Monday, June 28, 2010

The fearful horse

What do you do with the horse who is perpetually fearful of everything and is highly claustrophobic?

I recently sent home a client horse after 60 days of work - a 6yo Arabian mare. Highly intelligent, very sensitive...and quite spooky. When she first came to me, I could not hard tie her for fear of her pulling back, breaking her rope, and flipping over. If that rope came loose around her hind legs, she was gone. If there was a shadow on the arena floor, I had to sit deep ;) She took a lot of work but finally left with a lot more confidence, both on the ground and under-saddle! Her level of spookiness had declined, she was walking over tarps, I had ropes dangling between her legs, and I was hard-tying her regularly.

Confidence and leadership are the two primary things you want to focus on with a fearful horse. First is to build up the horse's own confidence in herself. This includes building on her curiosity and encouraging her to be bolder - to conquer tasks she previously found too intimidating. For example, touching the barrel she was formerly scared of, walking on tarps, going through water, general desensitization (even in a roundpen!), etc. Trail riding can be a great confidence-builder for a horse! Solving problems builds confidence in a horse as well - for example, encouraging the horse to navigate some obstacles or unwind itself from a rope you've wound around her, or even letting her loose in roundpen with a rope dangling off her side or around her hinds (be creative!) and allowing her to figure out its ok and to slow when she is ready. Allow the horse responsibility for itself and don't micromanage if you want the horse to have confidence in itself.

Curiosity has to exist before confidence can be built however so in the horse who is extremely introverted and afraid to be curious, you have to encourage her to start to investigate her environment, etc. All this can be done through groundwork such as the Parelli 7 games and Patterns. Sending (not pushing or pulling) the horse to touch objects and to accomplish specific tasks using approach and retreat.

Try to refrain from using direct-line thinking - for example, if the horse spooks from an object, don't simply push her toward the object. Sidepass past the object in question, back her toward it, rest her near the scary object and work her when she is further away from it, and use approach and retreat. Never simply push a horse directly up to an object they are afriad of - allow them to approach the object at their own pace. By excessively pushing a claustrophobic animal, they might feel trapped and thus balk more - they will also start to mistrust and doubt your judgement and leadership if they feel you are the one pushing them into a potentially unsafe situation. Understand that a horse has perfect reason to be afraid - they're a prey animal!

Being a strong leader to the horse means always being calm and assertive in your approach; not panicking when the horse spooks or pulls back, providing boundaries to your horse (ie. earning their respect), and generally being confident in yourself and how you are leading your horse. Your body language will relay to your horse whether or not you are an appropriate leader for them to follow, but in addition, performing exercises that enable your horse to successfully follow your leadership and build confidence in you will also create a calmer, braver partner in your horse. Successfully trail riding, navigating obstacles, etc together shows your horse you can ensure her safety when leading her through various situations she might otherwise be fearful of.
Lastly, doing exercises at liberty (ie. in the roundpen, no ropes attached) can really build both your horse's confidence as well as her confidence in your ability to safely lead her - the horse can choose to be with you. Be creative in everything you do - anything (calm) you teach your horse builds the partnership between you and your horse and helps to create a calmer, braver, smarter horse.

As you build the horse's self-confidence and confidence in your leadership, you'll see issues such as spooking and pulling back disappear. Eventually you can ask more and more of your horse, for example tying for longer periods of time, etc. Rather than focusing on the issue itself (ie. spooking or pulling back), focus on the horse's general emotional well-being and confidence in both you and your leadership and the rest will come together. Develop your horse's mind (calmer, braver, smarter horses are not reactive, scared, and don't act 'stupid'!!) to create a well-balanced horse!

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