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Spooky Herd Bound Horse

Hi. I have a 9 year old mare that I have had for 6 years. She was not trained when I got her and she is the first horse I have ever owned. I started out with ground work. When she was 5 I had her trained by a trainer where I board her. Being an inexperienced rider, I took my time with her trying to learn what to do as well as teach her. The people I board with would help whenever I asked. I wanted to teach her by being gentle and with positive reinforcement. Over the past 4 years I have become a more confident rider and have had my horse trained by my trainer for a month or two to reinforce what she was first taught. Each year in spring I would have some problems with getting her to leave the barn and the other horses, but by May we would be able to go off by ourselves for short distances. This was fine, because I felt that each time we went I could get her to go a little further than she did the time before.

Last year I noticed that she started to be "spooky" when we rode. I would try to ride in the woods or in the tree nursery by the property that she is boarded on. We would be walking along and for no apparent reason (to me) she would startle (jump) and walk/trot (real fast) to the left or right (depending on which side she thought something was) and I would almost come off. When this first started, I didn't do anything to correct her because I felt that she just wasn't paying attention and something startled her. Well now no matter where I ride she is constantly jumping and now instead of just walking she has started to canter and I have a difficult time trying to stop her. I have gotten fed up with this and have started to correct her by smacking her with the rains and saying no or stop it and then try to take her back to the place where she spooked so she could see that there was no reason for her to be afraid.

This brings me to the other problem that is now occurring. This spring I asked my trainer to work with her for a month to get her to trot with her head down and get her to canter with an easy leg movement. My trainer is still working with her and when on the days that she is being trained, I do not ride. On the days that she is not being trained, I ride her for a short time and to try to get her to leave the barn area. My trainer rides her at the barn, so I try to take her for a short easy walk just down the road to keep her muscles from getting tight. I have been able to get her to leave the barn twice. I have had to coax her, but she went and I made it short rides. No I cannot get her more than three feet down the road to get to the trail. I tried today and she would not go. I tried to let her go at her own pace. I tried for about 45 minutes. The first four times I got her to get on the road and not even a 1/4 of the way down before she would turn and run back to the barn. After the 4th time she wouldn't even stand on the road. I tried at least 4 more times and she wouldn't budge. I tried lunging her for twenty minutes (ten minutes at a time, then I would try to get her to leave the barn again), but she would not go. I was getting frustrated and a little, in my opinion, abusive, so I got off and put her back in the pasture with the other horses. I am to the point that I don't want to ride her anymore.

I feel that these two problems are related and I have no idea how to correct it. I asked my trainer and she said some horses just don't like change and you have to work them at the same routine until they get bored with it. Well that's fine, but I want to trail ride my horse without relying on other people to go with us. So if you could give me some advise on what to do for these two problems, I would greatly appreciate it. I have read some of your responses to other people's questions about herd bound horses and I used to lunge my horse often, but once I become more confident in my riding, I hardly ever lunge.

Thank you.

Hi Carolyn,

Thanks for your email. One thing for certain, punishment and any abuse do not work and are not necessary. Your horse is fearful and not being stubborn. If this were a child who was afraid you would take the time to help the child develop trust. It is the same for your horse. There is no quick fix. They ground work is where your bond is formed. Riding should be the icing on the cake of your relationship with your horse. So, by neglecting the ground play, you have distanced yourself from your horse. Even your riding instructor is taking a rather distant stance from the issue. She is not addressing the fear factor. If you were only lunging to warm your horse up, you were missing the best opportunity to develop the bond with your horse that you probably want, but do not know how to establish. now that you are not even doing that, you really don't have much of a relationship going and your horse has little confidence it is safe with you. If you were with someone you did not feel safe with, you don't have much of a relationship. Your horse is fending for himself because he does not trust he is safe out with only you. He spooks a lot because of his fear.

So, no quick fix here. Go back to developing a relationship with your horse. Have some fun and re-start him. It will up your horsemanship skills and really give you a feeling for who a horse is and its needs. Concentrate on the bond and communication on the ground for a while rather than riding. This is probably not what you want to hear, but it is the quickest and most effective way I know of to get closely connected to a horse. If you smack your horse for being afraid, you only increase its fear and make the problem worse. You have focused so much on riding that you have lost your horse. To get back to your horse and re-gain its trust, consider you must drop the all important riding agenda for just a little while. Let your horse's sense of safety and trust be your goal for a while. Herd bound behavior goes away when you establish yourself as a real part of his herd, actually the leader of his herd. This is done over time thru a lot of ground play and on-the-ground training.

Something I do to modify behavior I do not want is to make that behavior hard by replacing it with an action I know the horse can do that will focus the horse's attention. Action such as bending tightly around an inside leg when I am in the saddle or having the horse yield it's hind quarters in tight little circles, gets the horse's mind off of what I do not want and puts it on the activity I have directed it to do. These tight circles are work for the horse. Frequently I can calm a nervous horse by requesting these tight circles (3-4 rotations in both directions) and then offering a HO!. The circles are work for the horse. They soon learn that if they do what I do not want they go to work. If they stay calm and do as I request, things are peaceful and stay nice. Any unwanted behavior prompts that they 'go to work'. They are smart and get it quickly. There is no punishment or abuse. If the horse balks at going forward, bend him rather vigorously (not too aggressively) around your inside leg both directions about 3-4 rotations and then ask him to walk forward. It may take a few times doing the process, but it does work and works well. Do you understand what I mean? Tell me if you do not. If your horse spooks, do the same thing. He is not doing anything to you personally. He is simply afraid and has no one he can trust. He needs a leader and that is you.

So, please keep me posted and let me know how it all works. I am free to travel and if you think there may be interest in this effective yet gentle way of being with horses, please let me know. Thanks for your question. Also, I have been referring to your mare as a 'he'. Sorry about that. Consider the estrus cycle of your mare as a factor in this as well.

Sincerely, Franklin

Mr. Levinson,

Thank you for your prompt reply. Since I first wrote to you and after reading your answers to some of the other questions posted on your website, I have started back to the basics. I started lunging and noticed that she was even different from the last time I lunged. Also, I have walked her past (with me on the ground walking beside her) the areas around the barn that I know she usually spooks at and when she would startle I would touch her and tell her calmly "your okay", and after a couple of days of walking her past some problem areas, she has not been spooking. I plan to take things slow as I would like her to trust in me as I would like to trust in her.

So I would like to say THANK YOU for your advise and I am looking forward to establishing the trust with my horse.

Thank you again,

Hi Carolyn,

How lovely to get your email. I am absolutely delighted you have decided to make the horse's feelings of trust, safety and peace as your main agenda. I promise you will continue to receive great rewards with your relationship with your horse (and perhaps other areas of your life as well). You cannot fail or go wrong if you take this path of peace. Everyone wins.

I send Blessings and Best Wishes to you always and I would love it if you would keep me posted as to how it all goes.

Sincerely, Franklin

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