Question: I have been training my friends Appaloosa gelding, but I am having a very hard time getting anywhere with him.
I have noticed that he is head shy, and although he will eventually let me rub his head and ears it seems he doesn’t improve over time, in fact everything I try to do with him he doesn’t ever seem to improve on (except letting me catch him, even after he panics I can catch him easily now. I am guessing it’s cause he does have some light of trust in me, but not a whole lot).
This is the least of my problems though. Sometimes when I do something to help build his confidence he will do REALLY well, but then when I try to come back to it another day he acts as if I am asking him to do something he has never done before. And he reacts badly. As soon as he feels pressured or confined he spins away and slightly rears as he flings his head in the air. He has never kicked at me or tried to hurt me intentionally, but one of these days he is going to hurt someone or even worse, because of how badly he reacts.
I have been able to saddle him, which he is fine with, but if I touch him in the ribs, even gently, he totally balks and panics. He has never been trained by anyone else, so I know for a fact he has never been beaten, or abused.
He is very tense and wont stay out of anyone’s space. To make things worse he used to be very easy to lounge, other then he thought he had to run the whole time and wouldn’t slow down. Now he suddenly won’t go. He turns into my space and panics when I won’t let him run into me or turn the other way.
I have tried to build his confidence, and have never mounted him fearing that would push him too far. But now I am in a rut of not knowing how to build his confidence. Any suggestions would help.
Answer from April Reeves: It took me a while to contemplate the answer to this, as it could go many ways
I think the first thing that strikes me may be a lack of consistency on your part. This horse is very clearly ‘mirroring’ you; in other words, he is letting you know, on no uncertain grounds, whether you are doing the right thing or not. While you get a degree of trust one day, there has to be some form of inconsistency that he reads, and this inconsistency will only create more anxiety in him. It’s like having a parent who lets you do one thing one day and scolds you for doing it the next. Or the parent who keeps telling you not to do that (nag) (this is where that term comes from) but never gives you clear direction as to what it is you should be doing. Eventually, you will become a ball of nerves, on edge, and untrusting.
Do not ride this horse what so ever until you have good sound ground manners on him. The horse you lead is the horse you ride. One thing I see, is that you have moved into saddling him already, before he has the chance to gain confidence and trust in basic ground work and manners. Horses need a solid foundation first before you move into saddle work. It’s the equivalent from moving from kindergarten to grade 7. If you were moved ahead 6 grades in school suddenly, you would become very apprehensive and skittish.
I hope the horse is at least 3 or older.
Let’s break it down so that you can understand the techniques and mechanics behind what you are doing (or not doing), and how small adjustments and changes can give you the results you are looking for.
These are the things that create a calm, trusting horse:
Consistency means that you ask the horse in exactly the same way every time. If you are trying to get a stop on the longe line by using the verbal command “whoa” as a deep, short word, then you never alter that until you get a stop (consistency). You do not change your tone, word, or pattern. You wait (patience) until you have the stop. Sometimes you have to keep trying and wait a very long time. Eventually you get the stop, and just stay there quietly for a few seconds (calm). Then you ask the horse to walk again, ask for the stop and wait a very long time again for the horse to stop, continually asking in the same tone and voice to ‘whoa’. You get a stop, wait for a few seconds (timing) then you continue the same process, again and again (repetition), and eventually what you will find is that the horse begins to respond in quicker times (training).
Now you have set up the ‘act of training’, involving consistency, timing, patience, repetition, calm.
This is an example of the theories of training. I used longing as all the theories apply with longing, but the message is the same in all areas of training and riding, and will stay with you forever, or as long as you are with horses.
It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. This is going to take two things first: calm and repetition. You need to just keep doing it. Take an hour and devote that hour to working around his face. Timing plays a big part here also. Often when you approach a head shy horse, you extend your hand and they avoid it by moving their heads. What most people do is pull their hand back. You have just trained the horse to move away, as you released your hand as he moved away. Release = Reward.
Instead, stay with the horse. Follow his face everywhere. Start at his neck where he is comfortable, and softly rub him. Follow the ‘feel’, and as he stays calm about this and is not avoiding your hand, slowly move toward his face. If he moves away follow him, but don’t give up or take your hand away and quit. He will get this and begin to soften, but if he is quite head shy you may be doing this for an hour a day for several weeks. This is what top trainers do; spend the time to get the job done well.
Because he is uncomfortable with having his sides touched, slowly move your hand to his sides, rubbing softly and confidently, never quitting too soon or giving up. Again, stay with him but don’t get too anxious to move quickly or get the job done too fast. You are building confidence in him that will extend to every other thing you ask of him from here on. This is foundation work.
Always work on both sides of the horse. Working on one side does not mean he will understand it on the other side. Horses have two eyes, which gives them two brain patterns. Two eyes – two horses. Train them both.
From what you are explaining, you may be trying to do too many things too, soon too fast. Slow down and do one thing only, and keep it up until you get the result you want, even if it takes days. Working with his face and sides is a good start, as you will have one-on-one ‘happy’ contact with him that is low stress.
I don’t think he has been abused either. I think he may have just not spent enough quality time when he was younger getting socialized and handled calmly.
One thing that does raise a red flag with me is his inability to remember your ‘confidence building’ work one day and forget it the next time you see him. Could someone else be undoing your work? This is what I referred to when I said that I had to take time to consider this question and that there may be multiple answers, since we don’t know the truth or history of this horse. There are no stupid horses, especially Appaloosas. They are incredibly clever once they get it, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Another red flag is his reaction of spinning away and rearing. This is a very strong statement from him. If he kicked at you, it would be a challenge from him, but since he seems to just want to get away, he fears something? Again, since you do not see him all the time, could there be something there we don’t know about? I’m not pointing a finger at anyone; just something to be aware of.
Let’s address the horses’ confinement and pressure issues. Horses are claustrophobic by nature. They get very uncomfortable when ‘squeezed’ between two things, like between you and a wall or fence. This is a trust issue that you can work through by walking him along the fence, past barrels or what ever you have. I use two barrels and ask the horse to walk through them. Then I bring the barrels in a little closer until the horse has to squeeze between them quietly and confidently.
He needs to learn to respect your space. This subject can be quite lengthy, and for me to go through the steps would take up pages of information. I will say though that whenever you are working with him (or any horse) never let them move your feet. If you have to, get higher than he is. Bring your hands up to match his height. Try not to move him with your hands when he gets pushy as he will learn to lean into the pressure. If he gets close and tries to move you, give him a smack and mean business. Once in a while you just have to spank Fluffy. It’s not worth getting run over and hurt. Another horse would give him a pop or bite if he moved into their space.
When longeing, stand your ground and don’t move away from him. When horses move into my space while I am longeing, I will point the stick or longe whip at them and guide their front shoulders out and away from me. If they get close, I let them bump into the stick instead of me moving into them and bumping them.
When you begin to longe, stand still and ask him to move away from you to the left. Take your left hand and hold it out away from you to the left, guiding him by the halter gently away from you. Most people pull on the halter towards them, tipping the horse in and guiding the horse in towards them. Be careful how your body movements speak to the horse. Move slow but deliberately, and good for you to not let him run into you. Keep using this technique until he gets it, and when he makes any effort to walk to the left, let the rope soften and stay quiet. You will have to start this exercise on a smaller circle so that you are close enough for him to ‘feel’ the pressure to one side. Once he begins to understand, change directions often, asking him to go left and right about every 1 ½ times around. This is called ‘moving his feet’ and the purpose of this exercise is to create leadership and get the thinking part of his brain engaged.
Since he is known for running once he is out there, change your direction often, keeping his feet moving every time you change direction. If he gets moving too fast, pull him in and redirect him the other way. Never let him stop and hang out. Eventually he will understand that he needs to conserve his energy and begin with quiet demeanor. This is another one of those lessons that can take an incredible amount of time. Just start with a quiet gesture to move out, let him respond by moving out where you suggest, feed him some line until and stay quiet with your feet. If he is fairly calm, reward him by letting him stand and ‘soak’ once in a while. Never wind a horse. It will sour them and turn them apprehensive about training and learning. If he has had a rather energetic time trying to longe, and he is breathing hard, let him stand and catch his breath before starting up again.
If you are interested in this style of handling and ground manner training, my suggestion would be to study it either through books or DVD’s. There are a few horsemen who have good material, such as Julie Goodnight or Adiva Murphy. Adiva has a great new series just out and her DVD’s are the best value on the market that I have found for the price. Try her site at: adivamurphy.com, and email her for details. Adiva is a brilliant communicator and breaks down the principles of Natural Horsemanship and ground handling into easy to understand lessons that anyone can follow and get results.
If you have a rope halter use it; also a horseman’s stick and long soft lead rope. To learn more about rope halters go to my Q&A blog aprilreeveshorsetraining.wordpress.com and find the headline:
“I ride English. Do I need a rope halter? How do you tie it?”
(There are numerous articles on this blog that would help you with many training techniques.)
To recap, stay persistent and consistent.
Take the time to complete one exercise at a time.
Don’t give up early.
Handle him all over (like a ‘giant curry comb’) and let him discover the joy of being handled. Get him comfortable with being handled everywhere.
Walk him between obstacles, sending him through barrels and leading him between you and another ‘block’.
Be direct with your body language and communication.
Set up the lesson so that he teaches himself.
Never punish him for reacting – understand that it probably comes from fear, which you are quickly dissolving by ‘all the above’. Horses are smart.
I hope this helps and good luck with him. Investigate additional learning resources and grow your knowledge base.