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Owner too inexperienced for horse?

From: \"bandc\"

Dear Jessica,

I have bought a horse in June, and am having some concern as to wether or not I should have a slightly green-broke horse. Inish is a five yeay old half Arab half Connemarra, and I just adore him. He was a rescued horse, and as far as I know was never mishandled or hit. I myself have had one other horse besides Inish. My former horse which I owned for a few years was also half Arab, and half Pinto, he was older and very calm and well trained. I did a few endurance rides with him, and I plan to pursue this with my new horse. But since the so called "honeymoon period", is over we had a episode. I had been working with Inish and have ridden him many times before this incident happened.

I had the halter around his neck and was attempting to place the bit in his mouth. Things where ok but then he wouldnt accept the bit. I think I may have gotten too forceful, and possible I need to learn some techniques for this. Anyway, Inish pulled-back and panicked. In attempt to get away from this awful thing holding him back he jerked his head and knocked very hard into mine. I almost got knocked out and had a severe bloody nose.

I knew right away what I did wrong. I had my head to close and his head too low. I was told to catch him again and try to get the bit on him right away, or he would know he got away with out having to listen. I wasn't successful the second time either and felt traumatized, so I put him away.

A week or so after I took him to the round pen and lunged him a bit. When he acted well while being tied up I rewarded with a carrot in my pocket, then later in the round pen while being allowed to approach me he was invading my space and lipping my pocket for more. I lightly swatted his mouth and said," no". He acted like I was going to beat him. Finally when we reached the pasture, he stopped at the entrance and refused to go in. Can you give me any advice as too preventing this from happening again. Before this incident happened I would notice he would get very anxious when tied-up or alone in the round pen. Inish is quite an intelligent horse and seems willing to learn. My main question is am I qualified or knowledgeable enough to own a horse this young?

Hi "bandc" - you've asked a good question, and if you re-read what you wrote, you'll realize that you have also answered it. At this point in your life, this is not the horse for you; at least, not now. What you need right now is something you can ride and enjoy. What he needs right now is a kind person - which you undoubtedly are - who has many years of experience in the quiet training and re-training of horses. Unfortunately, in this particular situation your kindness and your good intentions are likely to get both you and the horse in trouble - or badly hurt. Having said that, though, let me also say that you seem to have a good attitude. I'm impressed by the fact that you wonder whether you are qualified or knowledgable enough to work with this horse - many people who are no more qualified than you would not have the good sense it takes to ask that question! I would say of you exactly what you said of your horse, that you are quite an intelligent person and seem willing to learn. ;-)

If you think that this horse is exactly what you want for endurance riding, and you are willing to invest the necessary time and money to get help, you may be able to get through this and come out of it with a much better understanding of horses, but it is going to require a significant investment in time and money. If you can find yourself some good professional help - a proper trainer who understands horses and teaches them well, hire that person to work with your horse for a few months WHILE YOU WATCH AND LISTEN, and then to work with YOU and the horse for another few months. Then arrange to have a weekly session so that any misunderstandings or confusion can be dealt with on a regular basis.

If this seems like too much to do, or too much to afford, or if you simply don't have this kind of access to a really good trainer and teacher, then don't feel guilty about looking for another horse. Without good help, first on an intensive basis and then on a long-term regular basis, you and this horse will just get into trouble together. Sometimes a horse with wonderful potential and a lot of problems comes along at the wrong time in your life - that's what seems to be happening here. There's no shame in recognizing the fact that you're out of your depth, and doing what's right for the horse and for yourself.

Here's something that you can apply to this horse and any other horse you ever meet: If you don't know everything about that horse's background - and you never will know absolutely everything - you and the horse will both be much better off if you will use "as if" thinking. Treat the horse as if he knows nothing at all about humans, interacting with humans, human expectations, etc. Treat him as if he is completely untrained and completely unhandled, and be just as careful as you would be if he were a just-captured mustang stallion, but don't count on him to have the normal horse behaviour patterns that a typical mustang would have. A horse that has been confined, isolated, abused, mistreated, and/or neglected is potentially extremely dangerous to itself, to other horses, and to humans, because it has been improperly socialized and truly does not know how to interact with humans or even with other horses.

Whenever you deal with a rescue case, assume the worst. The "worst", for a horse, is a background of poor relationships with ignorant humans. This is far more dangerous than total ignorance. Get help so that you can handle and train the horse appropriately. Without good help, you'll take risks without even realizing that you are in danger.

Before you can retrain a horse, you need to know how a normal, properly-socialized horse functions and thinks. Without that knowledge, you don't have a context in which to evaluate, let alone retrain, an improperly-socialized horse. It's a little bit like being a veterinarian - if you don't know what is normal, how can you recognize, let alone deal with, things that are abnormal?

Before you can retrain a horse, you need to know where to go for good advice - and that means you need to be able to recognize and act on good advice (and recognize and ignore bad advice). If you want to retrain a horse, you can't attempt to do it by force - that simply won't get you where you want to go. You already discovered that trying to force the bit into the horse's mouth wasn't a good idea; that's a good discovery, but it's one you shouldn't have had to make. If you had gotten good advice, you wouldn't have attempted such a thing; if you had years of good experience and training backing you up, you wouldn't have considered listening to such advice, even for a moment. This is just one example of how lack of experience and information can get you and your horse into trouble.

Of course you want to be able to control your horse, but the kind of control you want to achieve can't be achieved by force. Take the time to teach the horse that he doesn't have to be afraid of the bit, or of your hands near his mouth, or of your hands touching his head. Power isn't force; force isn't power. If you want the horse to learn that the bit is not harmful or frightening, you have to show him, over and over, that he won't be hurt and that he has no reason to be afraid. You can't force it on him - that causes fear and pain, and convinces him that he was right to be worried about the bit in the first place. In the situation you described, you tried to force a bit into his mouth, he was frightened and got hurt, then YOU got hurt, then you tried to do it again - and failed - and then put him away. This wasn't a very good lesson for either of you, was it? You're probably sorry that you listened to whomever was telling you "Force him, do it, don't let him get away with that, you have to win or he'll think he won." Whenever you hear something like that, it's a very good sign that you should accept no input from that person. Those are words that won't cross the lips of a real horseman, and you need help from a real horseman: Someone who understands horses and horsemanship.

Treats are perfectly acceptable in training, but again, you need experience and context to know which rewards should be offered, to which horses, and when. It's not a good idea to offer a horse a treat when you are teaching it to keep its mouth away from you. Reward with your tone of voice, with a scratch on the withers, or with a scratch along the top of the neck just under the mane (this tends to be an itchy area).

When you use treats in training, don't tempt the horse by showing him treats - "look what's in my pocket!" and then pushing him away when he investigates. Remember that his sense of smell is much more acute than yours. He can smell treats in your pocket even if you don't deliberately show them to him.

Don't hit your horse in the mouth. Don't hit him anywhere in the head, ever, for any reason. Hitting a horse in the head is like shaking a baby - there is no reason that could possibly justify the action or excuse the damage that it will cause.

In the context you've described, hitting this horse in the mouth will, at worst, make him head-shy forever. That's not a good goal for you; if you make him head-shy, eventually no one will be able to put a bit in his mouth, administer deworming paste, or float his teeth. At best - which is almost worst, in this case! - hitting him in the mouth will make him imagine that you want to play a game involving his mouth and your hand. This isn't a good game to play with a cat, or a dog; it's not a good game to play with a horse, either, unless you don't mind losing a few fingers.

This doesn't mean that you have to accept unacceptable behaviour. If your horse does something that offends you, make yourself very large, lean into his space, and make a horrible noise (my preferred "NO!" noise is that extremely annoying "wrong answer" game-show buzzer sound, which cannot possibly be confused with any other noise you make). You shouldn't have to do this very often. Train your horse to do what you want - it's much easier and more reliable than trying to train him not to do things you don't like. Whenever he does something that you don't want him to do, ask yourself "What do I want him to do INSTEAD of what he just did?"

If your honest answer is "Nothing, I just want him NOT to do THAT", then that's an excellent time to make yourself large and make the buzzer sound. Most of the time, though, you'll say to yourself "I don't want him to do X, I want him to do Y instead!" In other words, most of the time there will be an action you want the horse to perform, and your job will be to teach those actions. Standing still is an action. If you want to train your horse to stand quietly, and if you want to train him to come forward or reach forward for a treat only when you give a certain signal or say a certain word, you can do that. That's a perfectly valid behaviour to teach a horse. But don't try to teach him "dead horse tricks". By "dead horse tricks" I mean things that only a dead horse could possibly do ("Don't notice the paper bag" "Don't smell the treat" "Don't expect me to give you something to eat just because I have a treat in my hand and I gave you a treat the last time I saw you").

Be sensible in your training, and remember that a horse will always be a horse, with a horse's sensitivity and a horse's reactions. Teach your horse things TO DO, so that what you want will be very clear to the horse, and so that you will be able to make your praise and rewards equally clear. "Don't be aware, don't notice things around you, don't try to follow the pattern you think I have established" - those are dead horse tricks. "Stand still", "Back two steps and stand still" are live horse tricks - they're things TO DO, not things NOT to do.

This particular horse is only five, and he has horse instincts, horse sensitivity, and horse nature, but he has also had five years of handling that you don't know about. If you can get the right help, and start this horse's education over from the very beginning, you will have your best chance to end up with a horse that you will enjoy and keep - or a horse that will have a better chance of finding a good home with someone else. Either way, the education YOU get is something you will have forever, and use with every horse you ride.

If you can't get someone experienced and kind to help you, you probably should not keep this horse. If he can go to someone experienced and kind who can retrain him, and you can find an experienced, kind horse to ride, you will both be happier - and much safer. You have a very good attitude about this situation and a realistic concern about your current abilities. If you continue to learn about horses, and keep the good attitude you have right now, someday a horse like this will come into your life, perhaps as your fifth horse, or your tenth horse, and you WILL be able to retrain it alone. But right now, the only way you'll be able to retrain this horse effectively and safely, so that you can enjoy one another, is with good professional help.

Good luck!


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