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Franklin Levinson's

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Mare being afraid on trails

Hi Franklin,

I am having a problem with my quarter horse mare. She was originally sold to a family when she was a filly. The kids of the family would chase her and throw rocks at her. She was then given back after a few years because she developed a kicking problem, she would not let anyone come near her back side or touch her without kicking. I'm sure that was her defense from the kids.

My dad has worked with her for about 4 years and she has become a good all around mare. She still has a tendency to kick but I am able to work around that. The problem that I am having is that she is high strung and has a hard time calming down. We have been improving greatly in the area, but the trails are becoming more of a problem. When we are on flat land she is fine but when we get on the narrow trails or on hills that go up and down she gets so worked up that she has taken off on me a few times. The last time the metal links of the chin strap ended up breaking from me pulling on the reins trying to get her to stop.

My dad believes in giving her a "good" smack with the reins to try and get her to calm down, but with my experience that only makes the horse more jumpy and does not help anything at all. I have been trying to get her to stop and calm down then proceed down the trail but we will be doing that for over 15 mins. and she does not calm down at all. I have also switched bits but with the same result. I am at a loss as to what to do because I don't want to trail ride her and run the chance of either of us getting hurt.

Thanks, Alicia

Hi Alicia,

I am currently teaching in Greece. Thank you for your donation to my website. It helps to keep it going. Lets see if I can offer some suggestions for your equine issues.

First thing is: if you punish (hit, smack, use heavy bits and heavy hands) and hurt a horse this will definitely make things a lot worse. Horses do not respond to punishment. It makes them very afraid, more nervous and eventually dangerous. Many humans make this mistake, including your Dad, who is probably well intentioned, and has some knowledge of training horses. But it sounds like in a rather old school way. Force, hurt and punishment create fear. Bigger bits and heavier hands make things worse (create pain) as well. If you hurt the animal, you make it more afraid and nervous. As you have found out, it is easy to make a horse nervous and afraid and very difficult to go in the opposite direction of calm, peace and release of fear. So, you are moving in the opposite direction from where you want to go.

To settle a horse showing behavior like your horse, stop riding for a while and go back to the basics of good training on the ground and always be calm when handling the horse. Go slow, be patient and always provide and ask for calm/slow exercises initially, calm and precise requests for simple movement, lots of reward for every little effort at compliance by the horse. The best reward is to stop asking for anything and allow the horse to simply stand still for 15-30 seconds. This is called 'positive reinforcement' and should be provided for each and every little effort the horse makes at compliance. Training one-step-at-a-time and then immediate reward is truly what will settle the horse and get things back on track. A smack is 'negative reinforcement' and punishment, and an old paradigm for training horses. Never punish a horse for being afraid. You would not do that to a child and should never do that to a horse. You need to instill feelings of trust and safety, and this is done slowly, with patience, skill and compassion.

Currently you are continuing the cycle of creating fear, providing punishment and then creating more fear. Support the horse lowering its head whenever possible as a horse with a low head carriage is relaxed. Begin from a relaxed/calm place as you can always amp things up. But, as you have found, you cannot easily calm things down. Do not go quickly with the horse. Keep things slow and calm for a good while. Do a ton of simple movement on the ground with lots of reward. When lungeing only ask for one rotation before providing a stop and rest as reward for that one good rotation. Walking and slow trotting is very desirable for what your goals are. Forget cantering for a month or so. You need some real patience here as your Dad does not seem to show it by suggesting smacking the horse be being afraid. You need to bring that patience, calm and skillful communication forward. It is your responsibility. The horse is in the habit of 'fear' and habitual thoughts, feelings and ways of acting are difficult to change for humans and horses alike. You must show up as the great leader here, bring ing calm and peacful feelings to the horse. Then it will have confidence, trust in you and generally give you a whole lot more of what you really want. Never punish, judge the horse as bad, or take anything the horse does personally. It is just being a horse and showing you it is fearful. It does not trust you very much actually in certain circumstances. You need a better relationship and more trust between you and the horse.

Also, providing a consequence for unwanted behavior can help this situation. Basically you want the horse to put its attention back on you when it gets afraid on the trails. I have attached an essay on that topic.

Good Luck and please keep me posted.


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