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Sweet horse getting mean

From: Stacey

Dear Jessica, I hope you will answer this because I am at my wits end with my horse and I don't know what to do. I am fourteen years old and have been riding in lessons and at summer camp for three years. For the last two years at camp I was riding a horse called Starlight. He was my ideal horse. At the end of camp last summer (September 2000), my parents bought him for me and had him shipped to our farm. I was so excited. Now I don't know if it was a good idea, but I still love Starlight. I just can't control him. Please help me. Here is what is happening. He rears a lot when he is turned loose to play (he gets an hour of turnout to play in a paddock every morning). It looks pretty but he didn't use to do that at camp! Then when I ride him, he jumps around when we go on the trail and he tries to run home. Now I am only riding him in the fenced ring instead of on the trail, because he makes me nervous that he will rear when I am riding him. Sometimes he gets very light in front and sort of bounces and I am pretty sure his front feet are off the ground, but he doesn't stand up straight like he does when he rears in his paddock in the morning. I am starting to get scared of him and I don't want to be scared of my best friend. I thought that he would be happy living with me, but maybe not. He was great for the first month and then he started to get cranky. I don't understand why. He gets his stall cleaned two times a day here, and the hay and sweet feed are much better than the camp feed, they only fed oats and their hay was old grass and now he has very soft leafy alfalfa. He has gained weight since September and looks shiny and beautiful. He is fifteen years old. I can't ride him for a month or two now because we got too much snow and there is ice in the arena, so he just goes out every day for his turnout time even though it is very cold. I am very worried that in the spring he will be too hard for me to handle if he acts like he did last month. What can I do? It's not like he is cranky because of too much work. At camp he was in lessons and on the trail for about five hours most days. I only ride him for one hour. I have already checked his saddle and it fits fine. His bridle is the one he had at camp and it fits too, and the bit. Please can you help me? This horse is the love of my life and I don't want to be afraid of him, but I am starting to be. Do you think he misses camp and his friends? My parents say this is silly but they never saw how sweet he was at camp, they think this is his normal personality and I know it isn't how he usually is. Thank you in advance for helping me and Starlight! Stacey


Hi Stacey! I think you can change Starlight back to his sweet self without too much trouble. You're doing everything you can think of to make him comfortable and happy, but that's just the problem - you're doing too much! It's very, very unlikely that Starlight is getting mean. Your story is a very familiar one, actually. Your horse isn't turning into a monster, in fact his personality probably hasn't changed at all, but he's having some trouble dealing with the changes in his life.

If someone wanted a guaranteed-to-work formula to make a nice, quiet horse into a maniac, the easiest method would be to increase the horse's feed intake and protein level dramatically, while dramatically decreasing the horse's usual amount of exercise. Does this sound familiar?

Starlight, at age fifteen, was doing very well on a steady regimen of low-protein, high-roughage hay and a handful of oats. He was getting lots of steady exercise - probably not hard exercise, but still exercise - for four or five hours a day, probably two hours of walk-trot lessons with a bit of cantering, and two or three hours of walking on the trail. Now that he's a privately-owned horse instead of a summer-camp horse, everything has changed. He's getting much more feed, and at least twice the amount of protein he was used to - and his exercise is now limited to a single hour of turnout in a paddock and one hour of riding once a day. If he's making you nervous, you probably aren't even riding him for a full hour. The combination of more, higher-protein feed AND a drastic reduction in his physical activity level is creating the problems you're experiencing.

The very first thing you can change is actually TWO things: Starlight's diet and his exercise routine. Find grass hay if you can; at least try to find some mixed hay with a high proportion of grass. Stop buying sweetfeed, buy whole oats instead - and use them sparingly. A cup or two of oats with his alfalfa won't hurt him, in fact it may help him, because the oats will actually be lower in protein than the alfalfa. If Starlight has lots of grass hay, he'll get his nutrition and stay busy longer each day; it takes much longer for a horse to go through ten pounds of grass hay than ten pounds of alfalfa. Start weighing your hay, if you don't already do this. A flake of grass hay is not the same as a flake of alfalfa - if you're feeding alfalfa by volume, you're compounding the problem. A "big fat" flake of grass hay may weigh five pounds, and look much larger than a thinner flake of alfalfa, but if you weigh them, you may be surprised to find out how heavy that flake of alfalfa can be. Don't make the mistake of thinking that Starlight should be fed MORE alfalfa because the flakes are smaller. They are heavy, dense, and high-protein - and that's why it would be best if you could get a supply of grass hay for your horse. He needs the roughage and the chewing time, but he doesn't need the high-octane fuel.

Change Starlight's exercise program, too. There's no reason he should be in his stall all day and night if you have a turnout paddock for him. Let him use it! If it's attached to the stall or a run-in shed, so that he can find shelter in really bad weather, let him have full-time access to the paddock. If the paddock is a separate turnout area without shelter, at least put him out there for four or five hours at a time, on as many days as you possibly can. And since this is your family farm, you may want to talk to your parents about arranging full-time turnout with a shelter for Starlight. If he can exercise freely all the time, he'll stay healthier and you'll both be happier.

I don't think that your horse is pining for the summer camp. He probably enjoys living on your farm and I'm sure he enjoys being petted and groomed by you. But if you can manage him in conditions a little bit more like the conditions at camp - lower-protein feed and a lot more exercise time - you'll find that your sweet horse will become sweet again.

Don't worry when you see him rearing and bucking and bouncing around in his paddock - it's just a sign of excess energy, and you'll see less of it as his feeding and exercise programs begin to match his actual needs a little better. Horses that are over-fed and under-exercised do tend to explode into frantic activity when they are turned out; horses that are fed approriately and permitted many hours of turnout every day may dash around for the first few moments when they are turned out, but will quickly settle down and graze, roll, or wander around and doze in the sun.

By trying to make Starlight's life perfect for him, and by trying to make everything better at your farm than it was at camp, you've super-charged your horse! Now let him relax and just enjoy his new home, without having to bounce off the walls from too much high-protein feed and not enough exercise. You'll both be happier, and by spring, you should once again have the horse you fell in love with. ;-)

Jessica

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