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Horse that spooks with young rider

Dear Franklin

My 8 year old daughter has been riding for 3 years. Three weeks ago we bought her a Quarter Horse mare named Dee Dee, she is seven years old, 15.2hh and seemed the perfect fit for our young girl. When we went to see her, she seemed quiet and easy to get along with. We did everything we could to try to spook this horse, that the previous owners said was bombproof! Nothing seemed to faze her. When we got her to the barn where we board her, things changed. She seems skiddish and nervous. She does not seem to like any of the other horses (she is stalled between 2 geldings), she kicks at the stall walls and pins back her ears, obviously not amused by their attention. In the ring she pins her ears back at every horse that she passes. I try to lunge her quite a bit before my daughter rides, to work out the kinks and focus her attention on working and not worrying about the other horse. She spooks at every little noise, paws and won't stand still while in the crossties, tries to nip me while I tighten her girth and throws her head when I try to briddle her.

My daugher, Morgan, is a very nervous rider. She has ridden mostly smaller ponies. Her level of confidence has dropped off dramatically in the past year or so, due to a series of mishaps resulting in some tramatizing falls. Although she had not been injured, she seems to lose all her confidence. She still loves horses and refuses to quit riding. Once she has had about a month of good rides, she starts to regain that confidence and things go smoothly....until, once again, the pony spooks at something, takes off and she is left in the dirt.

We decided it was time to build some confidence between rider and horse and purchase a nice, quiet, bombproof mare. Since having Dee Dee home, Morgan has spent quite a bit of time with her. The two are working on a lot of ground work (which goes very well) and Morgan rides her only on the lunge line. Two days ago, the mare spooked and took off, she didn't get far as I pulled her back. She swung out her hind quarters and Morgan went flying. I lunged out the mare and Morgan reluctantly got back on, but is back to square one with the confidence level. She is nervous to put her legs on and make the mare move forward, nervous to go too fast, and seems to curl forward and not sit up tall. The mare seems confused and even more skiddish. I know that this mare can feel Morgan's jitters and thinks that there must be something to feel nervous about. I have tried to explain that there are no completely bombproof horses and that she has to be prepared to deal with the situation when her horse spooks, but she is still nervous. Do you have any suggestions as to how to improve the confidence level of both the horse and rider? Also, any suggestions on how to make her relax around the other horse will in the stall, ring and crossties?

Sincerely, Tara

Hi Tara,

Any change in a horse's environment can be traumatic for the horse. As the horse was only three weeks at the new facility and a program of riding was initiated quickly (perhaps no period of adjustment was allowed before 'back to work) I think this is a classic case of asking too much too quickly of the horse. There was no period of adjustment with support for the horse being in a new place. How the horse was kept in the old barn is important. If this new barn is quite different (which it is anyway), a hefty period of supported adjustment for your horse was in order. Any major differences in how the horse is housed at the new place is important. A lot of time (a week at least) just being with the horse, moving it around the new facility, safely and appropriately getting it acquainted with its new herdmates (stablemates) with you and your daughter, is important. You don't mention doing this at all. You only mention a bit of lungeing and your daughter trying to ride immediately. So, you have a traumatized horse and a fearful, less than skilled and less than confident child trying to ride the horse which compounds the entire problem. To be quite honest, this horse was never given a good chance at the new place because no appropriate period of adjustment with proper support was offered. Additionally, no mention of developing a real relationshp with the horse was brought forward, only a little lungeing and your daughter trying to ride the animal. This is the core of the problem. Horses are not meant to be obediant and submissive. They are meant to partner with humans. You have not considered the need for partnership, good leadership, or real consideration for the horse being in a totally new place, new stablemates, new everything. Also, this horse does not sound like it was so bombproof to begin with. Perhaps it was calm at it's old place. But 'bombproof' is a big thing and I don't really think this horse was as well 'sacked out' as you were told.

To remedy this situation, don't let your daughter ride this horse until you have developed a relationship based on trust and respect. The horse will remain unsafe and unreliable until it has come to trust you and your daughter, until it has become acquainted with some of its stable mates in an appropriate way and you have developed a relationship with it. You begin to develop this relationship through playing with and directing movement on the ground that is beyond simple lungeing for warm up (both you and your daughter need to do this). I don't meant to be disrespectful, but you also need more knowledge about horses. Sounds like your background is fairly standard English riding. This is all about humans riding horses and not about knowledge about the horse itself. Riding horses should be the icing on the cake of the human's relationship with the horse. This, sadly, is almost never the case. The human activity of riding always takes priority over knowledge about horses. If you actually had some solid education about horses, you would have known the obvious steps to introduce a horse to a new environment. I strongly suggest you invest just a little money in education about horses for yourself and your daughter. Knowledge dispels a lot of fear. You can easily, cheaply and efficiently gain a lot of knowledge through the purchase of several training dvd's. Many good ones are found in the backs of all horse magazines. I have several in the shopping corral of my website that would prove very valuable to you. No matter whose you get, get several and watch them with your daughter. Then practice some of the techniques for developing trust with your horse. I have taught this sort of appropriate and knowledgeable horsemanship to children younger than your daughter and they love it and do great. By the time they begin to ride their understanding of horses is so good that their riding becomes so much more appropriate and easier on both them and their horse(s). Additionally, riding instructors do not teach much about horses beyond maintenance, saddling, grooming and riding. They teach nothing about the horse itself. No info about their psychology, language, emotional lives, empathytic lives, etc. is offered. It always "show him who is the boss." This is a sad and unfortunate commentary on the traditional English way of approaching horsemanship. It not about control. Its should be a dance, all of it. With the human as the great leader of this dance.

I don't mean to sound harsh and please forgive me if I do. Its just that your situation is so common and so unfortunate for the horse as well as your child.

Also, it is so easily remedied through gaining some good knowledge about these wonderful animals. This knowledge has nothing to do with riding the horse. That any riding instructor can teach. Learn about HORSES. Allow your daughter the opportunity to develop a real relationship with your new horse. You need education to do this. You cannot rely on any riding instructor to teach about the horse. Many don't really know. Sadly the majority of horse owners

I work with who are great riders and have rooms full of ribbons and trophies, have little knowledge about the horses they ride. Great riders do not neccessarialy make great horse people. Consider becoming more well-rounded in your horsemanship. It is easy, fun, safe, builds confidence and skill with equines. Good luck and please give me your thoughts about the content of this email. I mean no disrespect to you. Your situation is so prevalent and the remedy is so's called education about horses, not riding instruction. Not very traditional is it?

Sincerely yours, Franklin

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