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Skittish Horses

Hello Franklin,

I have a 16 yr old Quarter Horse/Arabian and whenever I go to a show with him, he gets tense and nervous. Right when he literally flies off the trailer, he looks around with his nostrils flared and he circles and just freaks out. But, then when I get on him it's much worse. He shies sometimes, holds his head very high, and does this little excited prance. I am in 4-H so I go to the 4-H fair every year, and last year he went in the show ring and he was really, really tense and he was prancing and getting nervous. I was patting him and trying to calm him down, but he wouldn't listen. Then when we had the jumping round to do, he was so skittish that he knocked 2 rails and he almost refused many jumps. He was also going very slow at the trot, and when I would ask him to go a little faster, he would spring right into the canter and I don't want him to do that. He has gotten a martingale recently and I am hoping that he will be OK with it, but I'm not sure what he will do. If you can reply with some advice on your website that would be great.

Sincerely, Taylor

Hi Taylor,

Here is a little Christmas gift for you. Stop trying to restrain and/or stop your horse from moving about. It is much better to allow the movement, but direct where his feet go. For instance, around you in circles, both directions. Add in a few WHOAS, brief moments of standing still. But, if he wants to move about, let him, just direct the movement. You see, you need to provide leadership of movement to keep his attention on you. Reward him often for settling on his own, by allow him to simply stand still. He will want to stop moving at some point. Be patient. When he looks to stop, you ask him for a bit more and in a few moments you can allow him to stop. The thing is to provide freedom to move, but direct the movement. He won't want to move forever. You must be patient. Take him to some shows where he is not competing, so neither of you have pressure. He probably is picking up some of your excitement and or angst of competing as well. Give your horse appropriate, conscious/ connected requests for all movement, not restraints. Horses are too strong and restraint is constant pressure. The horse is never rewarded by its removal. I have worked with many, many horse that bolt out of trailers and seem to be going ballistic. All I had to do was to immediately lead the dance of all movement, with frequent reward for calm (the reward is more calm).

When riding, get good at asking for and receiving turns on the forehand (a leg yield). This is a simple action you can request of the horse to put his attention back on you. You need to practice this before you really need it. So do it a lot at home first to get it really good. Additionally, lots of people use martingales who do not need them. They are simply looking for a quick fix on the core issue, the reason for the head tossing and high head. This is usually a fear issue, fear of pain or discomfort and the additional of a lot of stress. They try to deal with it and avoid it by raising and /or shaking the head. Most human I come across either don't care to address the cause of the symptom, don't have the skills or can't make the time, only think of restraint (martingale) rather than try to understand the animal's behavior and then taking some appropriate steps to modify it, with a focus on freedom and release of restraint and pressure. Old habits can change but it is a team effort with a horse. We stop doing things that are contributing to a problem, i.e. the use of any coersion/force/bribery or anything other than gentle training that allows the horse to learn for himself what needs to happen. He does this through our wonderful, gentle, skillful, strong, yet quiet and compassionate leadership.

Patting you horse will never calm him down. If he needs to move, let him, simply direct where his feet go. No matter how long he wants to keep moving....allow it, but be the leader of the dance of all movement......

Aloha from Maui and Happy Holidays, Franklin

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