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Horse was started badly

From: Jennifer

I have a question concerning the behavior of my new horse. I recently bought Pasha 2 months ago. She's a 6 yr. old, 17.2hh Selle Francais mare. She's very green and has only been under saddle for about 90 days but will be used for dressage. The previous owner was frightened of Pasha and sent her to a trainer who mishandled her (the prev. owner won't tell me how). Since I've gotten her I've found that she pins her ears, spins, and lower her hips as of to kick when anyone enters her stall. If I stand and wait calmly she'll eventually come over. Also, when she's scared or doesn't want to do something, she stops dead. If I ask her move forward, she backs quickly. I haven't begun work with her yet, as she was injured during transport to my farm. She's currently on a turnout and hand walking schedule. I'd like to know what the problem is and how to fix it. Any help would be appreciated.

Thank You,


Hi Jennifer! You've taken on quite a task, haven't you? You don't need to get the details of training abuse from your mare's previous owner; your mare is telling you all about those details just as clearly as she can. :-(

It's clear that she has been mishandled, and that she is frightened of people and movement until they prove themselves (every day) to be something other than painful and scary. It's also clear that she has been started in a "quick-and-dirty" way, and that her under-saddle training was not just incomplete, but almost nonexistent. She hasn't been educated; she's been taught to do certain specific things in response to certain specific cues, and she's been punished for going forward.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that you CAN do something about it, if you are willing to do what the original owner should have done, and what a good trainer would have done. Start slowly, start from the very beginning (grooming and leading), don't take more than one step at a time, and move on to the next step ONLY when the mare is obviously confident and comfortable with what she is doing.

Time, patience, repetition, and lots of praise for effort -- those will be the keys to starting your mare over again from the ground up. CLARITY will be all-important; you need to show your mare that you are a kind and sensible leader, and that she can relax and feel safe when you are around. Frightened horses, and horses that have been abused, require an exaggerated version of normal horse-handling. The correct way to deal with a horse is to move slowly and speak quietly -- with your mare, you will need to begin by moving VERY slowly and deliberately, and by speaking VERY quietly and soothingly. No sudden movements, no raised voice -- just project all the calm assurance you can muster, whenever you are near your mare. It's up to you to show her, by repetition and consistency, that YOU are a human who can be trusted. If you manage this, and don't betray her trust, she will eventually be able to trust other humans as well.

If you were hoping to put her in the show ring this summer, my advice is "Forget it." Plan for the next summer, if you like, but don't give yourself or the horse an arbitrary schedule. You'll make progress much more quickly if you will take your time and go as slowly as you need to, at least for the next six months or a year. During this time, you'll be able to establish a relationship with the mare, gain her trust, and begin a genuine education. You can't make her bad experiences disappear, but she is a very young horse, and you CAN provide so many hundreds and thousands of GOOD experiences that her expectations of humans will change over time.

Dressage is about training, education, and communication. It's also about physical and mental and emotional development through a progressive process of skills acquisition. If you go slowly and patiently, letting the mare know that you like her and are pleased with her every effort, and if you are willing to make progress slowly, taking her from leading to longeing to work under saddle over a period of months, she will have a very good chance to develop into the kind of horse you want her to be. Don't regard this as time wasted or time lost -- it isn't. It's time INVESTED, and it's a very worthwhile investment.

Don't be afraid to take a step back if you find that you are pushing too hard and making the mare tense. Watch her, spend time with her, get to know her, and let her get to know you.

I'm sorry about her trailer injury, but you can turn it to your advantage and hers. Turnout and handwalking are the best possible way for you to begin building a relationship with your mare. Provide as much turnout as you possibly can, and go on doing it even when she is sound again. It will help keep her sound -- and sane. Watch her feed -- provide lots of good hay, salt, and fresh water, but don't supplement with grain unless your vet has specific reasons for recommending grain. Many young horses are ruined by handlers who confine them and overfeed them, then can't deal with the resulting explosive behaviour, and punish the horses for showing the excess energy that bad management created.

If you did nothing but groom your mare and take her for walks for a few months, it would be an excellent use of your time. Telling a horse "I own you now and I will be your friend" isn't effective -- you don't get its trust along with its papers. You have to earn a horse's trust, and you do that not by telling it what kind of person you are, but by SHOWING it what kind of person you are. This means demonstrating consistency -- you have to handle the horse kindly and well, over and over and over and over again.

Your mare has had a difficult start, but you can start her again, take your time, build her trust, and turn her into the nice horse she should have been encouraged to become in the first place. Good luck!


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