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Nervous horse's weight loss at first show

From: Jory

Hi Jessica,

I look forward to every issue of Horse-sense. Your knowledge is indespensible.

We bought a (just) 5 year old thoroughbred gelding, "Skinny" Binny, four months ago.

His background: He raced 5 times when he was 3. He had a year off in a big field in Virginia, and was only occationally hill topped and lightly trail ridden. Then they put 3 months of professional training in him.

My 13 year old daughter and her instructor are hopefully turning him into a hunter/show horse. At his first show, he was fine during early morning warm up until the loud speakers started. Then he got VERY nervous and afraid. He broke out in a sweat and shook all over and wouldn't stand. We expect it is a flash-back from his racing days. We decided not to do any classes with him and just get him used to everything, so we untacked him , and grazed him. He eventually calmed down, until we could walk him right near the speakers without a reaction.

We were there for 6 hours, and his trainer says he looks like he lost about 100 lbs that day! (He wouldn't drink at the show) He drank a lot as soon as he was in his stall, and we gave him a bran mash that night. Binny is about 300+ lbs underweight as it is. (He gets rice bran, coco soya and a huge bucket of beet pulp every day in addition to the normal hay and grain that the other horses get.)

We knew that this show season would just be for getting him happily adjusted to showing, without pressure. The weight loss is my main concern. It has taken us 4 months to get him to gain even a little weight, we were shocked to see how quickly he could lose it!

Do you have any suggestions for minimizing his weight loss during shows?

Thank you Jessica.

Jory & Amy

Hi Jory, hi Amy! If you want your horse to relax at shows, you're going to have to make that your focus for at least the next few shows. He might indeed have had a flashback to his racing days. What you did was exactly right - you took off the tack, grazed him and let him calm down, and generally gave him the impression that the show was not quite as scary as he had first thought. Well done!

Now, go out and do it again - and again - and again. Take him to shows, any kind of shows, Western shows, Hunter shows, Jumper shows, Dressage shows, local schooling shows. Take him to other people's barns and hand-graze him on the grounds and ride him in their arenas. Be so quiet and calm and nice that he knows he isn't in trouble and that he can always count on you.

You're on the right track as far as his training is concerned - this time next year, he should be happy to go to shows, because he'll be convinced that they're really nice places where horses have a good time.

The weight loss probably isn't cause for concern. It's not muscle weight that he's lost, after all. Six hours of nervous sweating and not drinking can take an immense amount of weight off a horse, but most of that weight will be water weight, and it will come back as soon as the horse is drinking normally again. As he learns to relax away from home, he'll be more willing to drink away from home. You can try some of the old tricks like putting some kind of flavouring in your water at home (peppermint, say, or kool-aid powder, or apple juice - whatever he likes) and adding the same amount of the same flavouring to his bucket at the shows, so that the water will seem familiar. You can even bring your own water to the show, but it's really much more useful to teach him to drink the water wherever he goes. Horses that are frightened are often unwilling to drink because dropping their heads and swallowing water puts them in a vulnerable position. They can no longer see things that might be sneaking up on them, and swallowing makes it harder for them to hear things that might be sneaking up on them. Again, as he relaxes, he'll find it easier to drop his head and take a drink without worrying. When he's less tense, he'll be able to think about eating - and he'll relax even more. Chewing is relaxing for horses. Hand-graze him, bring hay with you to the show, and don't forget that if you want him to gain weight, lots of grazing, lots of hay, salt, water, and possibly rice bran should be about all he will need at this stage.

You've only had this horse for four months, and he hasn't had much experience out in the world. He knows a little about racing, not much else, and he doesn't know you very well yet. It takes time - quality time AND quantity time - to build a relationship with a horse. Take your time, be very patient, and just keep showing him, over and over, that he is always safe with you. Thoroughbreds are intelligent animals - he'll figure it out. Right now he's basing his expectations on assumptions you can only guess at - your job is to start creating new routines, new habits, and a whole new set of assumptions in your horse's mind. It sounds to me as if you're on the right path. To stay there, just remember that you need to be consistent, kind, and take everything SLOWLY. An old horseman once said "I have to go slowly - I'm in a hurry!" This is one of the great secrets of horsemanship - the quickest way to get where you want to go is to take as much time as it takes to complete each step. If it helps, put up a banner over your stable door as a reminder. "Festina lente" is Latin for "make haste slowly" - and that's the only way to work with horses. ;-)


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