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Dangerous horse behavior

Hello Franklin,

A few months ago I adopted an 7 year old (unraced) OTTB mare (who spent a few months at New Holland in PA before she was rescued). At first she was okay, but all of the sudden one day she exploded when the stable owner was bringing her in from the pasture. She reared up and bucked (from the rear) kicked the woman down, fled to barn, turned around, and ran back to kick the stable owner down while she was getting up. This woman, who is very good at handling horses, was able to get my horse, backed her up until her head dropped, and put her into her stall, before she set out to the hospital to have her arm put back into place. Since then, we have done a great deal of round pen work with her, and the horse’s manners have improved greatly. I was wondering if you ever heard of anything like this happening before? It bothers me that once the mare ran from her fears, she chose to loop back around to face them and kick the owner back down. However, the mare is always excellent under saddle, she does everything I ask her, and she is wonderful on trails. When I am riding her, she is perfect, but when I handle her on the ground, she gets nervous. Normally I would want to reboot my horse's training completely, but she loves to be ridden, it gives her purpose and direction. And while she hasn’t acted so aggressively since that incident, she can still be very insecure. I try to be calm when I handle her, but it can be hard. When the horse gets nervous, she swings her head from side to side, looking behind her for something, or she will flap her lips quickly (not licking and chewing); I try to keep her head in place and soothe her, which helps, but I don’t know how to make her feel more confident. Sometimes she will rear, but she has not kicked out since that one time. However, in the round pen she will rear up and walk a few steps and punch out at the trainer and me until she realizes we will not back down, and then she gives up and lets us move her (happily) around the circle. It seems as though she is testing us to make sure we are good leaders, (she doesn't always rear, but she will always challenge us once or twice in the pen). She is great with the stable owner now, who handles her with great patience and understanding, but I am so afraid that something like that aforementioned might happen again. Since I have been handling her and riding her almost every day, she has been getting better; also, she has been living outside (b/c it is so warm out) and that seems to help a lot too. This month I am going to have her looked at for the chance of ulcers, which, I'm told, could be the cause of her behavior. The mare is beautiful, smart, and sometimes sweet (I’m still working on the biting issue), and because she goes so well under saddle, I think we would make an eventing team, once she feels more comfortable with me. She’s so athletic! I love her very much and I want to make her a safe animal to be around. Obviously the horse has been severely mishandled at some point, but I don't know how to heal her pain. Do you have any suggestions? I know this is a lengthy story, and I appreciate your patience!
Thank you,

Hi Alicia,

Stall kept horses with limited turn out are prone to all sorts of abberated behavior. Mares seem particularly susceptible. Rescued horses frequently have 'baggage' that does not show for some time after their rescue. When in their estrus cycle the behavior of a mare can become markedly worse. Playing in a round pen and small arena at liberty and on a long line, is very desirable and should be done absolutely as much as possible. Make certain the horse is not getting too 'rich' a diet for the amount of activity the horse is having. Mostly stall bound horses are given too much grain. Once a horse begins to behave in the manner you are describing, unless a consequence for the unwanted behavior can be figured out, the behavior generally becomes worse. Of course, the round pen play will help the situation a lot. Movement (work) is always a non-abusive and generally effective consequence. I suggest setting up the situation where you are fairly certain the horse will act out and be ready to send the horse around in circles and/or hind-quarter yields for a minute or two. While I do not advocate hitting horses, a well timed, perfectly placed pop to the snout can do wonders for a horse that has never had such a consequence for unwanted, potentially dangerous behavior. 'Work' as a consequence, generally does a good job of modifying behavior. I would suggest carrying a wand of some sort (5 foot stock whip, dressage whip) and get good at using it as an effective tool to assist your communication with the horse. Using a wand appropriately is a great skill and over looked much of the time. It might save an injury sometime.

The horse's previous trauma can be helped to be overcome through extremely consistent and basic daily handling by a good handler. 20 minutes to an hour a day of easy movement for a while should really help. End every session on a positive note. Keep it simple for a good while. Stick to the basics. Lots of praise for even a little try. Use rest (see the essay section of my website) as the great reward for the horse even trying to comply with requests (with a good attitude) with putting the horse away as the biggest reward possible for a great session. Good Luck and please keep me posted.

Sincerely, Franklin

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