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Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

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Opinionated ex-racehorse

I'm worried about my horse. He's an 11-year old thoroughbred that I bought off the racetrack when he was six. What a wonderful, sweet horse he's been for me! We've had a lot of challenges, with me learning to ride while he's learning what he's supposed to do besides run.

For the last few weeks I've seen a change in him that I don't understand. While I was grooming him in his stall before a riding lesson, he pinned his ears back, acted like he was going to bite me, and kicked out with his back foot. I scolded him so he raised his head really high and bit at the top of his stall and kicked the wall instead. Two days later, I thought I knew the reason: the vet came to give him his spring shots and, while cleaning his sheath, found a pretty large bean in there. After the cleaning, his sheath and belly area was swollen for almost a week. He was still cranky, going after the wall when I tried to groom him.

Well now, he's physically fine but last night he really gave me a hard time. And the owner of the stable describes him as "opinionated," so I think there's been something going on before this situation. He's never been anything but sweet, willing, and laid back before.

What could cause such a severe temperament change in a horse?



HI Doris,

I am always reluctant to project a negative human personality trait on a horse’s behavior. By this I mean saying a horse is willful, stubborn, mean, opinionated, has its own mind (whose mind should it have?) or any number of less than desirable human traits. When we do this we are judging the horse is intrinsically bad or flawed. This is unfair and incorrect. Horses are either trusting or fearful. Pain and/or any discomfort or the anticipation of either, makes a horse react as your horse is. Forget “opinionated horses” please as that is bunk (no offense to the stable owner). Humans want to slough off pain issues in horses sometimes by making a negative judgment about the horse. This is unfair and totally wrong. If the horse is not compliant and was previously it is “fear” probably caused by pain or the anticipation of pain. Any pain or discomfort makes the horse apprehensive about more pain and causes fear. Changes in diet and routine can cause apprehension and therefore, fear. Fearful behavior looks like aggression, meanness, stubbornness and all such labeled actions and attitudes. Horses are as innocent as young children. That is the truth of it. They may be dangerous when full of fear or even a little fear. But they are still innocent and deserve our compassion, kindness and great leadership skills rather than our negative judgments to downplay the horse’s pain and somehow make them “bad”. As you can see I am somewhat passionate about this human propensity to make horse’s bad and wrong. Even
horse people do this all the time.

Your horse is probably still healing and remembers the discomfort quite well. That will make it hypersensitive to being touched at all and prompt the fearful behavior you are experiencing. What I would suggest is for you to not groom in the stall for a while. Take the horse out of the stall before you begin to groom. Lead him around a little, stop and start a few times and let him relax. Apply no pressure and release your agenda of cleaning him up. Lets make your agenda the horse’s comfort and feeling of safety, at least for a little while. Then begin to touch him gently and give gentle scratches to his withers and shoulder (his Momma was affectionate to him in these areas specifically). Do not tie him. If he relaxes into your touch, just hold the lead in one hand with a lot of slack in it and keep gently running your hand softly over his body and eventually to his belly. Talk reassuringly to him. Do not take a brush to him yet. Do this on both sides and then lead him around again a bit, just to give a little variety to what you do. If he is nervous about your touch in any part of his body, back off that particular spot just a tad until the fearful display stops and being to gently touch from that point. Eventually you will move closer to the sensitive area and gradually the horse will feel fine with you going to these uncomfortable areas. He remembers that it was painful. He does not know it will not be painful until you gradually allow him to discover this for himself. Do you understand?

This is a big lesson for humans to get about horses. Folks pay a lot of money just to finally understand what I have just explained. Horses habituate to pain very quickly and begin to expect it. That is what you are seeing. They think it will continue to be painful until, over a bit of time, they discover for themselves it is not painful. By taking your time, you horse will eventually learn for himself the pain will not happen. We cannot push knowledge onto a horse. They have to discover things for themselves to really learn them (funny how kids need to do the same thing). I hope this all makes sense to you. Please let me know how it goes and your thoughts on this. Your stable owner will get angry if you tell her she is wrong about the horse. However, she is short changing you and the horse, either through her own ignorance or lack of desire to take the time to really offer assistance. It is quicker and easier for her to just say your horse is “opinionated” and put a negative judgment on the horse.

BTW, I am available to travel to teach and train in any area and am doing so a lot (please check my calendar in the website). I also offer telephone coaching in "Training Thru Trust", gentle yet highly effective horsemanship techniques. Please let me know if you are interested in any of these offerings. Immersion programs at my base ranch in Aspen, Colorado are available as well. Thanks a lot for your question. Please keep me posted.

Sincerely, Franklin

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