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Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

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Rehabilitating starved and abused horses

Dear Franklin,

I have read many of your articles, and I enjoy your approach to handling horses. You offer superb advice, and I'm almost ashamed that I can't handle my most recent horse dilemma without an e-mail to you.

I recently took on a rescue horse. She was free, so I figured she might have some issues, but she turned out to be a sweetheart who was just untrusting of humans. As it turns out, she was previously abused, and has the scars on her hocks and rump to show it. Anyway, that's not the point.

When I got her, she was nearly starved, and she wouldn't even let a human being get near her. After being very patient and letting her come up to me, we have gotten beyond her fear. She comes whenever I ask, and seems to bide me just fine. However, it seems that as she is putting on weight, she is becoming more and more aggressive. If it was only towards me that her behavior was changing, I would assume that she was doing this because I was letting her become the alpha in our relationship. That is not the case, though.

She has always been the bottom of the hierarchy in every herd she has been with. On days where she seems to feel better (she's actually trotting a bit now out in the pasture), she has begun to get closer and closer to the lead mare. The mare generally kicks her as soon as she gets close, but Cali (my horse) seems to be getting braver and braver, and she's fighting back a little more and more each day. Which, good for her. I'm quite pleased that she is doing so much better.

However, lately, she has been nippy towards me, too. As soon as I say, "Hey," real loud, she quits and becomes her submissive self again usually. Yesterday, though, when I said "hey," she quit, but as soon as I reached out to pet her neck again (something she has never reacted to previously), she actually opened her mouth and tried to bite me in my abdominal. So, I acted like all you-know-what had broke loose, started waiving my arms around like she just started WWIII, and pushed in towards her until SHE backed up. She was still upset, and pinned her ears back when I was near her, but she didn't try to eat me again at the time. So, I kept picking on her until she stood for it with her ears up, and in a relaxed manner, then quit, so she knew being relaxed meant a release of the constant pressure.

So, there's the history. Now, here's my question: What can I do to nip this problem in the bud before she decides to try to kick me? We are still working on ground manners, as she is 6-8 years old and still hasn't been trained to pick up her hooves for anyone, let alone ever been ridden or anything else. I understand that she's getting healthier, which is great, but I would like to know if you offer any tips for working with a previously-abused horse. The last thing in the world I want to do is make her get mean, or make her start fearing people again. More than that, though, I don't particularly care to have my finger bitten off or my head get kicked off my neck. I'm rather attached to myself, and I would like to stay that way.

Any advice you can give will be more than welcomed.

Thank you ever so much,

Hi Jessica,

Sounds like you already have a lot of skill with horses and compassion for them. Your situation is very common actually. A starved, abused horse weakened and not in any way able to exert any control in its own life, rather quickly puts on weight and comes alive again. First thing I would now cut back on the carbohydrates (grains or sugars, etc) in the animals diet. I would begin to feed mainly grass hay. Spring grasses in many areas are too rich as well and horses need to be kept off that grass and given grass hay mainly. That will help the aggression as well. Additionally lots and lots of exercise..and I mean lots and lots. Your abilities to ask the horse for movement and receive it is huge and I don't mean just simple movements, although they are important as well. But either in a round pen or on a line with lots of directional transitions, lots of trotting (lots) and speed transitions. Ground driving would be a nice thing to do as well. Driving over a low jump is good. You need to handle this horse a lot. One hour, twice a day, of good action that is precise and skillfully asked for will set you up as the trusted and respected good leader for this horse.

For a horse that looks to bite I set up a situation where I know he will try to bite (a controlled environment). I wear an old heavy jacket and thick gloves. I lead the animal forward sort of keeping my arm/hand in a position where he will try to bit it. The very instant he goes for it, I VERY FIRMLY POP him right on the end of the snout with either my elbow or a fist depending on where he is trying to bite. I say a loud QUIT at the same time. I then forget about it and walk on. You will not injure the horse I promise. You will not scare him away from you. This is not a punishment dished out in anger. It is a simple and effective consequence offered to teach something. Biting is unacceptable and very dangerous. You cannot pussy foot around with it. Your response must be decisive, immediate, accurately timed and placed and thoughtfully done. Then you forget about it and move on. That is basically it. Nothing is a big deal unless you make it a big deal. Do not make a big deal of this by going on and on or around and around with the horse about it. Do as I suggest firmly and decisively. Then forget about it and move on. You may have to do this a couple of times, but if you get it right, it will end the behavior. Be careful and good Luck.

Sincerely, Franklin

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