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Problem Horse

16 August 2011 No Comment

Problem Horse
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

From: Elaine Doyle

I have acquired a horse that I’m having some problems with. He’s a QH, nine-years-old. I know very little about his background except he was trained to run poles as a two-year-old and then sold to a family that had little experience with horses. He proved to be too much horse for them and they in turn sold him to the lady I got him from. He was given to me due to behavior problems and the owner was afraid someone would get hurt on him a her facility due to the same problems. She is an experienced horsewoman and her husband teaches Dressage…. I should have known that he’d really be a problem! LOL! I have many horses that I have rescued and retrained but this one has me stumped.

First of all, he is easily caught and saddled. He chews the bit constantly, however and tosses his head. His teeth are perfect and he doesn’t have an allergy to cause the head tossing. He’s been thoroughly checked by the vet. Once mounted he refuses to go forward, unless he wants to, refuses to turn to the left. He’s very stiff and unyielding to the left. He will turn to the right. If you try to force him forward he tries to rear and if that doesn’t work he will kick back. You can’t lead him forward with someone on him either. I’ve tried that… I can ground drive him all over the pasture, without any problems. No bit, just a halter. I can jump on his back out in the pasture with just the halter and lead rope and he will just stand there. As long as I don’t try to make him go forward, he’s fine. He’s very easily handled on the ground also, unless scared, then he becomes unruly. I would like to retrain this horse but am at a loss as to what I should do. If he is never able to be ridden, that’s okay too. I have a few that are un-rideable and he’d just be one more pasture ornament. If you can help me, I’d be truly grateful though.

Elaine Doyle

Hi Elaine! This may be covering old ground for you, but I would have a good equine chiropractor and equine dentist check this horse out very thoroughly for any physical reasons for this horses behavior. The evasion of not going forward doesn’t concern me as much as this horses stiffness to the left. Most horses, just as with people, are more coordinated and supple on one side then on the other, but I would want to be doubly sure that there is no physical cause for this horse’s behavior and seeming evasions before you go forward with some methods to try and recondition this horse’s way of thinking and behaving .

If you do have this horse re-checked and nothing is found to be wrong with his teeth, muscles, saddle fit and he is also not suffering from skeletal problems that need adjusting, then I would proceed in the direction of first teaching this horse to go forward again by first applying what I call “lunging with purpose” in conjunction later on with modified clicker training. You can read some of my other responses to questions regarding my approach with modified clicker training on the TodaysHorse.com site. From having reconditioned many, many horses that had some very serious manmade problems and evasions, I know that utilizing modified clicker training in conjunction with other methods suited to the particular individual will lead to positive results .

Lunging-with-purpose involves teaching the horse a set of cues that will then transfer to the mounted level later on. It also involves lunging with LONG sidereins and allowing the horse to “self-teach” giving to the pressure on their mouth that they themselves create. I usually start, and restart horses for my clients, using my lightweight western cordura saddle or my close contact huntseat saddle, a “no pinch” or full cheek medium thickness snaffle (I do like the french link snaffle mouthpiece too) and the sidereins for lunging purposes only. I don’t use them after I have a horse going under saddle. I find that by putting the sidereins on the green horses that are just getting their start under saddle, and also on the horses that I am restarting because of manmade problems and big holes in their training, it allows them to work through some issues in a way in which they are the ones deciding on where their comfort zone is and how they want to feel. The sidereins are adjusted very long so that the horse has to really overextend up, down or out before they come into contact. As the horse tests the boundaries, they discover where they are most comfortable and they also learn that by yielding in their jaw and their poll and rounding their back slightly instead of trying to run through the pressure they are creating, they find relief and a comfortable spot. If a horse wants to overextend in any direction, that’s fine with me. If they don’t mind the discomfort of tension and pressure on their mouth or head, then they can carry themselves that way.

By putting the sidereins on very long, they are in no way being restricted into a “frame”, they really have to overextend to come to the end of the reins. Every single horse that I’ve ever started this way (numbering in the hundreds) has made the choice, or decision, to loosen their jaw and “give” at the poll, thus going to slack reins. The purpose is not the horse coming into “frame”, the purpose is for the horse to learn to go forward (a particular evasion for your gelding) and then “give” to the pressure they are creating and not fight it instead. Unlike humans, who may make errors in their timing of when to “give” when the horse gives, sidereins are either there (either in contact or tension), or they are not (when they are slack). “On the bit” is not my goal, the horse learning to go forward, loosen their jaw, “give” to pressure, relax at the poll and round the top line slightly is the goal. The other nice thing about doing it this way is that there is no conflict or combat between horse and human. The person isn’t put in the position of being the villian if they accidentally don’t “lighten” their hands at the precise moment the horse “gives”. The horse has a chance to think things through and decide how they wish to feel. Once the horse has learned these basics and also understands the various sound cues for walk, trot, canter (going forward) and then the sound cues for the transitions back down through the gaits, then we are ready to add the rider, but without the sidereins. I’m able to act as ground support for the rider (the owner) who is usually the first person to ever ride the horse in the case of the young horses. With the full understanding of lunging, the horses most always progress very smoothly and positively in whatever direction their riding careers are headed in. This also holds true for most horses that I recondition/restart too. There is a lot more education in place before we ever get on the horse.

A key issue here is that I never progress to the riding until the ground training is correctly in place. Lunging sessions are usually about 25 minutes, tops. I’m working on the mental aspects more then the physical. I also rarely use lunging to “work a horse down”. The only times I put a horse on the line “naked”, or with just a saddle and bridle, is for a few minutes at the horses first shows or for a pre-purchase or lameness exam. Otherwise, once we do the “lunging with purpose” in the beginnings of under saddle training, or during restarts on older horses, we won’t be using it very often after that, maybe just as a course if the horse has been off work a long time due to broodmare or having been turned out and not ridden for a long, long while. Its a great foundation training method and makes the whole starting or restarting process a lot more simple and positive, and with no confusion in the mind of the horse and no danger to the human because of the horses maybe dangerous evasions such as rearing, flipping themselves over backwards, bucking, etc.

To start the horse off, I use “walk-walk” and a few soft clucks. To move up to trot, clucking and “show” the horse the whip. When lunging, the lunge line simulates the reins and the whip simulates the legs pushing the horse forward, moving from back to front. I place the horse between the “legs” (whip) and “hands” (lunge line) by forming a V-shape with me at the point, with the line going out to the horses head and the whip pointed toward right behind the horses haunches and me facing the horse’s flank and staying slightly behind the horse. I walk a smaller circle within the horses larger circle so that the horse is not stressing themselves physically and/or losing their balance on too small of a circle. I also never snap or crack the whip. Snapping or cracking the whip continuously will cause the horse to become unresponsive to those sounds. Similar to when a person continuously clucks when they are riding. After a while, the horse no longer pays attention to the sound, it means nothing to them anymore because it is so continuous. To canter, I kiss and slightly raise my line hand. Downward transitions are: from canter to trot I say “terottt”-softly, drawn out word trot, and then “waallk”-softly drawn out word walk and then soft whoa for halt. I also do things a little differently when I stop the horse and prepare to go the other direction in that I don’t allow my horses to face me when I stop them.

You don’t say why having a ground person lead this horse forward with you on him is not working for you, but I believe my suggestions on this issue will prove successful for you and this horse. I believe that this gelding probably equates going forward with being worked hard and running poles. Two-years-old is awfully young to have been started on gymkhana and that is a highly impressionable time for a horse. They will learn the negatives many times alot faster then they learn the positives, that’s why we need to be so very careful when we start youngsters. Going forward with a rider on his back equals a negative to your horse, so what we need to do is turn it into a positive instead. This is where modified clicker training will prove to be very useful. I call what I do “modified” clicker training for a few reasons. 1.) I don’t use a clicker to “mark” the positive behavior. I instead substitute the word “good” in place of the clicker to “mark” the positive behavior. 2.) I also combine positive reinforcement (clicker training) with negative reinforcement when I train. A “true” clicker trainer will probably not use negative reinforcement along with positive reinforcement.

To use modified clicker training to turn going forward into a positive for your horse, you will enlist the help of a ground support person. With you mounted and your ground person next to your horse with a lead rope attached to the halter or snaffle bit, ask your horse to go forward by utilizing the cues you taught him when you were working on “lunging with purpose” and also by squeezing your legs. With even the slightest of leaning forward, “mark” your horses good behavior with the word “good” and have your ground support person give this horse a food treat of a carrot slice, a bit of grain, or some food treat that he likes. This is not bribery because your horse is having to offer a positive response before he earns the treat. You are not having your ground person lure him forward by holding food in front of his face. You, the rider, are asking him to go forward by utilizing the same cues that you taught him on the lunge line when you taught him how to “lunge with purpose” and are also applying some leg squeezing as motivation. As soon as this horse shows even the slightest signs of forward, stop, say “good” to “mark” the positive behavior (going forward) and then treat. After a while, this horse will equate going forward with positives instead of negatives and he will begin to forget about being evasive. He instead will seek to do that which earns him a positive response from you. You will not always have to give this horse food treats when he goes forward because as his brain becomes reconditioned to giving positive responses, his negative evasions will dissipate and then disappear. He will forget to act in a negative way.

Reconditioning this horses behavior will not happen overnight because the negatives began happening when he was only 2-years-old and he was obviously not started correctly. Be patient and absolutely consistent in your approach. Do not get involved in combat with this horse because it is dangerous and probably is an approach that he has won at before. Be willing to accept “baby steps” in his training and before you know it, he will seek your approval and look for ways to please you because he will learn to trust that you are not going to hurt him either mentally or physically, he will learn that you are patient and he will learn that you are not wishy-washy in your approach, but are in fact absolutely consistent. By being consistent, he will begin to understand completely what it is that you want and by using modified clicker training, he will learn that going forward is a positive and not a negative as it has been in the past. The two of you will begin to develop mutual respect and trust in one another and you will build a positive partnership. The keys here are to be patient and absolutely consistent in your approach and also have the willingness to work with this horse as the individual that he is and understand that he has some negative baggage that he has been carrying around for a long time. Develop mutual respect and trust and this horse will discard his negative baggage in favor of positive relationship with you.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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