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.