2 1/2 hours working with my new horse - he's a nervous little guy and also obsessed with mares - he's not a crypt, just has over-active adrenal glands and too much stress/male hormones going on. I didn't stop until we were done and had gotten to a better place than we started. He's a long way yet from being calm when I bring him out to work - he's highly distractible, although not usually as bad as today. I got him from a lady who'd had him for several years and was afraid of him and also babied him - he's got a lot of growing up to do, although he's almost 10. I have a zero tolerance policy on ground manners, which he's having to deal with. We've made a lot of progress in the 6 weeks or so I've had him, but we've got a long ways to go yet.

Good post - it is easy to let things slip, particularly with the more temperamental/nervous horses.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in your thoughts (or those of others) - I'm also thinking with my little guy that the free lungeing (we don't have a round pen so I have to work him at liberty in the arena, which isn't that effective) just gives him the opportunity to be distracted - he's got all day turnout so he doesn't need to run - without really doing any good - he doesn't tire out much and some days he's just as nervous when I get on as when we start, although at least he'll focus a little on me after free lungeing. I'm not a big fan of doing a lot of groundwork before I get on unless there's something the groundwork helps us work on - and I don't do "lunge until dead". I'm thinking maybe I should just bag the running around and just demand good leading and lungeing work and then just get on and deal with what I've got - the only thing he really does (so far) is get too forward, which I can deal with. He's a tough little nut but responds to consistent treatment.

Any and all thoughts are welcome.

Val said...

Excellent article.

I consider this the "trainer gut", which develops with time and only in those with enough heart and a touch of crazy.

Anonymous said...

Candy's Girl - Can you find out who owns the sheep? Sheep will spook and run at anything odd, so they're not used to your horse putting on a display either. If you can find the farmer - ask if when he next brings the sheep into the yards (sheep need shearing (clipping) at least 1x yearly, and a reasonable amount of maintenance,) and work your horse to a stand still, put him in a yard next to the sheep with only a bucket of water and feed where he has to go near the sheep and let him get over himself.

otherwise, it's a gravel road, here the footing on those isn't too bad, other than a bit of gravel, having had stupidity from horses in similar situations, circle, circle and circle some more, if neccessary pull the nose right round, and go round and round, ask for forward and if you don't get it, round you go again.. I've never had it fail yet, however it's taken 3 hr's to get past something once! (We never had a problem with that again.)

Another option, borrow a sheep or two and put it in his paddock, or if you think the belating is part of a problem record the noise and play it back to him before he gets his feed and while he feeds.

Most of all, you need to ride positively, you're expecting issues and you may be riding tentively approaching this area.

Anonymous said...

Kate, for a horse like yours I used to insist on good maners, but ground work swas not a seperate activity, your horse got ground worked as you went around opening and closing gates, walking from the back paddock to the yards near the house, while shifting jumps and rails. So I groomed and got on, then walked 1/2 way round the paddock, started trotting on light contact, and did 1 1/2 laps each way, it was a 10 acre paddock. The horses/ponies weren't having to 'work' collected, but they were paying attention. At all times we were with them they were to be paying attention to us, and listening for what was asked for next. Personally I don't see the point of free lunging - you really don't have any control, the same with a lot of peoples round pen work - the horse just does what it pleases.
To me, when I'm with a horse it out weighs me by 10 times, so it had better bloody well be paying attention to me!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - I feel the same about free lungeing - I never have done it with any of my horses. This horse is so distracted/anxious it's very difficult to keep and hold his attention for even the littlest things - partly due to his prior lack of training. I think that's how we fell into free lungeing, which I don't think has proved to be a great idea. His ground manners are much better than when I got them, but he needs to improve there first - zero tolerance. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

mugwump said...

I'm going to write on this thing some more when I get a minute. Kate, when you talk about free longeing, do you mean just letting them tear around while you hold the line?
I teach my horses to longe when they're started, because people expect them to know how. As soon as I can I quit.

Anonymous said...

Mugs - by free lungeing, I mean the horse is unconstrained, as it would be in a round pen - no line. Doing it in an arena doesn't work well, at least for me - too much chasing required - but we have no round pen. I do use line lungeing and want my horses to know how to do this as it's a useful skill, but I prefer not to do a lot of it - too hard on the joints and tends to rev up nervous horses (at least my nervous horses).

mugwump said...

OK- Mugs the hick calls it round penning (even when I don't have a round pen), or....chasing them around the arena. Ahem.

glenatron said...

Kate, I think you're right about the horse practicing what you don't want them to learn. With a horse behaving that way I would be starting on groundwork based on getting their attention. I tend to do this by asking them to move with me, setting things up so they can take the first step as I step off and that as I slow down they slow down with me. A horse who isn't paying attention will probably want to run off or stay where they are- in the first case I'll untrack them as they get ahead of me and keep walking forward asking them ( with the rope or my hand or a flag, depending on the horse ) to pick their shoulders up and around and change direction. If they spring off again, we change direction again. After a while of this they will realise you are moving their feet more than they are moving yours, which in oversimplified terms could be understood as you being generally in charge. If they stand around behind you just push them forward ( using the rope, flag, lunge whip, whatever ) until they move off and keep hassling them until they are working level with you.

Never pull on the lead rope, always push them forward or out of your way. Don't step back, especially if the horse is tending to crowd you, always push the horse.

Ask yourself the question "what would it take to get and hold this horse's attention?" Make that your starting point. Maybe you could get their attention standing at leisure by slapping your leg, stamping your foot, flicking the lead rope or kicking some sand around. Maybe you'll have to create more of a fuss. The simple fact is that the horse in question is absolutely unconcerned about your presence. He doesn't think you represent any potential problem to him or factor in his life at all. Most of us really want to our horses to like us, but from a point of view of safety and getting useful work done, sometimes you need them to be a little bit doubtful about you. You don't want them to be afraid of you, but you may want to get them to where they think you might just do something really scary and they would be smart to keep an eye on you. Or, even better, two eyes.

glenatron said...

Candy's Girl

I think you are setting yourself up to fail by having the combination of sheep and scary bridge and awkward trail. The best way to get a horse used to something that is bothering them is to do it somewhere you've got room to manouvre so they can keep their feet moving and you can keep them pointed towards the bothersome thing until it stops being scary. Someone suggested finding when the sheep come in and working with them there - that sounds good to me.

I would certainly want to find someone who had sheep and ask them if I could introduce my horse to the sheep one day, just get it so we could ride among the flock and not get anxious.

That said, my horse is phobic about pigs and I have yet to find an approach that makes him alright with them. Even though he goes past a bunch of them every time he goes up to the barn from his field or out to the field from his barn, he hasn't really got the idea they aren't planning to eat him. Pigs tend to be a special case though- I haven't heard of a horse responding in a similar way to sheep, although I have heard of a horse who would deliberately kill them when they got into his paddock and another who treated them as mobile showjumps.

Chiron said...

I think what makes this so hard for most of us is that it is really HARD work. And it usually comes with a fair dose of anxiety or even fear.

We try to rationalize our way out of it, or end up putting up with the undesirable behavior.

Combine really HARD work with anxiety or even fear and you get something that's pretty damn easy to avoid. Or put off...

This was probably easier when it was a "job" because you expect jobs to be hard and you can't rationalize your way out of it.

For those of us who do this for "fun", the really hard work, often fearful task seems bass ackward from what we want to do with our horses.

Spoken by one who has done lots of rationalizing, and enough of the HARD work to keep putting it off even when I know it needs to be done.

Anonymous said...

glenatron - thanks, that's just about where I've been going - we've gone back to basic leading with an emphasis on personal space and him paying attention to me and only moving when and as I direct. It's going pretty well - I had to get mighty big at the beginning to get his attention - and I'm able to get some relaxation from him - just a little bit but for him that's progress. He may not be a stallion - in fact I'm almost certain he isn't a crypt - but he has a lot of stallion like characteristics - very dominant and also highly distractible particularly by mares - and I'm treating him like he is a stallion - zero tolerance for any missteps.

Yesterday I rode with no preliminary lungeing or running around, and he wasn't any worse - he still took a long time to begin to relax even at the walk. It's going to be slow steps with him, but I've got time and I think there's a really fine little horse in there once he begins to relax and listen. He basically wasn't ridden for over two years before I got him and was allowed to do whatever he wanted and walk all over his prior owner - I watched it happen when I went to look at him. So we've got a lot of bad habits to break and new habits to form, but I'm willing to invest the time and find it a interesting challenge.

Thanks for being willing to comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lesson Mugs - I needed that one just now.

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

Great post and very honest. I think a lot of us have been there, and if not, surely will be with some horse.

In terms of working it out. I found that using a long line (I think mine is 20 ft? your typical Clinton Anderson/Parelli length) is great for 'lunging' b/c it maintains the attention/connection vs free lunging. I do both however depending on mood. When Laz is having his ADD moments, I put him on the line to help our communication. I'm also beginning to find this interesting:
which is working with the horse on the ground via bridle.
There are so many techniques and it all depends on the partnership.
I err on the side of being jumpy too, I have literally spooked while riding, at some noise, and my OTTB didn't. Wow, I tell myself.."way to encourage his courage, lol" ;)

Maery Rose said...

I arrived here from HorseCentric. Great post! You definitely have some good advise here. I ended up selling a horse because after 6 years of battles, thinking we finally had it down, he injured me pretty bad and I couldn't get over it. It felt like defeat or giving up to sell him but we were no good together anymore. I'm now with a horse that is right for me.

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