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Horse Help Center

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Helping a fearful but sweet mare

Dear Franklin,

I hope that you are well and happy. I also hope that you are able to offer me some inspiration whenever you have the time, and I also wish to thank you for your generous offer to help horse enthusiasts with your free advice.

I seek help regarding Trudy, my 10year cob old mare. I bought her 3 weeks ago, and we are making beautiful progress, but I am starting to get a bit stuck with leading. Here's a bit about her:

Trudy is a generous, willing, 10 year old cob mare who hasn't been handled much for the last 18 months, and had a rough time about 6 weeks ago, being sold to a dealer and having a scary experience on the way, bolting back to her field before loading and getting stuck on the gate she tried to jump, needing the fire brigade to lift her off. I was aware before I bought her that she doesn't lead well, and if you don't let her go where she wants, she turns on you, threatening to kick with her back hooves, although she's actually never kicked. I know that the dealer just let her lead wherever she wanted to go, and he suggested that I get a chiffney bit to lead her and teach her manners. I didn't agree, and we're playing with a rope halter, or sometimes just a rope around her neck.

I have had her for 3 weeks now, and we've made amazing progress, as she'd bolt as soon as she felt any pressure on the lead rope (she'd turn her head around to face the other way while leading, and if there was any pressure on her halter she'd run away in a panic), and she sure wasn't keen on going anywhere near that gate, nor the path behind it, incase there are a bunch of people who are going to whisk her off, or worse still, panthers.

I've done some exercises with her in the field (despite distractions of lush grass and over-eager field mates), and I can stroke her all over with a whip (which she used to run from), she follows me with out a halter, does nice circles and turns when I do, backs up smoothly, sidesteps, and touches objects when I ask her to 'touch', and always comes towards me when I go to see her. I am sort of combining clicker with Fred Rai, I give her a food reward for each try, then ask for a bit more before the next treat, only rewarding for her tries and success, and it's worked really well. I don't really think treats are the best for horse training, but as I couldn't even lead her out of her field, let alone get her up to the school, I thought this the best method for gaining initial trust.

My problem is that if she's feeling spooked (and the gales we have at the mo' are doing a great job of that!), and I have her halter and leadrope on her, she feels panicky and just turns and runs, and if I give her any pressure on the rope she gets a whole lot more scared. She normally turns to face me and comes to me when I gently talk to her after she's spooked, but she's not comfortable with sticking by me and listening to the rope contact at the time of panic.

She willingly gives to pressure, unless she's feeling scared. I have tried walking her in circles like you've shown in the demo, but she even runs out in a panic while we do this (not over me yet, thankfully!). If I walk her along the path outside the gate (we've managed about 10 meters so far), and she gets a bit scared, she just plants her feet and stares, even being unable to walk back to her field for a few minutes, so I think she feels unsafe when she's walking those small circles with me if she's feeling a bit scared, as she's not able to stare in the direction of the source of her fear (like the wind rustling the bushes).

I know that time will build this trust, I just wonder if you have any advice to help me be a safe place for her to be, and any ideas on how I can communicate to her that it's not the best thing for her to run away with the lead rope if she spooks!

Thanking you with a heart filled with gratitude, Leanna.

Hi Leanna,

She sounds like a sweetie and holding some residue fear from trauma. Also, she has low self-esteem which makes her tend to be insecure as well. Just like a child without confidence, you need to allow situations to happen that the mare can go through with your guidance that help her gain the confidence that she is and will be, all right (safe). Do you have a round pen? If you did I would definitely suggest a lot of ground play with this mare. At liberty training can really help build confidence. At liberty training helps the animal to learn things for itself. this builds confidence. This can also be accomplished in a small arena. Do you have any skills in this area?

Horses also have personalities formed from a variety of sources. Genetics, environment, former trainer's skill or lack of skill (upbringing), etc. all go into prompting a horse to develop a specific personality. Personalities are difficult to modify in horses, just as with people. You might take a look at what is personality and what is a fearful attitude that may be helped. The quickest and most efficient way to bring fear to trust with a horse is a lot of time spent with the horse doing ground play. You cannot do enough appropriate ground play. If you are seeking different things to do with her on the ground, let me know. On the ground is where your relationship is really formed, as you know. The more you can do with her on the ground, the better it will get.

Make every little move a conscious request. Going forward (leading), stopping, backing, every little mundane move should be a conscious request that, when complied with easily and smoothly, gets a "good girl" from you. Praise, not overly done, is good and lets a horse know you are pleased and it has done good.. Your judicious use of treats is OK. Just do not over do it. But the more every little thing becomes a conscious request, complied with and then praised, this sets up a winning pattern. This 'pattern' of request, compliance and praise becomes a 'winning cycle' for you and the horse that will become habitual over time. This will help her to relax with you, be calmer and more trusting with you.

Thanks for your kind words. I am happy to be able to help. Please do keep me posted. I travel to the UK several times a year to present seminars. Please check in with my website occasionally for scheduling information.

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