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Teaching an old horse new habits

From: Elli

Dear Jessica ­ Every time I receive 3 or 4 New Messages at one shot, I know I can look forward to Horse-Sense in my In Box. Thank you so much for your all-round, sound advise. Now I have a question that deals with horse psychology. A few years back I was riding an Appaloosa mare, Apple, for a man who didn’t have time for her. I always thought she was nice animal with a sweet temperament, good barn manners, ok confirmation, a little skittish on being trailered, and a lot skittish on trail rides. Apple had two gates, trot and canter. She never learned to walk calm and relaxed. She jigged her way across the arena until I asked for a trot. She is very forward needless to say. But, when I would longe her, she would walk almost too easily. As soon as she felt that weight on her back she would start jigging. Her owner was a very nervous man and that’s a nice way to describe him. When we took her to shows (small 4H) Apple was a mess ­ which I realize isn’t unusual. He would give her an over-the-counter downer, and she would be a ball of sweat (the one time he didn’t give her anything she was a peach. humm?!). I began to attribute her nervousness to her owner: nervous person, nervous horse. He loved this horse, and swore he’d never sell her. But love comes in all shapes and sizes doesn’t it? Over time I began to dislike her owner and didn’t agree with his method of dealing with Apple. I’ve always felt less is more, in the context of gimmicks you can purchase to control such a nervous, forward horse. So, I got out of the situation. I always thought that Apple would be a better horse if she weren’t there, and I felt sorry for her. Well, almost three years later I moved to an area that has a wonderful, new facility that was building a herd of school horses. Apple was there! : ) I was very glad to see her in a new home. She’s less nervous, but apparently her problem of jigging seems to be truly her. Because of this, she is not an obvious first choice in a school horse. The barn manager is willing to let me work with her. She’s for sale for real cheap and I am tempted to buy her. I know I am the only one who can make that choice, but I’d hate to see her go to the………gulp..…….big herd in the sky. I am an experienced rider in hunter/jumper and have now switched to dressage and love to do ring work more than trail rides (a plus when it comes to riding Apple, because she’s a nut on the trail.) My questions are: * Is her psychological makeup innate? Or could her previous, nervous owner affect her personality so much that it might take years to calm her. In relation to that question, is her jigging a manifestation of her nervousness? How can I get her to slow down…naturally? * She is 15yo, can I start over with groundwork on her ­ can you teach an old horse new tricks? (I am patient and don’t mind spending a full hour on a lesson at a walk if I need to to get the proper result.) * What is your take on Myler(sp) Bits? In the past I have used a Dr. Bristol with her, which she reacted to in a positive manner, but I left before really seeing an overall improvement. * AND ­ when are you going to have some clinics in New England!!!??? I would love to see you Live and in Person! I am curious to hear your response. My horsy friends are all saying forget her! but I can’t. I believe that things happen for a reason, and there is a reason why Apple has appeared back into my life again. Thank you so very much for your time. Elli

Hi Elli! I agree that often things DO happen for a reason. I'll be glad to give you my thoughts on your questions about Apple.

Jigging is usually a combination of nervous anticipation and physical discomfort. It's very common amongst horses that have been badly ridden for a long time. The good news is that horses that jig can usually be taught to perform a relaxed walk - IF the new rider has time and patience, and IF the horse can be made comfortable.

Her psychological makeup probably IS innate, but the jigging is not necessarily part of it. (How's that for a "yes and no" answer?) The situation you described with Apple's previous owner was custom-designed to make even a very sane horse become crazy. As you know, bad management and bad riding will cause physical damage and behaviour problems in horses. Good management and good riding can help horses become what they should have been all along, if there isn't too much physical damage. You said that even with her previous owner, Apple was easy to work with on the ground, had nice stable manners, etc. It sounds to me as though she is a very normal horse, responding well when she understands what's wanted, and becoming nervous and frightened when she doesn't understand what's wanted. That kind of nervous jigging is also very typical behaviour in horses that simply don't know what's expected of them. Horses are frequently sold as "trained" when they are not trained at all, merely kind and patient, and tolerant of someone sitting on their backs. When such horses end up in the hands of good riders, the riders usually realize what the problem is, and take the horse back to square one.

That's what I would suggest you do with Apple. You are probably her best chance for a good life as a riding horse. If you are willing to begin her training all over again, treat her as if she knows nothing at all, and bring her along slowly and carefully, you may be able to turn her into a happy horse with a real walk.

Fifteen years is not terribly old for a horse, but it's a long time to build habits, and if Apple has been jigging nervously under saddle for, say, the last thirteen years, then it may be very difficult to help her to change. You won't be able to induce her to forget the things she knows; you'll need to teach her all new things, and then repeat them often enough that the new things form new habits.

Ask yourself if you are willing to do what it takes to retrain Apple completely. In the winter, it's easy to think in terms of a few weeks of ground work and a few more weeks of work at the walk under saddle. But your retraining program may require more than that - possibly several months of goundwork followed by six months or more of just walking. Is that something you're going to be willing to do - and not just willing, but happy to do? It's not always easy to be the one walking in the back field whilst everyone else is cantering on trails or going to shows... so before you take on a rehabilitation project, think hard about what you really want, what you enjoy most about horses and riding, and what your plans and hopes are for Apple and for your own riding. If you're quite happy to work with Apple even if she needs to spend an entire year at the walk, that's a good sign. ;-)

As far as the bits are concerned, if Apple went nicely in a Dr. Bristol, you may want to try her in a French-link snaffle instead. It looks somewhat similar to a Dr. Bristol, in that there are two joints and a center link, but the French-link is a gentler bit, as the center link is smaller, more rounded, and lies flat on the horse's tongue. Removing sources of pain is the FIRST step in retraining any horse - before beginning any rehabilitation program, have any necessary dental work done, and have your vet check her back and legs. Actually that's a good thing to do when you begin working with any horse, even a four-year-old with no habits of any kind. ;-) You don't need to invest in a Myler bit to do what you need to do. The three things you WILL need are: a bit that doesn't hurt or annoy the horse's mouth, a saddle that doesn't hurt the horse's back, and a good rider with a clear understanding of horses.

You seem to have a clear head and a kind heart - both excellent qualities when you're dealing with horses! If you aren't daunted by the amount of time and patience that Apple needs, and if you think you'll enjoy the process of reclaiming her, why not give the project a try? The fact that Apple is less nervous in her new (and improved) environment shows you that she can change her behaviour in response to a change in her situation, and that's an indication that she will respond to the right kind of training. My usual answer to "Is this horse too old to retrain?" is to ask "Does the horse have a pulse?" because in my experience, there's no such thing as a live horse that is too old to learn.

Let me know what you decide to do, please. If you do purchase Apple, perhaps I can help you design her retraining program. I'll be happy to help if I can.

As for New England clinics - I'm scheduling this year's clinics right now, so who knows? Perhaps I'll get out your way this year. Thanks for asking.


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