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From nice to mean?

Dear Franklin,

Hi my name is Joy. I am 14 years old and I have a horse named Dante and I just bought him a few months ago. He is an 8 year old quater/paint horse. He was trained western pleasure but now my riding instructer and I are teaching him to do english pleasure. When I first bought him, he was a very obedient, good beginner horse. I used to ride him bareback with the rest of my family. Then in late September he started to become very mean. Whenever I ride on him, he tries to kick or buck. He bucked a few times with my riding instructer. She told to lunge him before I ride him. But whenever I try to lunge him he tries to attack me. I don't understand why he is doing this.He is getting worse and worse whenever my riding instructer or I ride on him. What should I do? What could be the reasons why he is doing this?
Thank you, Joy

Hi Joy,

Yours is a very common situation actually. A really nice well-mannerd horse is purchased and does fine until the new owner (perhaps a young person or an intermendiate rider with a riding instructor) tries to introduce the horse to new things and ways of moving. Then the horse becomes ill tempered and it's behavior becomes much less acceptable than it was. To be very candid and honest with you, its all about appropriate and skillful leadership. When you attempt to take a horse out of its comfort zone, you have to have its trust and have it strongly first. You also have to understand the mind of a horse and the training process which, again to be very honest with you, many riding instructors do not understand. They may be able to teach 'riding' quite well. But that is very different than actually training horses. They are two different and distinct skills. A lot of things could be going wrong for your horse. Also, your horse is never to blame for anything. It is always human error. Horses are as innocent as babies, always. They only know about trusting their leader. If they cannot trust their leader because the leader is asking for too much and too fast, or the leader is not skilled enough in the new 'dance' they are trying to teach the horse, or a blanket remedy such as lunge the horse until it tires (which is a cope out and excuse for not knowing really strong training principles) is used, horses begin to resist (fend for themselves as you are experiencing) out of fear and you see behavior such as you are seeing. This is not about your horse really. It is all about your riding instructor and you. You need to stay with the basics. Go slower, one step at a time. Lots of praise and breaks for your horse even trying to comply. I question whether you or your riding instructor understand how to reward your horse for trying. Or perhaps even recognizing when the horse trying to comply. This is a basic concept of solid trianing techniques. It sounds like you are asking too much too quickly of the horse and frustrating it. No horse goes from nice to not so nice ("mean" is a judgement humans make on humans. It is inappropriate to judge a horse as "mean" or bad). Your horse is resisting because it is afraid. If you frustrate a horse it becomes afraid. If you confuse a horse you make it afraid. If you are unsure about what to do, this is transfered to the horse and it is made afraid. If you try to force a horse through it's fear, you make it more afraid. The whole ball of wax is the development of TRUST. If you shake the horse's trust you make it afraid. A horse is either trusting or afraid. There is little between the two that goes on for a horse. This is beacuse the horse is a prey animal (eaten by other animals). Its fear is based on survival. It gets it's sense of safety and trusts that it is safe from its leaders (you and your riding instructor). You need to be its great leader. Your instructor should be coaching you in equine leadership (even more than riding techniques of how to sit, use your hands, legs, seat, etc.). it is not about taking charge, being in control or showing the horse who is boss. The development of a strong bond of trust is the most importantt thing you will do with and for your horse and yourself. Your horse will try to comply with any reasonable request, made appropriately and skillfully, if it TRUSTS you.

I would go way back to the basics and re-start the horse for English riding technique. You can get some training dvd's that will show you these techniques as I am assuming your riding instructor does not know them. Perhaps I am wrong. But if the instructor did know them I do not understand why they are not being used and implemented. Don't assume the horse knows anything about what you want it to do and begin from the beginning. Good riding is good riding no matter what the dicipline. A very good, centered/balanced western rider will do pretty good in English and vice-versa. Learning some basic dressage would be invaluable for you and your horse. Go slower than you are. Take it one little step at a time and understand that a lot of time is going to be involved. There are no quick fixes for horses. Patience, skill, time, more patience and more time will be required always. You can do it all if you really want to. Please be kind and patient with your horse and never blame your horse for anything as it is never at fault. It is up to us humans to lead and guide our horses to feelings of trust and safety.

From that place you can go anywhere you want with your horse. I am speaking to you as if you were an adult I know. I am asking you to take responsibility. I am suggesting you ask your riding instructor to take responsibility and not just suggest you tire the horse out to make it comply. There is really something worng with the approach you and the instructor are making with this horse. The results with the horse speak for themselves. It is not the fault of the horse. Perhaps you need a different instructor. It is a possibility. Riding instructors rarely will admit there are thigns they do not know about horses. The truth is, in my experience anyway, most riding instructors know a lot about riding techniques, but little of the horse itself and its behavorial patterns. They tend to say "take charge" and "control the horse" or "lunge it until it is too tired to resist." The question of whether or not the horse trusts anyone around it is never raised. Earning the horse's trust will open the world of horses to you. It is a wonderful world. Much bigger than you can imagine at this point. I hope you will enter into it. I know this has been rather long. But I have taken the time because I wanted to really offer you a broader perspective on your situation. Perhaps have your agenda be the horse's sense of safety and trust in you for a while, beyond your and your instructor's agenda of you riding the horse English. Isn't the animals well-being at least as big and important as your wanting to ride English? It takes a long time to get the sort of horse you started out with. It takes only a little time to screw it all up. Please show this email to your folks for their opintion and input.

Good Luck, Sincerely, Franklin

Dear Franklin~

Let me start by saying thank you for the time you put into my daughter, Joy's email. Let me also state you need not respond to my email. Regarding Dante - her trainer and I are a bit baffled at what happened with Dante. After much thought we have considered there may be a number of things going on:

1. Does he have saddle sores - checking the English saddle, the trainer can only get 1 finger in instead of 3? Do we need a new saddle. BTW, she is going to bring her Western saddle and bridle over to try it on him to see if there is any difference.

2. Does he need a chiropractor for back pain? He does flinch when probed in certain spots.

3. Was he gelded properly - should we test for testosterone?

4. Should we send him away for a month (Peace Point Equestrian Center) so two trainers can work w/him 5 days a week? We feel this is a very expensive option that should be looked at closer to spring when Joy will ride him more frequently (at home). Weather is changing here so Joy won't be riding as much through the winter.

5. We know very little of his life before we bought him - was he always put out to pasture and does not like being stuck in a stall during bad weather? Instructor has told us to leave his stall door open and let him come and go and see if that helps.

I read your email and perhaps the trust part has not been established enough. Joy has a very gentle, loving approach w/Dante -- she is not aggressive with him, so I thought perhaps she has not showed him who was 'boss' so he is taking advantage. I have heard it over and over again - a horse will walk all over you if he feels he can, and they are lazy by nature. You pretty much stated it is not about that, but about trust. I will encourage Joy to not give up, to continue handling Dante in a loving manner and begin again slowly.

My sister and I had a half quarter/half Morgan mare when I was 12. I never encountered any of these problems with our horse Ginger so this is all foreign to me. Bottom line - I do not want Joy to get hurt and that is a big concern right now. Thanks again for all your input.

Tracy (Joy's mom)

Hi Tracy,

I am happy to respond once again. Checking saddle fit is always a very good idea in situations like this. An ill-fitting saddle can contribute greatly to the behavior you are experiencing. Also, teeth/mouth issues could come into play as well as the bit being used (have a vet check the animal's mouth). A new bit may be irritating the horse's sore spots (if it has them) in the mouth. If he flinches when his back is palpated, he probably could use an adjustment. It might take a while after the adjustment for the horse to realize it is no longer is in pain. Pain and discomfort become habitual feelings after a time for horses. So, it can take some time for the absence of pain to become understood and realized by the horse. Testing for testosterone levels could be done after obvious physical possibilities for pain are ruled out. Considering more aggressive training for this particular behavior is not the answer. Aggressive training, of the sort you are considering, is not about behavior modification (getting rid of an unwanted habit). It is more about dressage or jumping conditioning. Horse do not just start up with the behavior this horse exhibits for no reason. First thing is to address the real cause(s) of the behavior and the real possibility of pain. Once you have gone that route thoroughly, I might re-start the horse to get him back to trusting humans. This could be done by a trainer who understands gentle horsemanship training techniques. I would check out the trainers methods before hiring them. Get references from clients. I might suggest staying away form the 'rubber stamped trainers' of the Parelli system. If you do send the horse away for some training, I HIGHLY SUGGEST you and your daughter watch (or even participate in) at least some of the process for your own education. So many horse go off to trainers and once they come back to the owner are quickly 'set back' to old, unwanted habits because the owners and trainers were not on the same page. You and your daughter would benefit greatly from being part of the training process. You are right that it will be expensive. So get the most from your investment by receiving as much education yourselves as possible during the training process. I think leaving the stall door open is a good idea. Remember horse's are naturally claustrophobic and want open space in their lives as much as possible.

'Trust' is established over time with horses through good and appropriate leadership. I have written on this topic extensively. It is not about "showing the horse who is boss" at all. It is not about taking charge either. Horses are not supposed to be obedient. They are supposed to be our partners. We do not take charge of our partners. We may, however, lead and guide our partners (much like dance partners with an agreed upon leader). Please understand this as it may the most important aspect of good and successful horsemanship you will ever hear. If I want to gain your trust, I will not attempt to control you. I will not coerce you either. As with your own daughter and developing trust with her that is mutual, or developing trust with a dance partner in order to dance at a high level, the quality of the leadership is most important. As the parent sometimes has to be firm (and still appropriate) with a child, so it must be with a horse. There is a fine line sometimes between firm and abusive. Here is a simple way to establish trust with a horse. It is called a 'winning cycle' and it works for children as well. Take each moment you are with a horse as an opportunity to be the great leader. Each and every step/move/action/or whatever, you want a horse to take is an opportunity to 'lead the dance consciously.' When we ask a horse to come forward a step and the horse even 'tries' to comply, it should be immediately rewarded with an instantaneous release of the pressure of the request (slack the line, stop, etc.). Then a "Good Boy" with or without a brief scratch or pat on the withers or neck is all that is required for the animal to understand it has done a good thing. One step at a time, initially, is a great way to get started with this. This attempt at compliance of the request and an immeidate reward teaches the horse it is OK to try to comply with a request made by the human. Horses understand praise and they understand that release of pressure is their reward for compliance with requests. So, here it is: (1) an appropriately made (small to begin with) request (2) the human recognizes the horse complying or trying to comply with the request (3) the horse is immediately rewarded with a release of the 'pressure' of the request (4) a little bit of praise such as a verbal "Good Boy" and/or a little scratch or rub on the neck is offered to the horse (5) the horse really does understand it has done a good thing and begins to trust that it can try to do as requested by that human and be appreciated for its effort. This set up a 'winning cycle' of request, compliance and reward. It works for children very well also. With a child we give it a simple task we know it can do, the child does it and gets rewarded. The child's self-esteem and confidence goes way up and it tends to be very willing to try something else, perhaps a bit more challenging, because of it's successful prior efforts. This can become a habitual way of being for the child as it can for the horse. When leading a horse forward, each and every step and all stops (WHOA) are chances to use the 'winning cycle' to develop appropriate and conscious leadership, trust gets established through consistency over time, as well as we humans developing sensitivity as to how much is too much, or too little energy in a request to get the desired effort from the horse. Establishing a 'winning cycle' with a horse is easy and an extremely effective and efficient way to develop trust with that animal.

Show your daughter how to consciously ask for one step and a stop. After she does this simple thing several times, the horse will want to nuzzle her, offer affection by bringing its head to her gently, sharing breath and more. The horse bringing it's head to the human is NOT saying pet my nose/face. It is showing affection and acknowledging the human. We should stand with our arms at our sides and receive this affection and acknowledgement. If we go to pet or input the horse with our energy during this special occurance, we immeidately stop the animal from offering its affection to us. Horses only can focus on one thing at a time, either giving energy or receiving energy (input). Teach your daughter how horses give affection and how to receive the horse's affection appropriately please. She'll receive a lot more of it if she understands it and does not over-input the horse. A good general rule is that 'less is more' with horses. This develops sensitivity in humans.

I have taught this to bright children as young as 4 years old with the assistance of a mild mannered horse. It is quite a thing to see a very small child being able to lead a horse, stop it, change directions, back it up or lunge it over a low jump effortlessly. It is done through implementing the 'winning cycle' of appropriately made, one-step-at-a-time (small) requests (in the beginning), attempts at compliance (the horse trying to comply or does comply) and reward (release of pressure and a bit of praise). Please check out other writings I have within my website on this topic. There is a lot there. I have taken the time to write this rather lengthly email/essay to assist you, your daughter, your horse and your instructor (if she/he is willing to expand their abilities with and knowledge of horses). An earmark of a real horseperson, trainer or whatever is the understanding that there is always something more to learn about horses and always more ways to improve their horsemanship, teaching abilities and training techniques. I learn more from the horses than I get from any other source. The horse itself is the best instructor there is. If you develop your abilities to actually learn from your horse, that is the best, the most effective and efficient teaching you will receive anywhere. Go slow, stay calm, never blame the horse, take responsibility and teach this to your daughter. The best of luck to you. I remain available to assist should you choose to ask.

Sincerely yours, Franklin

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