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My horse treats me badly and doesn't appreciate all I have done for it.

Dear Franklin,

This question goes beyond biting, and I couldn't find anything in the archives that quite addressed it. I rescued two starving horses in Mexico in February 2005. Once on a feeding, worming, vitamin etc. program, they turned around beautifully, and the older QH gelding has finally regained his trust in humanity and he has proved his reliability and love for me over and over. I looked after both while I lived on the ranch we rented; then when we moved, they went into the care of someone I trust. Here's the problem: the little palomino mare, now two, I thought loved me as much as I love her; she looked forward to her days with me, being groomed, petted etc. while we lived on the ranch. She apparently became unhappy under the care of the other person (4 months); I was out of the country for two months, and these she spent tied up Mexican style, with minimal exercise, until I returned and had a corral built. After I returned she became very attention seeking, nippy, trying to knock me over if I entered the corral, seemingly feeling left out if I went out riding on the QH (her buddy) - only with me, though, not with her keeper. She's over two now, and has been one month with an experienced and gentle, woman trainer (American). She's in the company of a herd, adores her lessons, is eager to work and to please, and here's the dilemma: she has become very fond of her trainer and gravitates towards her; now when I visit she puts her ears back and yesterday nipped my chest.

In spite of my having taken her from a life of starvation, her trainer feels she is annoyed with me for having been away, or put her in a temporary situation she didn't like. Does that make sense? I am crazy about this mare, who is exceptionally beautiful and shows talent, and worried that she will never trust me or like me in future for whatever mistake she thinks I've made. It's like she is trying to punish me for not understanding something. Or is it just that I spoiled her and she is trying to boss me? I hope you'll be able to suggest what might be wrong, and how I can help to remedy the problem. I sincerely thank you for at least looking at my question.

Best, Nancy

Hi Nancy,

This mare is not punishing you. She is not doing anything to you. She is simply being a horse and responding as a horse to her environment (where she is and who is around her). It would be easy for you to get back on track with her by spending time with her and directing movement and simple activity/action. This is what ground play will do. It is supposed to be like dancing with you as the leader of the dance. Your mutually successful relationship (through active dancing), your effective leadership and developed trust come not from saving the horse's life. The horse really does not relate to that aspect of your experience with her. She does not know about your sacrifice for her in the way we humans might. She will relate to you as her good parent/leader/friend by how you interact with her in the present moment and she will remember that mutually successful action and movement requests from day to day. She will remember you as whether or not you were a good leader. She will come to trust you again if you do as your trainer is doing, direct movement through making appropriate requests. It is more than saving her life, more than feeding her treats, more than petting and fawning over her. It is all about how good a leader you can be. This means that you ask for, direct and guide movement. When she does the action, or even tries to do as requested, she immediately gets a very short break and a bit of praise (Good Girl) as a reward. This makes her feel good about her own effort and how you made the request and the total process.

This is called a winning cycle for the horse. This is mutually successful action and interaction. This is how a horse comes to trust a human.

What you are doing in your mind is call 'anthropomorphizing.' It is when we attribute too broad a spectrum of the human thought process to an animal. Horses are forgiving and love unconditionally once a human begins to show up as the great and appropriate leader. A horse that has been abused will often forgive humans once a kind, knowledgeable and skillful human begins to interact with it. This is how abused horses are rehabilitated (sort of the same with an abused human). Horses love their leader unconditionally. That love is earned through the appropriateness and success of communication, guidance and direction. We guide horses to a sense of safety and trust that they are safe, through our abilities to successfully direct motion and action. The purpose of our leadership is to guide the horse to specific 'feelings' of safety. Sort of like how a parent leads and guides their child to confidence it is safe. Safety does not exist in the outside world. It is a feeling only. Horses are empathetic always and profoundly. This is how they know your intentions. If you 'feel' like a predator, you probably are. If you feel safe, calm, kind, connected in a conscious and confident way with the horse, it feels safe with you and accepts you as its great parent/leader. Horses are not human and we are not horses. We can, however, interact with them with the understanding it is our great responsibility to help horses know/feel they are safe when with us. Remember the Steven Stills song; Love the One You're With? It's kind of like that with horses.

What do you think about all this? I'd love to hear your response. Thanks for your question.

Sincerely, Franklin

Thank you so much for your reply, and for the consideration you gave my concerns about Chiquita.

You asked me for my comments in return: I gave myself a couple of days to think over what you wrote, to think of ways to put your words to work, and then spent her next lesson with her. Her trainer decided that one way to put into effect some of what you suggested was for me to become proactive. So not only will I be present in the ring for some of her lessons, I will also take the driving reins and learn to guide her through basic gaits at least occasionally. We tried this after you wrote, and the response was very different from previous encounters. Even though it was new to me, and my skill level must have felt different from her trainer's, she was very patient and seemed to enjoy it. She's so quick to learn and eager to please; she showed me much more respect - she didn't for example try to nip me or bully me into play by entering my space, or demand treats constantly. She got praised for her efforts, and a single treat at the end of the session. But I am also keeping in mind what you said about being calm, and speaking to her in a calm voice, and it is making a difference - not yet perfect, but at least she didn't fuss much when I stood alone with her, and she obeyed the word "stand". So she and I are both in effect in training. Your comments helped me to understand better where she is coming from, what she expects of me, her need to feel safe with me, and the role she needs me to fill, in order for us to have that trust you speak of. I realized later that many of us only think about what we want or expect from a horse, whether we can trust them, our own insecurities, and so on. I'd like to think she loves me, as I love her, but if she's not there yet, I can promise you that I'm working on it, and trying to see myself from her point of view so that I can earn that unconditional love. I hope I'm going about this much as you tried to suggest, but if not, please let me know.

I'd love to keep you posted, let you know how things have progressed several months from now, if you are interested?

With thanks, Nancy

Please do. I know your progress will be on the fast track to 'trust' now.

Let me know if I can help more.

Best regards, Franklin

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