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Starting over at new barn

From: Phillis

Hi Jessica, I really enjoy your informative website, It has helped answer many of my questions and concerns. What a valuable tool for me, the beginning horse person. I am just starting to have the desire to come back to horses after a horse related injury from last spring of a broken wrist, surgery, and six months of physical therapy. I was wearing my helmet at the time of my fall, thanks to you and even though I didn't hit my head I am so grateful for your advise to wear a helmet! With a family I am not able to get out on a daily basis. And since my fall I have only been back on my horse once. I pay extra to have him ridden once a week. Unfortunately, I have distanced myself from my horse, but I think I am finally ready to try again. I am considering a change in boarding facilities for several reasons. I am usually the only person in the barn or on the property during the time which I am able to ride. I still have some fear (a lot of fear) of being alone with the horse. I also want my horse to have access to a pasture with other horses. He currently has a paddock out from his stall and can visit his friends over the electric fence but doesn't really have enough space to run freely and get exercise.

I have recently found a farm that has what I think I am looking for plus it is located closer to my home. My concern is this, they have concrete under rubber mats in the stalls. They do use bedding to improve the bed quality. I am very concerned about the stress this would have on my horses legs after being in the stall for eight or so hours overnight. The concrete seems to be an acceptable base under mats but I would like another opinion on this subject. He also would have access to a pasture during the day and be able to run with a herd, which he has not done in 2 years. Another concern is that this is a western barn that holds sorting events several times a month. They have some cattle on the property and bring cattle in for the event. The horses are in the pasture during the day time when these events occur, but I am concern about any diseases that the cattle could transfer to the horses, all the activity of new horses coming in that would use the facilities plus all the people. I have my horse vaccinated & wormed on a regular basis.

He has been at a very quiet barn for the last two years and it seems to me that he is a little more spooky now, prior to his current living conditions he was a show horse and traveled quite frequently, he was stalled at night and pastured with other horses during the day then. I am a casual western rider and consider myself still a learning (starting over) beginner. The spooking frightens me more since my fall and I feel that my horse may relax more in an environment with more activity. Jessica, I really want to do what is best for my horse. I feel like I am starting over again, trying to get over the fear I have developed, and reestablish a relationship with my horse. Any kind of a response would be greatly appreciated! Sincerely, Phillis

Hi Phillis! Thanks for the kind words. ;-) Congratulations on your plans to start over, and I understand your concerns about your horse becoming more spooky with all of the activities at this new facility.

Getting over fear is a difficult process and can be lengthy - proceed at your own pace! Your horse will not suffer if he isn't being ridden, provided that he is turned out for free exercise and companionship. Don't let anyone push you into doing something that frightens you, or for which you don't feel ready - there's no "should" to the process of fear management, and no fixed timetable either.

The new farm sounds like a nice place for your horse. Don't worry about the stalls. Rubber mats (3/4" rubber) over concrete, with several inches of bedding over the mats, should work very well indeed. Many horse owners have converted old dairy barns to horse barns by using rubber mats to cover and cushion the concrete in stalls and aisles.

The companionship of a herd, once all the horses settle into an understanding about whose place is where, should be very good for your horse. Be sure that he's introduced to the group sensibly - it's usually best to begin by providing fence-line contact with the herd for a week or two until they're all familiar with the sight, sound, and smell of one another. The next step would be to put a "buddy horse" from the herd in with your horse, and then, once they've had a week or two to become close friends, put both "buddies" out with the rest of the herd in their field.

The presence of cattle need not be a problem. Your horse may be amazed or even frightened when he first sees the cattle, but he will quickly adjust, especially when he realizes that the other horses aren't frightened and don't make a fuss. Even if he dances and races around the field the first few times the cattle are on the property, don't worry, he will figure it out eventually.

Cattle used for sorting events, whether it be team penning or roping, are generally very good animals to help horses learn about the essential harmlessness of cattle. Whereas a handful of dairy cattle added to a horse-herd would either run off in fear, or bunch together and follow individual horses out of sheer curiosity (and both actions WILL typically spook horses that aren't familiar with cattle), even a couple of dozen of these smaller steers won't provoke the same problem. Cattle like these are NOT curious about horses - they already know everything they want to know about horses, and they are generally interested in staying well away from the horses. To cattle like these, horses mean RUNNING and EFFORT and DUST and DISCOMFORT, so even if they're turned out WITH the horses they're usually very happy just to be left alone to graze their own corner of the field.

Diseases shouldn't present a problem - cattle and horses tend to get different diseases and different parasites - but if you're worried, why not have a talk with your vet? While you're on the phone with him, explain your concerns about the other horses coming and going, and ask whether your horse's increased exposure to other animals means that it will need additional or more frequent vaccinations such as flu shots.

The activities around the farm will work to your advantage if you let them. There are two ways to get a horse to focus on you - one is to isolate the horse from other activities and stimuli, the other is to teach the horse to pay attention to you even when there are fifteen other things going on around him. The latter is much more practical. I've met people who tell me - and mean it - "My horse can't work if there's a horse turned out in the other arena," or "My horse can't pay attention to me if there are cars crunching over the gravel driveway in front of the barn" or "If someone wearing a hat is sitting on the park bench by the arena, I have to ask him to leave or put my horse away until he's gone." This is FAR too limiting for any serious rider - or for anyone who wants to do anything at all with a horse, from the saddle or from the ground. As soon as you've established that the activities around the farm are not threatening to your horse (more about this in a moment), make it your business to keep your horse's interest and focus no matter what else is going on around you. It's always best to keep expanding your horizons and enlarging his (and your) "comfort bubble" - the alternative is to make your world smaller and smaller, and that's no good at all.

Give your horse time to adjust to the sights and sounds without you - from his stall and field - then begin taking him for walks and hand-grazing him on a leadrope. Horses are curious and interested in everything, and they like company, so this is something he'll enjoy. Use these walks to get to know your horse better and to build his trust in you. Every time you go past something that doesn't harm him, and you tell him "Come on, it's fine", he'll learn to believe your reassurances. Every good experience is something you'll be adding to your horse's "confidence account" - and when, someday, he is REALLY frightened by something totally unfamiliar, you'll be able to draw on that account. When that day comes, and you tell him "Come on, it's fine" he'll relax.

While you're taking your horse for walks and hand-grazing him, pay attention to the way he moves, and notice what he watches and what he ignores. If he spooks occasionally - and he will - notice HOW he spooks. Does he lift his head high first? Does his neck become tense? Does he dance, or does he plant his feet and stop moving? Does he spook fast, slow, forward, sideways, or backward? If he spooks sideways, does he typically go to the left or the right? How far does he go? This will teach you quite a lot. You can learn what sorts of things are most likely to cause your horse to spook, and what form his spooking takes, and - VERY important - exactly what his "Caution, I'm about to spook" warning signs are.

Once you know his patterns, you'll feel much more confident about your ability to notice and cope with - or head off - a moment of spookiness. You'll also worry much less when he spooks under saddle. If you KNOW that he typically swerves to the right and stops dead, then you'll be ready to go with the movement - and you won't be terrified and wondering what he'll do next. So take him for walks everywhere, and get BOTH of you accustomed to the sights and sounds and activities - and to each other's reactions.

Buy a clicker and get a good clicker-training book or video (Alexandra Kurland's book and videos are very good), and teach yourself and your horse the basics of clicker training. This will be good for you both. It will help you observe your horse very closely and communicate with him clearly, and it will enable you to teach him useful skills such as "stand still" and "lower your head, relax" - things you'll find useful on the ground AND when you're back in the saddle. Build your communication, build his trust in you, build your trust in him - and have fun doing it. There's really no limit to the fun you can have with a clicker, or a clicker and a target. ;-)

One thing you may want to monitor very closely is his feed. Many horses simply "can't stand prosperity", as the ranchers say - if they're overfed, they may not become fat, but they may become bouncy, spooky, and almost hyperactive, as though someone had set both their body and brain on "fast forward", If your horse has gone from NO access to grazing at his old barn, to sixteen hours of daily grazing in a good pasture at his new barn, you may need to cut his other feed drastically. Talk to your vet about your horse's energy requirements. Don't feed him large quantities of rich alfalfa if there are other options such as grass hay or a grass-alfalfa mix. If rich alfalfa is the only option, he may do better on a combination of alfalfa and whole oats (for the sake of his overall protein intake as well as his calcium/phosphorous ratio). Your vet can look at the various options offered by the new barn and give you good advice on feeding your horse appropriately.

Have fun, take your time getting back in the saddle. If all you do the first time is get on the horse and get off again, don't feel bad, feel proud. ;-) If you can bring your instructor out to the barn so that your first few rides are actually lessons, you'll feel much safer and more secure. You'll also have someone there to direct your activities and answer your questions, all of which will be very helpful. Explain that you're interested in getting over your fear and that you plan to take things very slowly. You'll probably discover that your instructor knows hundreds of confidence-building exercises and will share them with you.

Good luck!


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