Question: I’ve been hired to train 6 horses this lady “rescued”. There are 3 three year olds, 2 two year olds and one yearling. They’re all fillies. Two of them are full sisters (and their grandmother on both sides is the same horse) and both are extremely flighty, nervous and skittish. I’ve gotten the three year old fairly well calmed and workable, but the two year old is another story. I’ve separated her, put her in a stall with a run so she gets hand fed hay and grain daily. The first day I tried to lunge her in the round pen it took me two hours before she’d let me touch her – now it only takes me about 15 minutes – so we are making progress, but… If I go into the stall and pet her, she’s ok for a minute but then any little thing and she’ll freak out. I haven’t even begun to put a blanket on her, brush her or work with her feet. They had to sedate her both to trim her feet and vaccinate her. I know this is hereditary since her sister is the same way, only not quite to this extreme. My question is, will she settle down and become a decent horse after a while or will she always be this way? And any tips to help her settle would be appreciated.
Answer from April Reeves: All 6 horses have the opportunity to be not just good, steady mounts, but each in their right can find a job to do that they excel at – even the 2 year old.
While there are traits that certain equine ‘families’ pass on, and that some take longer to train than others in that same family (hereditary traits), I believe that in the end, they can all end up at the same place. They all will take a different path to get there, many with different training methods, but the end result can be similar.
I try to look at each horse as an individual; separate from the hereditary traits. That way I can assess the causes of the problems and deal with each problem as a separate issue. Sometimes what we see as possible hereditary traits are simply a matter of mishandling from handler after handler that leaves the mare and each of her foals a reputation of problems and behavior issues. Humans pass on their problems and mishandling to the mare, who in turn passes on the traits of fear and flight around humans to each of her foals, and so on, and so on.
All 6 horses have history that you do not know; not the kind of history that’s general, but the real life, day-to-day manner in which they were treated and kept. It’s hard to know if someone didn’t like the 2 year old, and smacked her every time they went by her. These are issues that you face with her especially, and the other 5.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to work with this filly to gain confidence in humans. From the filly’s viewpoint, she has been drugged, handled without her permission (predatory: horses are not afraid of humans, they’re afraid of our behavior when it mirrors a predator), kept in a cave (stall), separated from the herd and has felt sharp pains in her body (needles) when humans are around.
You have a big job ahead, and a challenge that I think is very exciting; to make that big a difference to a horse’s life. It’s an honor.
I would work twice a day with this filly for small amounts of time. No blanket yet (this is a predator action; they ‘cover’ their prey).
Keep up your roundpen work. If you need help with some of the details of roundpen work, go to my site and look up Jay O’Jay’s video series on roundpenning: http://www.horsemansu.com/videos/great_trainers_and_clinicians
There you will find a series of 8 videos on starting tough horses. Jay O’Jay is an extraordinary trainer in groundwork and roundpen methods. Using these techniques will help you establish confidence and connection with the 2 year old.
When I am asked to handle real extreme cases, (and I have one right now), I am always aware of the fact that the young horse could act and react any way at any time. I never take anything for granted, especially having worked for several months with the horse, obtaining a soft calm demeanor and suddenly having the horse blow up over something simple. You just don’t know her history.
Eventually you can work with her skittishness by desensitizing her with various tools (or toys) such as big beach balls, small tarps and other methods. I have quite a few ground methods you may want to read up on. The links are:
Introduce each new thing into her life slowly, allowing her to adjust and accept. Do not move fast, as slow IS faster with horses. Keep the lesson singular, meaning only ask one thing from her with each session, and be happy with the smallest of results. Humans are always looking for the ‘big breakthrough’ but generally horses take vast amounts of time and patience. What we fail to recognize is that what may seem small to us, is a very big deal to the horse.
I always try to take in quality time with spooky sensitive horses. I hang out in their paddocks or field, and brush them for long periods of time, getting them use to the human touch and accepting us as part of the ‘herd’. Again, it’s one of those things that we don’t do enough of, but if you ever go to a lesson barn full of young people, you will notice they spend copious amounts of time fiddling with their horses; braiding, brushing, primping and fussing – and the horse relaxes and accepts it all. My next barn will have lots of children around, so that my training horses get use to the noise and energy young people bring. That alone can bomb proof any horse! We as adults and trainers should take a page from this valuable technique!
Is there another way you can keep her without stalling her right now? Again, I think she is asked to adjust too quickly to things we take for granted. She is not just feral, but possibly mistreated as well.
Watch Jay’s techniques for bringing and drawing a horse in. He demonstrates it better than I can explain it, because there are no words to describe the process. It is a bond; an invisible moment to most people, but if you watch carefully you will see the moment where the horse brings two eyes to Jay, and Jay walks backward, inviting the horse into his space, asking the horse to join up with him. This is the moment you are asking to get that is taking 2 hours. Sometimes it takes longer, so you are running about average.
When handling young uncertain horses, always move as if you are confident and sure. Moving into them slowly is a predator move, so walk up with intention and don’t back away. Have you ever watched some trainers who just walk up to a horse after a few round of the pen, and make contact so easily? It is because they did just that; they simply walked up and touched the horse in a firm but soft manner, letting the horse know, with body language, that there is no fear attached to the situation. Intention is a powerful force with horses – one that they understand at a deeper level than most humans. If you can nurture that within yourself, you will move from a good trainer to a great one.
Hand feeding hay and grain to a horse (in the horse’s mind) is a form of the horse stealing your food away from you, so be aware of this technique (this is why horses often pin their ears back at you at feeding time). I would free feed the filly hay and give her very small amounts of grain, letting her eat on her own and think of the stall as a big meal ticket.
I would also watch that you don’t overdo the work in the roundpen; she is 2 and more that 20-30 rounds each way can damage tendons and joints, both in the legs and back and neck.
I usually put a young horse in the roundpen, and ask the horse to change direction often for several reasons: one, I don’t want to put stress on the skeleton and two, I want to take control of the horse’s direction. By being the leader of where those feet go and how fast, I become dominant, and that joins the horse up faster than hard work. I often get horses coming in to me within 5-10 minutes tops. Also, you get to train both eyes. You need to work each side equally: two eyes, two horses.
Make sure you have the right tools. I use a rope halter, long lead rope and horseman’s stick. I do not use longe whips in the roundpen. The horseman’s stick is rigid and sends a firmer distinct feel to the horse. The communication is solid and produces confidence quicker than the flimsy end of a longe whip.
Look over the videos of Jays, and keep a watch for new material. I will be adding 4 more of Jay’s in the roundpen series. Also keep an eye on Adiva Murphy’s video series. She has given me the green light to add some really good segments of her work.
Let me know how it goes and email any other questions you have with the 6 ‘challenges’. Good luck to you and thank you for choosing me as your online helper.
Reply Question: Just for clarification – these six horses (plus 7 broodmares) weren’t abused, just neglected. They were out in a pasture with only natural grass and all were very thin. Of the six fillys, some were halter broke but not much else. They’ve just been out in pasture their whole lives without anyone taking care of them. The stall she’s in has a run and that run connects to the pen the other two year old is in so she has company, just on the other side of a fence. When I said hand feed her – I meant she gets her own food as opposed to a round bale out in the pen. Thanks for the tip about not approaching them slowly – that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ll watch the video and keep you posted. Also, in the round pen, as soon as she faces me and lets me catch her, we quit. I’m trying to teach her that, at least for now, that’s all she has to do.
Reply Answer: I would do more on each visit. Once she faces you, move up and start to rub her and get her use to the feel of a human. Rub her front legs (don’t move to the back until later) and face. Do this for enough days until she is very comfortable, and if you do this twice a day, you will speed through the process quickly.
Then progress into the steps that Jay O’Jay uses.
I think the most important thing is how you move around her. I call it “getting the job done”. When a horse moves or flinches from my touch, I continue to touch until the sensation is accepted by the horse. Take the spray bottle for example. Many people spray it once and the horse moves away. They stop spraying. Horse is rewarded for moving away, so you have now set up the training (everything communicates) for the horse to move away when the bottle approaches. When I introduce the spray bottle, I find the least sensitive spot on the horse, usually the front legs, and start to spray. As the horse moves away, I follow relentlessly and the horse always quits. The minute the horse stops moving, I stop spraying. I have now set up the pattern of ‘not’ moving instead.
To set this up, take a horse into a roundpen with another handler. Have the handler hold the horse with a loose lead, as you want the horse to be able to move it’s feet (that’s where the lesson is). Find the least sensitive spot and softly spray. The horse will move around, but follow it; don’t get left behind. You can choose to not spray, but don’t leave the horse until the horse stops. You need to let the horse move it’s feet or they will feel trapped and that’s when you get the fight. By allowing them to choose to stop and stand, you have set up the lesson for them to learn this on their own. Your horse has to want to stand with you, and you can’t force them to stand by shanking them or holding them tight. You must set up the experience to ’cause’ them to stand.
If you run into any problems send me an email. This should be an interesting project for you! You should write a daily log about each horse and your experiences with their different personalities. That would be a good read for people trying this for the first time! Let me know how it goes, and they are lucky horses to have found someone willing to take them on.
Reply Question: Thank you so much. With your help, the filly now not only lets me catch her freely, she comes up to me, she’s been bathed, fly sprayed, I’ve worked with all four feet and yesterday I even saddled her. Once I turned her loose in the round pen with the saddle on she never even offered to buck! She’s a different horse. Oh, another thing I did, based on your comment about her getting shots, once I could pet her freely, I curled my fingernails (very short) into her neck so she could see a little pinch didn’t mean a shot. It took about 5-10 minutes but eventually I “clawed” her all over and she stood still.
Thank you so much for your help.