Question: I have a four year old Morgan who was doing terrific in her training and then I hurt my back. I couldn’t ride, had her trainer working with her and an experienced rider exercising her. I had just started to get back to walking on her in early August when she started pinning her ears for everyone who got on her back and refusing to move forward. We had her saddles checked by a certified saddle fitter, had the vet come out and check her (she’s also a chiro/accupuncture expert) and we let her rest for over two weeks. I’ve stayed off her; only her trainer works with her but she still will sometimes put her ears back or kick out when she’s asked to move forward into trot. It’s now mid-October–what haven’t we thought of to solve this? She was doing so well all of last year and had moved into learning to canter before this started!
Answer from April Reeves: Hi SallyAnne. This is a common problem but not easily solved at this stage. There may be several things going on here to build this mare up to this point so I will go over them individually.
Multiple riders: regarding having more than one person ride your horse, especially a young or green one. Humans need to fully understand how sensitive horses really are. While you may think both these riders ride the same as you, nothing is farther from the truth. It sounds like you started the mare and you both were getting along fine. Often instructors can ride a student’s horse for a short time, but eventually the horse may become frustrated at the slightest variance. Rider weight distribution through turns, balance, hand position and more all signal to the horse to do something. Without consistency, a horse can become agitated and bitter. And eventually fight back, if the horse has a tendency to this in the first place. There are many horses that will just tolerate it and shut down. That’s the other side of the problem.
I will give you an example of just one of the barns I teach at that suffers endlessly from this method of multiple riders, and has not figured it out yet. There is a 5 year old mare with little to no real training. I taught one student on this mare’s mother, and at the beginning it was a nightmare, as others would ride her, even though the owner said they all ride the same and are good riders. The mare eventually became a full lease to this student and things improved dramatically. We spent a year in shows doing exceptionally well. The student left and the horse went back to “other good riders”, where the mare went back into anxiety and stress, and at the age of 16, died in the pasture one day. No blood tests could find the problem. I knew what the problem was, but no one was listening.
I was asked to ride this mare’s filly. I only work young horses if I am the only person that touches them for the first 6 months. I was assured of this. At month 3, when this mare was making great headway, I found a group of kids riding the filly in the field. I stopped training on the filly that day.
I now teach another adult student on this filly, but the same signs are showing up in her as was in her mother. She is highly anxious and strung tight. It’s only a matter of time when fates collide.
Your statement “she started pinning her ears for everyone who got on her back” was the trigger for me. You don’t need anyone else on your horse. You have an instructor that’s good. You have support. You seem to be doing well. If your back still hurts, do slow work. Much can be accomplished at a walk: indeed, most of my work for precision is at a walk. I call it “the forgotten gait”. Everyone uses it at the end of the ride only. The walk is such a valuable tool.
Mares: I have ridden countless mares and find them to be the best, over geldings and stallions. When you get a good mare, you get a great one. I believe it’s because, like stallions, they have all their hormones. But one truth I know for sure, many of them are sensitive and one-person animals. Not everyone can ride a stallion, and the same goes for mares. So now we have this issue with your mare and being asked to accept 2 additional riders. Although I can’t watch this in person, I can put money on it that she is acting out her disgust at the lack of consistency (which humans cannot feel) and having to “process” each command given that has any variance what so ever. Not all mares can take this, especially at a young age.
Speed training: We ask too much too fast sometimes. Horses learn faster by going slower and steadier. Humans often have a difficult time acknowledging this, and trainers often push a horse before they are ready. Often you will know this is happening through the reaction the horse will give back. In your case, your mare is telling you something on no uncertain terms.
Punishment: I see far too many riders/trainers punish a trait out of a horse, thinking the horse needs “discipline”. What horses need is consistency (I keep going back to this because some things are worth repeating). When a horse does something you don’t want him to do, set him up to do the right thing. You can alter the habits of a horse easier by working with the things he does well, reward him often, and bring in new information once the horse is not just comfortable but firmly established in a permanent pattern to his previous training.
I’m not saying this was what was happening, but I am giving you big clues as to how to solve the problem of her pinned ears and kicking out. If you were to show any form of aggressive vocals when her ears go back, or spank her for her kicking, you could increase those nasty habits. Slow down, find something she’s good at and likes to do, reward the heck out of her (I like treats) and eventually she will enjoy her work.
I have watched brilliantly trained top show horses move into homes with really lovely riders on the outside, but instead of using proper “tools” to get through rough spots, they take it out on the horse, destroying the symbiotic relationship you can have with your mount.
Morgans: I have trained and showed many of them. I do know that there are certain lines that are more emotional than others. I have witnessed a Morgan gelding have a complete mental breakdown from being pushed too far too fast: it’s something you won’t ever forget. My first show horse was a Morgan mare, and one of the best horses I ever had. No one else rode her the whole time I owned her, and it showed. Beautiful, loyal, honest, faithful, trustworthy and kind. This is not a horse I got by chance: this was a horse I built, step by step, as she was emotional, and you could either bring it out or pay attention and ride her with respect. Many horses only ask that you meet them half way.
Back issues: you can test muscle damage yourself by running your thumb and index finger lightly down the back on either side of the spine. Start light so you don’t get hurt. Go back and repeat, adding pressure. If the horse still doesn’t flinch, repeat and add quite a bit of pressure, but not so much that any horse would flinch under this. You will know right away if it’s a back issue, and all horse owners need to know this simple exercise.
Equipment: Anyone using spurs improperly? Seen this more times than I want to. We can count the saddle as a neutral since you had a professional out. I examine everything: bit fit, headstalls, girths/cinches, saddle pads, everything. I was called to a big barn to work with a great horse that just started bucking out of the blue. I tore the saddle off to find a small piece of wood lodged in the sheepskin, poking him in the kidneys. The horse went back to work and was fine. I could have discovered this and brought the horse out and ridden him: his owners would have though I was magic, but it was a valuable lesson for them to look for the smallest of things. Overlook nothing.
Inconsistency: Here’s that “consistency” thing again! Everything we do is “training”. Everything. Should a horse begin to balk, and that balking and “getting sticky” is not addressed by the third time it happens, you have now begun to set up a bad habit (human words) but really, you’ve established “training”. The horse does not know the difference between bad training and good training. Maybe it’s not the training you wanted to see, but none the less, to the horse, it’s training/habit. If your mare went unchecked for too long by either of the other riders, she may have considered herself to be suppose to NOT move forward and getting sticky is okay. Then she’s either smacked or punished for the very thing she was just “trained” for, and in this, you set up a pattern for anxiety and aggressive behaviors as the horse “acts out” from sheer frustration. This is not an easy thing for many to see, but after enough years you can see this being set up within one ride. If a horse does not have a solid, consistent background, anyone can mess the horse up, unconsciously. People don’t mean to: it’s a tough habit for a rider to get out of or even realize they are doing it.
I find when a rider is off for a while, consider it a good break for the horse. She is only 4. Her bones are still growing, especially her spine, more so than her legs. My thoughts: get everyone off the mare and only you work with her. You can longe her, take her for walks and do a lot of other things with her to re-establish your bonds. This is so vitally important for mares. They are strong herd members, and thrive on one-to-one contact. Just try it for 2 months and see if it works. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you were my student I would suggest to keep your horse to yourself. If you don’t feel you have the ability to get the horse where you want it to go, either set your standards to a place your mare can work with, go slower, take lessons that deal specifically with the problem you are having at that point (I find way too many instructors hold students back or don’t focus on riding in the “here and now”).
And if your back still hurts, give me your address off this site and I’ll send you a free non-drug pain reliever that’s awesome. It’s my horseman’s little secret….
Thanks for the question SallyAnne and I hope something here resonates for you!