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Spoiled horse or crazy owner?

From: Tammy

Dear Jessica,

I have been reading your newsletter for sometime now, and find many of the things you say are beliefs I have myself. I am still young in the training world, have had 4 years of college experience, and some wonderful internships, and many wonderful, kind trainers to learn from. I am currently working on a farm with a 4 year old Gelding. He is EXTREMELY smart. I normally only have to teach him things once and he's learned it. But there's a problem. He and his mother are both "public figure" horses. They get a lot of visitors, and he is very spoiled with high amounts of treats and lots of attention. He is so people oriented that you could say he is much more like a dog than a horse. He has also be taught several tricks (shake, kiss, bow, lay down, etc) which he loves doing, mostly because of the treats and the attention he gets.

Here's the problem. The owner would like him to be more riding broke so that some of his lesson kids can ride him and possibly show. However, he is very difficult to work with, and some days, I feel like he would rather get punished the whole time than learn and do better. When I have days like this, I quit and put him away. Since I don't want to him connect me to the treats, I don't ever give him any. To just sit there and do anything is like pulling teeth. He doesn't go forward off your leg, resulting in the use of a crop of spur. I'm working on the basics - bending, moving off my leg, transitions, and generally asking him to listen to me. Most of what I do is at the walk and trot, and light cantering, and the sessions are limited to about 20 minutes 3 times a week. From session to session, I find I have to "fix" what he's already learned many times over because he acts like he hasn't done it many times before. If he just doesn't feel like doing anything, even as simple at going from a walk to a trot, or turning where I ask, he will try to stop and rear or buck. He's even tried to lay down on me a few times. He likes to find ways around what I teach rather than accept and comply. The few times he has been used by the owner for a lesson with a student that has good balance and knows the basics, he will also lay down with the kid on his back, and has been know to buck as well. My training with him doesn't change this behavior as he is smart enough to know that difference between me and a young child.

I've checked for pain or discomfort, and his teeth were recently floated (in the last month), and there is no physical reason for the misbeahavior. It actually seems more like I'm riding a weanling - mentally - than a 4 year old. I think part of the problem is that he is not socially interactive with other horses. Due to the fact that he is valuable and cannot get hurt from playing with other horses, he is turned out by himself. Which is another problem when riding, he tends to pin his ears and either attempt to bite or kick other horses while being ridden. I have been able to fix much of this behavior. Turning him out with other horses is not an option, so it's just me and him.

I don't want to find myself being abusive or harsh on such a young horse, but I don't know what else to do with him. It's bad habit or dangerous behavior after bad habit or dangerous behavior. I don't expect a lot, but he does need manners under a saddle (by the way, his ground manners are wonderful). He just seems like he'd rather do everything other than what he's being asked and it's very frustrating. I've read several books (Richard Shrake, John Lyons, Pat Parelli, etc) and asked a couple more experienced trainers for possible solutions, and so far, I haven't found anything the works, that I have felt comfortable trying.

I hope you may have some insight, and that it wasn't entirely confusing. I appreciate any input you may have. Thank you for your wonderful newsletter and time


Hi Tammy! You do have a problem horse here, and your own insight is a very good one - I'm referring to your comment about the horse seeming more like a weanling than a four-year-old. You are absolutely correct to say that part of the problem is his lack of social interaction with other horses. What you have here is an unsocialized animal. He can't know what it means to be a person, and he doesn't know what it means to be a horse. He needs someone to put him in his place, horse-style, and that's going to require either some other horses or a very good, experienced trainer. It's not a safe job for a novice to undertake.

Actually there are a LOT of problems with just about every aspect of the situation you've described. I'll touch on some of the ones you asked about, but the biggest problem is one that you didn't mention, and I plan to discuss that one, too.

Part of this horse's problem is that he is utterly unsocialized; part of his problem is that everyone connected with him seems to be in a huge hurry. He's a four-year-old - which means that he should just be starting work under saddle. There is no justification for using any green four-year-old in a lesson program, and no possible excuse for putting young children on him. If he is trained well over the next few years, he might make a good lesson horse in another four or six years, but right now, he has no business carrying anyone except a very competent and consistent rider/trainer. This kind of hurry ruins horses - "spoils" them, if you will - in several different ways. For one, it presents the young horse with totally inconsistent handling and riding at a time when what he needs most is totally CONSISTENT handling and riding. His behaviour isn't at all illogical - he's learned that he's expected to do certain things with you, and certain other things with other people. It may seem illogical to the humans around him, but from his point of view it's perfectly sensible.

Don't let any young horse's intelligence fool you - horses don't master skills in a single session, no matter how long that session may be.`Horses can often get the basic idea of something in one session, but that, although important, is only the beginning. When you set out to help a horse learn a skill, and the horse "gets it right", that doesn't mean that you should cross it off your list and move on to the next skill. The horse got it right ONCE, and that's where you BEGIN. The next five or six hundred sessions will all build on that first moment of understanding. The repetitions will let the horse's expectations and understanding become absolutely clear, and allow the horse's neuromuscular system to practice the response. The horse's strength, flexibility, and endurance will all contribute to his producing a consistent response to the rider's consistent, clear signal. At that point, the NEXT five or six hundred sessions build on THOSE achievements, so that the rider can use softer and lighter aids to get a quicker, more emphatic, more polished response from the horse. Without all of that, there's no training taking place - the horse may "get it right" once, by guess or by accident, and the rider may praise and reward him, but the horse really has no way of knowing what part of whatever he did was the "right" part.

If it helps, imagine yourself signing up for a class in something you don't know anything about - ballroom dancing, say, or one of the more intricate martial arts. Now imagine that the teacher says "move over here" or "step over there", whilst pushing or poking your arm or back or leg, and then says either "No, wrong", or "Yes, good, you've learned that, now let's go on to the next thing!" You probably wouldn't go back for a second lesson, since you would know perfectly well that you hadn't learned ANYTHING - what did you do wrong? and what did you do right? Was it wrong when you staggered sideways, or when you put your foot out to keep yourself from falling over? Was it right when you were twisting and stiffening your neck? You won't know, you won't even be able to guesss unless you watch some slow-motion videos or read a book or two or watch other people's beginner lessons with great attention. That might be enough to help you understand WHY what you did was "right" or "wrong", but at most, it would be intellectual understanding. To make any progress at all, you would still need slow, systematic, consistent instruction from someone who would be patient whilst your mind and body were both learning the new skill set. Your horse is not motivated to learn for the sake of learning, nor does he care about performance - and he hasn't watched any videos or read any books or watched any other horse's lessons with that kind of awareness or focused attention. He is getting intermittent, brief lessons, which is fine, but he is also getting a lot of random input from other riders and from the young children who "ride" him in THEIR lessons. From an educational point of view, he is taking one small step forward and several large steps back, then one small step forward, etc. It's not the way to train a horse.

Going forward from the rider's leg is just one example. "Forward" in response to leg pressure is not innate - horses have to learn that the leg means "forward", and then they have to do it often enough and promptly enough that responding "Yes, ma'am! Going forward, NOW!" to the rider's leg signal becomes a HABIT. This takes time and practice - lots and lots of both. Horses, like humans, learn through repetition and refinement - they need to lock the new skills into their "muscle memory". Horses, like humans, feel awkward and strange whilst they're learning something that involves holding their bodies in an unfamiliar way or moving in an unfamiliar way. That's why coaches - and horse-trainers - have to be able to perceive exactly what's going on with their human and equine students, so that they can say "Yes, you've got it, that's it, GOOD!" at the precise moment when the human or horse just happens to achieve the desired posture or perform the move correctly (or come anywhere near doing either). That's why people who TRAIN horses have to be even better and more consistent than the people who just ride the horses - and that's why horses in training need absolutely consistent input. And that's why horses in training, especially in the early years of their training, cannot be ridden randomly by people other than the trainer - and it's just ONE of the many reasons why young horses in training cannot be used as lesson horses for young children (or indeed for anyone).

The time constraints may be less of a problem than you imagine. Twenty minutes three times a week is plenty - he can learn and absorb a lot in that amount of time. In fact, he'll probably learn better than he would if you were able to work him every day, because he'll have time to process what he's learned in each session. I suspect that the problem is that - as I mentioned above - people are expecting him to absorb and assimilate each lesson thoroughly so that they can address something else in the next lesson, and that just won't work. Time, patience, short, easy lessons, consistency, and endless repetition, always with a release, is the way to teach him what you want him to learn. There is no way to avoid the "time" element.

The biggest problem that I see here is really YOUR problem, and it's your problem ONLY because you've been put in a completely ridiculous position. The underlying problem is really the horse's owner's problem. This horse has been brought up in a way that just about guarantees developmental, training, and behaviour problems, because it hasn't been brought up as a horse, and doesn't know how to be a horse. The discipline that you are trying to teach it now is something that it should have learned from other horses, long ago. The best way for this horse to learn how to be a horse and learn to understand horse discipline would be to spend a month or two in a field next to a large field full of other horses, then to be turned out WITH those other horses in the large field. Yes, he would undoubtedly get a nick or scratch or lump or two, but so what? It makes no sense to bring him up and then maintain him as a completely unsocialized horse, just to protect his coat or his skin. His lack of socialization will someday get him into much worse trouble than any scratch or nick or lump could do. At some point, he is likely to end up hurting a human, possibly quite badly, and at THAT point someone will probably punish him severely - which is not going to be an appropriate response! Depriving a horse of discipline during its early years is unfair to the horse, as it sets him up to cause damage and injury to others, and then to be PUNISHED (not disciplined) by angry humans.

The very idea that this horse should - as an unsocialized four-year-old! - be used in lessons for children, and that you should somehow be "preparing him" to become a show horse for children, is beyond silly. It's dangerous, it's irresponsible, and it puts you into a position of being expected to do the impossible. The owner knows the horse's background, knows the conditions in which the horse lives, and has SEEN the horse lie down or buck with with young children on his back, and yet persists in wanting to use this untrained four-year-old for kiddie lessons???? There may be a thought process involved here, but I can't begin to imagine what it could possibly be.

Since the owner is either incapable of thinking clearly, or is simply not thinking at all, YOU need to do some serious thinking - not about the horse, but about yourself and your future. I know that it's difficult to walk away from something that is presented to you as a challenge, especially when you're just getting started in your career. But you need to walk away - no, run away! - from this whole situation, because it's nothing but a series of accidents, injuries, possible fatalities (and, most definitely, lawsuits) just waiting to happen. Sooner or later, someone, probably a young child, is going to get badly hurt, and this horse will be involved. It won't be the horse's fault - it will be the owner's fault. However, it will very likely be seen as the fault of the TRAINER - ("trainer", in this case, meaning whatever person has been brought in to ride the horse in any capacity - and right now, that would be YOU). This is NOT a situation with which you need to have your name associated, and it's not a way to get started in the horse business. The world is, unfortunately, full of people who own farms, stables, and horses, and who, often out of pure ignorance, are eager to ask young, ambitious riders to do extremely silly and dangerous things.

I'd like to suggest that you get in touch with some of the trainers you know - the ones you respect most, and the ones for whom you interned. Tell them what you've told me, and ask them if they think you can afford to be involved with any farm where a four-year-old horse that has been brought up like a pet (untrained) dog and treated as a status symbol and publicity-generator, but never as a horse, is being used as a lesson horse for young children - in spite of the fact that the horse's owner KNOWS that the horse is unsafe and untrained. Then describe the horse's behaviour - and the fact that he is still kept isolated from other horses. Tell them that the owner wants you to get the horse ready to be a school horse and show horse for young children, and then hold the telephone away from your ear, because it's likely to get LOUD at the other end of the line...

I'm sure that this is not what you wanted to hear, but I think that for the sake of your own integrity and your professional future, you need to leave. There are just too many things that are altogether too wrong with this situation. Please find yourself another horse to work with, at a better establishment with a saner and less dangerous owner. This one is endangering the children who "ride" this horse, the other horses that are ridden in the same ring at the same time, and you - as well as your reputation and your future career. You have nothing to gain by staying, and a great deal to lose.


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