How to Calm the Anxious Horse
I deleted my Facebook awhile ago, for sanity reasons, but I still lurk on message boards and local Facebook groups on the hunt for fun clinics and training opportunities for Spicy and me. Since I'm trying not to have a 'presence', I'm not commenting or putting in my two cents. Between that and some of my schaudenfreude blogs, there are dozens of horses that have almost identical issues to Spicy. Their lost riders ask for advice on supplements, health tests, even down to animal communicators. I wish I could tell them what worked for me, but I know they won't listen. I didn't listen either, for a long time.
Spicy has not been simple for me to train. In the first year he vacillated between very good and impossible. He dumped me a couple times. I struggled to catch him. He was incredibly anxious and spooky under saddle and spent most of his time either jigging or spinning.
I tried so many things in attempts to fix this. I played with saddle fit, different bits, different bridles, and even bitless. He had acupuncture and chiropractic. I think I tried almost every calming/gastric supplement on the market. Seriously... I tried MagRestore, Quiessence, ViaCalm, Quietex, Redmond Daily Gold, Perfect Prep, Compose2x, U7 (although I did like U7 awhile). They'd all work for a time but in a few weeks I'd have the same shivering, sweating, spooky, anxious, tight mess I always had. Especially in the fall.
I pulled a Lymes titre. I did a course of Bute to see if it was pain related. The vet declared his eyes impeccable for his age. Lunging him worked him up not down. Flooding just created more bad experiences for him to hold against our progress. No matter what I did, he was still nuttier than a squirrel turd.
So, I'm sure you're wondering, how did I turn this horse:
Into this horse:
You're probably not going to like the answer. It's training.
If your horse is a fruitcake, and you've taken the long road like me and tried everything and the kitchen sink and he's still repeating the behaviors, he's not trained.
I'm sure you're going to say "oh no, Megan, surely you are wrong. My horse is trained it does piaffes and jumps and opens gates and serves drinks on the lanai" but let me give you some free advice that took me way too long to learn: in general, if your horse isn't behaving predictably as you want from the moment you clip the lead rope until you unclip it at the end of the ride, he's not trained. If your horse is great at home but spooky off the farm, he's not trained. If your 'lunge sessions' involve the horse running into a sweaty lathered mess, he's not trained. If your horse is great all summer but really unmanageable in the fall when it gets cool - congratulations! He's not trained.
Do yourself a favor. If you start to ask yourself "oh, what bit/supplement/saddle pad will stop my horse from doing x?" just skip ahead and train your horse. If you don't want to train your horse, have someone else do it, or sell it and buy a horse that is already trained.
I can only speculate why training works. I suspect, at least in Spicy's case, that the lack of training was paired with a lack of consistency. He never knew for sure what was going to happen, or how he was supposed to respond. He hated how I clutched his face but I wasn't clear with him on how to get that to stop. Training set boundaries for both of us. The more clear the boundaries were, the more he relaxed. Every time I work with him I have to be clear with myself what I'm expecting of him in that particular session. It helps to write it down. I also make decisions that put my training before my riding, which means not doing things that sound fun but would set up for failure.
Do not read this as me complaining about Spicy, or our progress. Sure, I'd like to trail ride more and do hunter paces. But I'm aware of what I want out of my relationship with Spicy. When I got him it was with the goal of learning to be a better trainer. Despite the ups and downs over the past two plus years (!!), I can say without a shadow of a doubt that mission has definitely been accomplished, with plenty more to go that I look forward to.
It's important to have your horse checked for pain/saddle fit/etc, but yeah... training is a long, looooong process and there just aren't shortcuts. I'm so glad you figured out what Spicy needed - you guys are such an awesome team these days, it's hard to believe where it all started!ReplyDelete
It's important to exhaust that stuff but do it in a thorough manner. Like tossing shit at the wall does not constitute eliminating those things. Which I feel people are even more reticent to do because... that costs money and sometimes creates more questions than answers.Delete
100%. Completely agree hereReplyDelete
I just wish we had a better word for this type of "trained" because, as you pointed out, "trained" already means some things and those things aren't a perfect match with the type of environmental stimulus control you're talking about here. Does your cowboy have a word for it? I wonder if the old horse training books would have a word for it.
Reiner Klimke speaks of horses being 'durchlassigkeit' when you take them places which I've mentally translated to "brain elasticity, permeable, ready for input from the rider" or something like thatDelete
Oooh I like that. Except I'm not sure I can pronounce it.Delete
Dog people call the process proofing - like yes your dog can sit in your house but what about on the sidewalk? or at the park? or at the vet? Not sure what they call it when the animal is successfully 'proofed'...
Proofed like a bread lolDelete
Paul Hollywood would say Murray was underprooved!Delete
ummmmm yes 100% this, especially the part about presenting clear expectations and pressure/release. The horse is responding to you (or at least ought to be--if he's checked out past that, stop, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200). It's weird how the more you learn about the horse, the more you realize it's really the rider. Ha.ReplyDelete
That's ALSO a really good point. Especially because if you look at your horse out in the field and he's fine, then it really probably is you lololDelete
The interesting thing about Spicy is after we started working with the cowboy, he started being more relaxed in the field too. Like, to the point that the non-horsey barn dad noticed.
THIS THIS THIS!! Preach. That is all.ReplyDelete
This is so perfect. I would add that there are few easy fixes. It takes time and perseverance and commitment.ReplyDelete
Yup. Time and patience and consistency. Not very sexy but, it works!Delete
There is a lot of interesting stuff here. I want to add, obviously as everyone says, medical issues can be a reason, so don't discount those. I think it's especially important when something pops out of the blue to consider health -- if your horse suddenly gets speedy, grumpy, grouchy, extra anxious when the week before everything was fine. Many horses are stoic and it just takes pain build up (plus extra muscle development) for saddle fit or other things to just no longer work. Been there, done that (but, being me, I figured I was doing something wrong).ReplyDelete
I do want to add in that one thing that can also contribute to issues is environment. All the training in the world can only do so much if you are setting your horse up for failure. I see so many horses that just DON'T get turnout time. I'm sorry, but living in a stall 22 hours a day (stall stall, not stall with a run), isn't ideal. For some horses, this works, but others just need turn out. It doesn't have to be a pasture (not everyone does well on pasture -- my senior lost weight when turned out on grass because he'd get full and not eat and has always done better on 24/7 free choice hay with minimal grass) but just being outside and moving. Or a barn with lots of activity might not work for every horse (or might be the best environment for others). Just another piece of the puzzle to work along side with training and setting our horses up for success vs failure.
I've seen some friends who have to keep their horses in full training simply because in order to ride, a trainer needs to ride. The months when their horses are turned out at night? They don't need training board. To me, that tells me the environment is all wrong. They've looked at supplements and all sorts of stuff and settled on training, but... easiest solution is more turnout but this barn doesn't do night turnout in the winter so the horses are out a max of 4 hours. I'd move but it's not my horse or my money...
Oh yes, I totally agree. And I think this still applies here - people will try and use supplements to fix management issues. No amount of magnesium in the world will compensate for the fact that the horse is getting too much sugar in their diet, or not enough turnout, or not enough forage. Excellent point!Delete