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Franklin Levinson's

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Aggressive Gelding

From reading some of the Q&A posts on your website it sounds like you are very experienced at dealing with aggressive horses, and this is what I need help with.

I have a 19 yr. old Morgan gelding. I have had him for about 2 years. When I first got him (he came from a dealer who got him at an auction) he was recovering from shipping fever and was a little underweight - and he was calmer than he is now. I knew that he would be a spirited horse as his physical condition improved and I was okay with that. He has always had issues with standing still and maintaining focus. For the first 2 months we did okay together, then we started having problems with saddling and standing for mounting. I realized that as he gained weight his saddle was not fitting him anymore. I have spent a lot of time experimenting with various saddle/pad combinations - I think he was difficult to fit because his shoulders are wide, but he has a prominent wither. I finally found a saddle that fit him well, he seemed happier with it, and after riding in it for about a month, I had a chiropractor/vet out to check his back, and his back in the saddle area was good. He did get adjusted in his poll, his jaw, and his lower neck. After getting a better fitting saddle I was still having difficulty getting him to stand still for mounting. He would become very pushy, and mouthy, and nippy. He has always been very mouthy - orally fixated - he wants to grab onto anything he can with his mouth - lead rope, hoof pick, back of a chair, dressage whip - he does this when he is nervous, but I have also seen him do it when he is relaxed. Over the past year and a half I have been reading and watching DVD's by various natural horsemanship trainers, Pat Parelli, Chris Irwin, John Lyons, Clinton Anderson, Julie Goodnight, etc. I tried to apply what I learned but I realized that I was in over my head with this horse - he reacts so quickly and it was hard for me to react quickly enough in the right manner. He goes back and forth between nervous/agitated to aggressive/dominant/pushy and I realize it takes a lot of experience to be able to react the right way depending on how he is acting.

This spring I finally found a local trainer to help me in person. She studied with Kenny Harlow, who studied with John Lyons. I explain this not because I think it is important who she studied with, but just so that you have an idea of the basic training philosophy. I was very happy with her training methods from day 1, my horse was a different, happier horse after just one session with her. The first thing we worked on was leading on a loose lead rope with him staying behind my shoulder, when I stop he is to stop and take 2 steps backwards (taught by tapping on ground with dressage whip and then the front of his leg). Then we worked on disengaging his hindquarters, ground tying, the head down cue, and having him hook on and follow me without a lead rope. My trainer focuses on using a clear precise cue used repetitively, or gently, but firmly held until the horse gives the slightest try and then you release the cue and praise with voice and/or pat. If the horse bites or tries to bite she reprimands with a smack or 3 quick smacks to his shoulder or the front of his legs with the end of the lead rope or a dressage whip and then move on with what you are doing. With disengaging his hindquarters and and moving his shoulder away from you he was very pushy at first and would try to push his shoulder into you, but if you used the lead rope to smack his shoulder he would bend it away from you and then we would praise him. In the last couple of months he has been doing great. About a month into his training he started getting really agitated again and we stopped what we were doing and looked for a source of pain and found that the bit was rubbing his mouth and making sores. I switched to riding him in a flat halter type sidepull bridle with a padded noseband - adjusted up on his nose so that it wouldn't hit the soft part. I retaught him everything with the halter and focused on calming him down.

He is the type of horse who is always anticipating your next move and I think he also anticipates pain based on past experiences. I spent 2 weeks just doing really calm session where all I would do it get on and then just stand around and relax, if he walked off I would do a one rein stop until he disengaged his hindquarters and stood. It really seemed to help he became mentally calm. Then I took him for a couple of trail rides and he was much more forward than usual, he was okay until we were headed home and once we were headed home he would not walk, he jigged for 3 miles home, I was finally able to get him to walk the last half mile - I tried doing one rein stops, but he would just start jigging again, I tried doing serpentines back and forth, I tried doing half halts and giving with the rein - I was being very careful to not pull on the reins the whole time.

After this ride I began to think that something was causing him pain, but I could not find it. I had my trainer out for my regular lesson a few days later so she could see what was going on. He was a little bit agitated when we first went out to the ring, but he calmed down with a couple of ground exercises, he stood quietly while I got on, as soon as I got on he did start rushing off. My trainer had me walk him in a figure-eight like pattern around 3 barrels in a line, focusing on following the exact circle each time, focusing my mind and his. Within minutes he was calm and walking calmly. We started halting between cirlces before changing directions, and then she had me get off him, ask him to stand and just walk away from him. He stood calmly, then I would walk back up to him and get on and repeat the pattern. We did this a couple of times and he was really good. Then we moved to doing this down the road and by the end of the session he was walking calmly towards home. So I thought that his rushing home was more a mental problem than a physical problem.

Two days later I went to ride him with the intention of working on the same calming circles. He was very agitated when I got to the ring. I would try to move him in a cirlce around me and he just kept barging into me with his shoulder, when I tapped his shoulder to move it away he bit me on the arm hard, I smacked him immediately 1,2,3 with the end of the dressage whip on his shoulder, he came right back at me biting and trying to run me over. I got really scared, he felt like a totally different horse, I felt like he was trying to kill me. It was all I could do to get him into the pasture and get his saddle and bridle off.

My trainer came to help me two days later. She wanted to examine his back for pain, she found that the area over his loins was tight and sore. She got out a bucket to stand on to try to massage the muscles and he thought she was trying to get on him and he got all agitated. She disengaged his hindquarters a couple of times and then he still didn't want to stand stil she just asked him to walk in a circle around the bucket until he wanted to stop. When he finally stopped and stayed stopped, he was standing on the lip of the bucket, she used her hand or the end of her lead rope (I can't remember which - I just know that she didn't even have a dressage whip with her) to push his shoulder over a little and that just set him off he pushed into her with his shoulder and then lunged at her with his mouth, he tried to bite the back of her neck, he only missed because she ducked down in time and he just grazed her. It was one of the scariest things I have ever seen. She then brought him out to an open space where there was more room to maneuver, and she put a longer lead rope on, but he just kept coming at her to attack her, she could not get him to move away from her, he kept lunging at her to bite. She stopped moving all together and he stopped also. When all pressure is taken off him he stops.

She felt that his intent was truly to kill. She said that if it was her horse she would have him tested for lyme disease, but if he was negative for that she would have him put down. She said that she thinks there is something physical or biochemical wrong with him - she has never had a horse come at her like that. She said that if it his reaction to avoid pain it is too dangerous of a reaction.

I had the vet out the next day to do some blood tests and for a physical exam. We are testing for lyme, testosterone and broad general test (CBC and fibrinogen). I wanted to test for testosterone because he has been acting interested in mares in heat this week - and he has never shown this interest before. The vet could not find a sources of pain, she used hoof testers and she tested his legs for range of motion, and she checked his back, which did not seem sore, but I had given him a bute that morning not realized the vet would be able to come out that day. I am awaiting test results. He has been fine to handle in day to day handling, he is not aggressive around feeding time, and he has maintained his polite leading manners.

I am trying to decide what to do. Part of me thinks that the responsible thing is to put him down. I have never seen a horse be that aggressive before, I agree with my trainer's assessment that he wanted to kill her. I could never forgive myself if someone was hurt by him. I have given you a detailed description of our training methods because I want to determine if we were putting too much pressure on him. I feel like he has to be reacting to pain (possibly his back) and I do not think we put too much pressure on him, but maybe I am wrong. Up until this point he has reacted so positively to my trainer that it is hard to understand how he could turn so quickly. Just 2 days before we had a wonderful session and he did not seem to be in any pain. I am wondering if he could have been seriously abused earlier in his life and something is triggering those memories. I am also concerned that he could have a tumor or something in his brain that is making him over react to any kind of pressure. I have limited financial resources, but I am willing to invest all of my time and money into helping my horse if I think there is hope, but I also do want anyone to be hurt by him. There might be another person out there who has more money to invest in a trainer, but I don't think that anyone is going to be interested in rehabbing a 19 year old horse. Do you think that his age makes it more difficult to make lasting changes in his behavior? I just don't know what to do. The thought of putting him down makes me sick and breaks my heart. His true nature is a sweet, friendly horse. Even now when I go out to the pasture he puts his ears forward and greets me politely. I just feel like I am failing him.

Any advice that you could give would be welcome. I mainly want to know what chances are of being able to get past this dangerous behavior - I am concerned that if I caused the problem it may be too late to change our relationship and that if I didn't cause it, if there is just something wrong in his brain that it will be fruitless and dangerous to try.

Also just some other info. - he is turned out 24/7 with a group of other horses, he is near the top of the pecking order. They have several run-in sheds that they can go into. He gets free choice hay. He has been getting 1.25 lbs of Blue Seal Hunter pellets 2X per day. We have since cut way back on his grain to .25 lbs 2X per day of Trotter pellets (which have no corn and are lower in protein). I am also currently giving him 1 bute am and pm to help with whatever possible pain is there. My vet and trainer have both considered ulcers, but he is not "girthy" and he never exhibits any signs of colic. I was alo wondering if lack of lying down time could cause a major problem in his brain or body. He normally lies down in the late morning outside in the dirt. It was really rainy for a week and I was concered that maybe he did not lie down enough. He stands in the shed - but I do not think he will lie down in it because of the other horses there.

Sorry this is so lengthy.

Again - any advice would be appreciated. I would also be happy to pay for a phone consultation with you.

Thank you.
Erin R.

Well, this is one of the more lengthly and detailed questions I have received in a long time. I am just back from 6 weeks teaching in Europe and actually have a ton of emails to catch up on. But I happened to view this email just now and thought I would try to offer some input that might help you with the tough decision you have to make.

Being the age he is means he is quite habituated to how he is. Old habits are difficult for any of us to break, especially as we age. Your are right that he could be habituated to pain somehow and that may be a contributing factor and he may never quite understand that all the pain is gone. If a horse bites if pop him right on the end of the snout and not anywhere else. If he is hit on the chest, leg or shoulder it really is not going to mean much and if a horse is inclined to retaliate, they will do so from a hit on the leg or shoulder. A firm, well placed, well timed pop right on the snout will generally not prompt a horse NOT to come back at the human. It tends to be a much more effective deterrent to biting and a horse putting its mouth on a human. Also, it will tend to keep a horse from invading boundaries if used that way. That is the only place I will hit a horse ever and generally never for anything other than the animal using its mouth inappropriately. So, the hits on the leg or chest, etc. with this horse, seems to have been not only ineffective but, I feel, may have contributed to his retaliation attempts as he felt he could dominate the situation because the hits were not effective enough. A firm and decisive pop on the snout is something they never do to each other. It is something unique that a human can do to a horse and therefore, if done well, can be very effective. I go into this a bit here as I have found it very effective with very dangerous horses. If a reprimand is not effective it contributes to the problem as it will prompt retaliation. Never get angry or attempt to punish.

You may never be able to fully trust this horse. You do not tell me the results of all the 'tests' you have had done. I would be interested to know if anything valuable was learned or discovered. Sounds like you have had good trainers for the most part. Some of his behavior sounds like he may have been 'proud cut' and a result of too much testosterone in his system. But I am guessing. If there are gaps in the consistency in your training or handling of the horse, where ever the gaps are he will go there. This is basic horse nature and with this horse, even more so. He could never go to a novice. To say the horse was trying to 'kill' the person handling him, is a huge statement. My experience is that it is always fear somehow. Fear of not surviving or pain. Also, memories of abuse can create psychotic behavior in humans and horses as well. This is a possibility. Psychosis can be difficult to have a complete diagnosis done with a horse. Sometimes they are fine and sometimes not. Sounds a bit like your horse. Truth be told, I have never given up on a horse I had enough time with. But, I have had horses I could never trust to allow a novice or a child around. I would never feed this horse anything but grass hay. I would not give it bute 2x a day. That is too much I think. Masking pain is not a great way to go. Occasionally, OK. But not on a regular basis.

Please remember, there are a whole lot of wonderful horses out there. Many, many potentially great horses needing a good home. I see wonderful horses in Europe discarded and sent to Italy for sausage because people are ignorant, do not care or have too many, untrained 'pets' around. Anyway, there are many wonderful horses in the States needing good homes. Consider, allowing this horse to go to horse heaven and putting your time and money into a younger horse with great promise and a known history. Consider not having to worry about dangerous behavior happening and seriously injuring a human just because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I totally unerstand emotional attachment. You have a tough decision here. I wish you the best of luck and wonderful horses.

Sincerely, Franklin

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