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Change in horse's personality

From: Kim

Dear Jessica, I am a beginner-intermediate rider (20 lessons) and I bought a horse two months ago. This was before I discovered HORSE-SENSE, because now I would know better and I would not buy a horse until I knew more. But I bought this horse and he was very sweet and kind and gentle. The man who sold him to me said that he was an ideal horse for timid riders because he was so gentle. After I brought him home, Popcorn was gentle for about three weeks and then he started to change, and now I am afraid to ride him and sometimes I am even afraid to lead him. This doesn't make any sense because Popcorn used to be a horse at a riding camp, so little kids were riding him and leading him every day.

Is there some way I can find out if Popcorn was drugged when I bought him? I have read that a big change in personality can mean that a horse was drugged. I did not get a vet check (and yes I know better now). Is there some way to test his blood and find out if he had drugs in him two months ago, or is it too late to find out?

My friend Katie says that Popcorn's personality has changed because his life is different and he can't cope with living in a new place. I don't know what I can do about that if it's true. I have a little barn in my "back yard" (it's really almost an acre of land where my house is), it was there when I bought my house and it was one of the reasons I bought this house because I always wanted to own a horse. There is a run off the barn, pretty big it's 30' wide and almost 50' long. So Popcorn gets plenty of exercise. I feed him a flake of hay and a can of sweet feed every morning and night. I know you always say to feed more hay, but Popcorn has a fat stomach already ("hay belly") and I don't think he needs any more hay! He might be lonely but I can't afford to keep two horses and also my barn is not very big, it has one stall and a place for hay and a place for tack. So please don't tell me to give him more hay and get another horse! What I need to know is why Popcorn would change his personality so much from gentle to mean if he wasn't drugged? If he is upset about living in a new place, wouldn't he have started out all upset and be getting calmer after two months? Because he is getting meaner, not calmer. He kicks his stall and he puts his ears back when I feed him, and when I try to lead him he starts to jump around. The last time I rode him I thought he was going to buck me so I got off and put him back in his stall. I thought he would be so happy to have a great private home after getting retired from the riding camp, but he is just nasty. I think he is too dangerous to ride alone, so I just don't ride. This is very frustrating for me!


Hi Kim! Yes, after two months it's probably much too late to find out if your horse was drugged when you bought him. If it's any comfort, there are a LOT of possible reasons for a horse's personality to change over a two-month period.

Let's assume that he was NOT drugged when you bought him. He was sold to you as a horse being retired from a riding camp. If he was a riding camp horse, I would expect him to be quiet and calm at camp - those horses tend to be gentle and accepting of most things, and a combination of hard work and familiar surroundings will keep most horses calm. I would NOT necessarily expect him to be quiet and calm in a new situation where his movement is restricted and he is getting no exercise, no work, and a high-energy diet... and according to your own description, that's the situation he's in right now.

When a thin horse starts getting a higher-octane diet, it may become more energetic because it feels better - and if it is given less exercise instead of more, it may use its energy in ways you don't like, such as kicking the stall.

When a horse is lonely, confined, and very, very bored, and meals twice a day are its only pleasant experiences, that horse can get very focused on its food, and very agitated at feeding-time - and very worried that someone (you) will take his food.

Horses can show personality changes because they're getting too much food, or because they're getting the wrong kind of food. Popcorn would do better on much more hay and much less grain, or no grain at all. Hay will be better for his health and will also keep him busy longer, leaving him less time to be bored. Horses aren't meant to have two big meals a day - they're natural nibblers. Since your horse is right there in your back yard, you can easily create a new feeding schedule for him - try giving him hay four or five times a day.

If you haven't already found a good local equine veterinarian, find one NOW and ask him to come out and evaluate Popcorn. Sometimes it's hard for a novice to tell the difference between a fat horse with a big belly and a thin horse with a distended belly from worms. Your vet can de-worm Popcorn for you, and set up a schedule for regular dewormings and vaccinations, and tell you whether Popcorn's teeth need floating. He can also give you advice about horse management. A 30'x 50' outdoor run attached to a stall is great for giving a confined horse a chance to get fresh air and sunlight, but it's not an exercise paddock and it won't provide your horse with exercise.

One of the biggest factors in personality changes is pain, and whenever I hear of a horse that has gone from gentle and quiet to aggressive and unpleasant, the first thought that comes to my mind is PAIN. It's quite possible that something is hurting Popcorn. Your saddle and bridle and bit may not fit him, and may be hurting him. It's also possible that something about the way you've been riding him may have hurt his mouth or his back.

As soon as you've lined up a good equine veterinarian, your next mission should be to locate a good riding instructor. Ideally, you'll want someone who can come to your home, help you with Popcorn, and give you advice about horse management, tack, and riding. If you have a good instructor who teaches at a lesson barn, continue taking lessons, but also see whether you can pay her for a couple of lessons at your house. Even if she just comes for an hour or two, evaluates your horse and your situation, and gives you some good suggestions, it will be well worth the cost.

Horses don't stay the same from month to month - they change, physically and emotionally, as their circumstances change. Even without any drugs being involved, it's very possible that the horse you bought two months ago is quite a different horse today. Based on the situation you've described, I think that it's likely that you are going to get hurt if something doesn't change soon, and I suspect that the way you are managing Popcorn may need to change quite a lot. I know that you want to keep your horse at your home, but I don't think that you are really ready to do this. If it's possible to board him somewhere - preferably at your instructor's barn - for the next six months or a year, that will ensure that both you and Popcorn will get what you need. HE needs company, space, turnout, exercise, proper veterinary and farrier care, and a sensible diet that reflects his actual needs. YOU need competent professionals to advise you and help you with your horse, and lessons in both riding and horse care. You're also quite right about the dangers of riding when you're alone - stopping was the sensible thing to do. In a boarding/lesson barn situation, you'll be able to get the help you need, and there will be people around when you are riding.

Even the most perfectly-mannered, gentlemanly riding-camp horse can become unpleasant if changing circumstances are making it uncomfortable and unhappy... or, worse, uncomfortable, unhappy, bored, and overfed. Please take steps to get some help as soon as possible, so that Popcorn can go back to enjoying his life, and you can go back to enjoying your lessons and your rides.


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