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Nervous, bucking, spooking, stiff in the neck and no trust, horse

Hi Franklin,

I've adopted a 6 year old Arab-Standardbred mare from the local humane society. No one could give me answer on her training, but they believed she was green broke. I have trained horses and ponies before, so I proceeded as though she had no training. After a year and a half, I can still barely get her to walk and trot with control. She is very nervous and stops, bucks, spooks, shies, won't bend, won't lower her head, and in general won't trust me at all. She is absolutely fine in the barn, in all her ground manners, and on the lunge line - the problem is only when I'm on her back. She is sweet tempered, and has bonded with me. She has been vetted, and has no physical issues at all. She is generally outdoors all day with a small pony companion, and gets minimal sweet feed - 2 cups a day. I'm completely baffled by her behavior. I'm an experienced rider, and am maintaning a very firm but gentle attitude with her, and don't allow her to avoid work.

I would appreciate any suggestions.
Thanks! Randee

Hi Randee,

If this horse were mine I would do a complete rehabilitation with her. Probably 90 to 120 days of consistent training (5 days a week, a couple of hours per session). I would re-start this horse by beginning on the ground with desensitizing to anything I could think of. Then do those same desensitizing to 'scary things' from the saddle. Rewarding any efforts at 'trust' (horse stops moving, licking and chewing, lowered head, etc.) immediately with an offer to the horse to continue to stand or simply to start stand still. If the animal cannot stand or will not stand still, I would gently direct where she goes every step. A lot of simple circles and figure 8s. I would direct every step and when the horse looked to slow or stop I would ask for a minute or so more and then request she stop myself. I would also do a ton of flexing exercises side-to-side and up and down. I would definately train this horse to lower its head when requested. Do this on the ground first until thoroughly learned and the animal is very comfortable with the requests. Then repeat the training from the saddle. Time frame is however long it takes.

Getting the stiffness out of the horse's neck is big. This is a symptom of the horses habitual fear and attempts to protect herself by keeping the tension. I would also not her give anything but quality grass hay and drop any sweet feed. If she is a difficult keeper I would give oats as the supplemental grain. No carbohydrates. Moderate amounts of supplimental vitamins and minerals won't hurt. I would do all my riding in an arena for a while until the animal was totally bomb proof (on the ground and under rider) in that space before going out. Then I would use a very gradual approach to getting her used to the great outdoors. I might have someone who was very experienced, lunge the horse with me on its back while in a round pen or arena a lot. I would want to get so I could ride the horse simply in a rope halter and lead in the round pen or small area. The benefit of this is that I can bring the animals mouth back which will help develop trust as well. I would always saddle the horse for every session whether or not I intended to ride. If I had a round pen, on a number of sessions I would tighten up that flank girth or put a lariet around her haunches and send her around the pen and occasionally pull the rope a bit tight to encourage her to buck if she got afraid. This method requires a lot of understanding of horses as to how much is too much or too little. Producing fear, even accidently, is really not an option. Horses forgive mistakes if your intention is to help and develop trust is strong. So, if you accidently do scare the horse, once you are back on track they will forgive. Getting the animal used to things touching her, sounds, things popping out of nowhere is really important. I promise you if you take the horse through all this and take as long as it takes (6 months or a year, whatever), are very skillful and reward each and every little effort of that horse to trust you, that horse will become a different animal.

She is young enough to do this. Her behavior is fear based as you know. Put her into fear removal therapy. It can and does take time. So, huge patience is required as is consistency of the highest level. Please do keep me posted....How about a before and after picture? You can do this rehab if you really want to and are willing to take the time again. It will be very rewarding for you and the horse and extremely gratifying for you too. Your training skills will jump just by applying more positive and appropriate reinforcement (rest and a little praise) at the exact moment of effort. Good Luck.

Sincerest regards and Happy Holidays,

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