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Behaviour change in new location

From: Deborah

Hi Jessica,

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer people's questions. I really like your approach -- leadership rather than boss, and always considerate of the horse. I have a question that I may have to answer before you are able to post on it, but I feel that it's worth asking all the same.

Last March (10 months ago) I got the opportunity to lease a 16 y.o. Morgan mare in exchange for barn work. As a lifetime horse-lover, but one without the means to get my own, this was a perfect situation for me. It worked out well for her owner as well -- a non-horsewoman mother who didn't want to sell the horse but whose daughters have left the nest and are no longer able to care for this horse. We have worked out a scenario where I help with the bills where I can and she will pass the horse's papers to me when I am financially able to take on the full cost.

I started working with this horse knowing that she presents certain challenges. Her first six years, post-weaning, were spent in a one-horse backyard situation with a woman who didn't know a whole lot about horses and treated her like her only child... a lap dog. There has been wondering about abuse from that woman's husband, but nothing definite. Her current owner, who didn't know much more about horses at the time, bought her at age 6 and has owned her since. It is obvious to me that this horse was never taught "manners" -- she can be nippy and pushy. She has never liked men. She has been known to lash out aggressively, primarily with her teeth and only at men (there are at least 3 confirmed cases of abuse during the time her current owner has had her -- all by men).

Over the course of the 10 months I have known her, I have been able to make headway in the manners department with consistent handling (though I confess I am not perfect, I do try). She leads much better now, and even the nipping had been pretty much reduced to a nip at the air when I hit a ticklish spot during grooming. She NEVER displayed the type of behaviour I'd been warned about, even around my husband -- who, in addition to being of the gender she tends to be suspicious of, had never really been close to a horse until her. We've been riding on the trails and she is almost always very brave and willing. I felt good about the progress we were making and her owner and her daughters all commented on the change in her.

Two months ago, I moved Juby to a new barn. The old barn was a backyard setup with about 3/4 acre of turnout and large box stalls. She was out 7 -8 hours per day with one or two other horses and in her stall at night. According to her owner, she was happier there than she has been anywhere. The problem with the place for me was that the workload was large -- the property owners (NOT horsepeople) only did morning feeding and turnout and the other chores were rotated between another boarder and myself. There was never any way for me to take a break and if everyone planned a vacation at the same time it always ended up being me that made the sacrifice to make sure the horses were cared for. It started to affect my marriage. Then I arrived randomly a few mornings to find that that the horses had not been fed or turned out. Being unsure that Juby was being cared for when I wasn't there and being unable to take on still more work meant that I had to move her.

The new barn has more horses, and is set up so that each horse has a stall/run -- the barn is like a "strip mall" so that all the stalls/runs are in a row. Though the runs mean that they can be out 24/7 turnout is limited in the winter (the property owner closes the pastures) though every other day groups of horses will get out for a few hours in the sand ring to kick up their heels. During the summer there are glorious pastures to graze.

Though she was fine for the first week or so, after that time Juby has been a changed horse. She has become increasingly defensive of her space and aggressive about food. The worst of it was when she lunged at and bit the sleeve of the property owner's husband, a farrier and no stranger to horses. She also became very cranky around my husband who never had an issue with her before... to the point I began to hesitate to let him interact with her for fear he might be bitten. With me she was extra cranky as well. I began to note a pattern that when she was acting out at other horses through the stall bars or over the electric fence, but couldn't get at them, she would redirect to the nearest other creature -- usually me. She had never displayed such aggressive behaviour at the old barn -- toward humans OR other horses.

I confess to misunderstanding about the turnout situation -- I thought Juby would also get time in the sand ring, but the property owner hesitates to turn her out with new horses with no grass to distract lest someone get hurt. This I understand. I was able to arrange to get Juby turnout time in the round pen that shares a fence with the sand ring so she would at least get a change of scenery and the chance to sniff noses with other horses besides her neighbors. For a couple weeks after starting that routine things seemed calmer, but today she "redirected" again and actually connected with my flesh.

This obviously can't continue. I am looking for a trainer (who, like you, believes in getting to the bottom of the problem, not bullying the horse into submission), but in the meantime am at a loss. The real sticking point is that she was NOT like this in her former environment. She was not perfect before, but she was not aggressive either. We have tried switching neighbors, adding in the time out of the stall/run -- just about everything that could be changed in the current environment... and still I am back at square one with a horse that is unpredictable and who I am beginning to feel is a liability.

I do not want to give up on Juby. I strongly feel that there is a good horse in there -- I saw her starting to come out at the old barn. Unfortunately, I cannot move her back there for all the reasons I moved her in the first place. A stall has opened at a barn where she was prior to my knowing her, and where she seemed reasonable comfortable (though admittedly not as much as at the place she was when I met her). I can see things that *I* would not like at this new boarding option, but if she would be happier there, that is the bottom line. It is another situation with daytime turnout (6 -7 hours) and nightime in a box stall. Given the fact that i have to do something before she hurts anyone else, I have spoken with her owner about moving her yet again. This is frustrating because she has been bounced around quite a bit in 10 years, and I was hoping to find a home where she could live out her days... but where she is at doesn't seem to be it. She will most likely be moved by the time you are able to respond.

Still, I would like to hear your input about the situation I find myself in. The biting may disappear in a different environment, but I am curious about this "redirecting" of angst and how common it is. The property owner at her current barn is very into Natural Horsemanship and told me I should work with her trainer, run her around the round pen, and "show her who's boss" -- but if she's in distress about her environment, I can't see how that would do any good.

Just as additional info, there have been no dietary changes since the move -- she gets hay and a small handful(!) of grain to get a vet-prescribed supplement into her.

Thanks for any insights you can provide.


Hi Deborah! The insights I'm going to provide are probably not going to do much more than confirm what you already know. Reading between the lines of your letter, it's fairly clear to me that you already have a pretty clear idea of what's going on with the mare, and of what you need to do about it. Obviously, Juby has had a strange and confusing life so far. Equally obviously, you've helped her change her attitude and her behaviour, you've made some good decisions and choices on her behalf, and her reactions confirm your good decisions. This last change - the move to the current barn - seems NOT to have been a good change or a good choice, although I can certainly understand why you made it. I applaud you for making someone else's lonely horse your project, and it sounds as if you've done well with her and by her, but your physical safety, your husband's safety, and your marriage have to be your priorities. It sounds as though your husband is a kind and supportive man - all the more reason to have your priorities clear. ;-)

Juby is obviously unhappy, things are NOT right with her, and something needs to change. Her previous barn may well have been a nightmare for the human boarders, but your mare was clearly happy and relaxed there. All-day turnout with a few horses that she knew, and nights in a large box stall, still within eysight and earshot of her equine companions, probably suited her very well. The fact that it was NOT a busy barn with lots of horses may have made her life easier. Right now, from the sound of things I'd say that Juby is unhappy and frustrated. She's been taken away from the life she enjoyed, separated from the horses she knew, and she's now alone and confined. Without a "herd" for security, her stall has become her source of safety, and it's not very safe - people come and go, and handle her food... which she may very well see as a challenge. She's anxious, she's experiencing a lot of stress, and she's reacting by redirecting her energy in ways that humans find inappropriate. It's possible that there may be something about the situation or the people that reminds her of certain unpleasant aspects of her previous life, but that's not something you can be certain about or indeed do anything about. And from what you've described, there are several factors that are very likely to be contributing to her problem behaviour.

The setup that you've described is convenient for the humans who do the horsekeeping, as the horses can go out and stand in the runs whilst their stalls are being cleaned, and for the horses, it's certainly preferable to living in a stall WITHOUT an attached run. But all a run like that can provide is some fresh air and sunlight. These are very good things, and horses need them, but horses also need FREEDOM TO MOVE and the ability to interact with other horses. A run is a nice thing, but it's not a paddock or a field, and it doesn't provide exercise. Horses in stalls need to be taken out for daily exercise; horses in stalls with attached runs need to be taken out for just as much daily exercise. A few hours in a sand ring every other day isn't the answer - and, as you point out, she hasn't even got THAT.

Companionship is good, but changing neighbours and putting her in the round pen so that she can have the chance to "meet" new horses isn't providing companionship, just challenges and confusion. Those aren't things that she wants or needs - she needs to get to know a few horses that will be a regular part of her environment. Put yourself in her place for a moment. "Meeting new horses" is fine when a new horse is brought to your familiar farm and put in the field next to the field that you share with your buddies - but "meeting new horses" isn't so fine when YOU're the new horse, you're in a new place, and you don't know who's who yet. It's rather like being a child changing schools halfway through the year - those first weeks at the new school can be horribly stressful.

Exercise is essential to equine physical and mental comfort. For maximum physical comfort, a horse of Juby's age needs to keep moving, gently, all the time when she's awake. Horses that have to stand in one place all day become very stiff and uncomfortable, and - as you probably know all too well, if you've ever had the sort of job that kept you in an office chair for many hours at a time - being stiff and uncomfortable doesn't tend to put anyone into a very good mood.

Turnout - lots of it - and getting to know a few (preferably quiet) horses that will be around for a long time would be very good for Juby. The conditions at her previous barn obviously agreed with her, and if the move you're contemplating will give her the chance to lead a life more like the one she led at that barn, I think you should go ahead and move her.

I have to mention the possibility that some of Juby's behaviour might reflect a change in her feed. I know you said that there's been no change, but for various reasons, I wouldn't be so sure that there have been no dietary changes since the move. It's entirely possible that at both barns you asked for, and Juby was given, "just hay" (or hay and a handful of hard feed), but unless you've seen the analyses of the hay that's fed at both barns, and unless you are absolutely certain that it's nutritionally identical AND fed in the same amounts, there could still be a significant difference between her previous and her current diet. The difference between a 60/40 and a 70/30 grass/alfalfa mix, for example, may not seem like much, and if the hays are otherwise similar, changing from one to the other might not create any obvious changes in the horse. But there are other factors in play.

Consider hay quality. If one barn is feeding first-cut or fourth-cut alfalfa, and the other is feeding second-cut or third-cut alfalfa, or if one barn feeds hay that was cut just before it bloomed, and the other barn feeds hay that was cut two weeks past blooming, or hay that had been rained on and then left in the field for another week to dry out... or if one barn simply takes more care with its hayfields and has better hay... the difference in the nutrients can be quite significant.

Also consider hay quantity. At many barns, feeders don't actually weigh the hay - and they'll often automatically give each horse a "flake" or two at feeding time. If a horse's feed card reads "two flakes", the horse will get two sections of hay whether the flakes are large and light, large and heavy, small and heavy, or small and light. Flake size is partly a function of hay type - a 3" flake of grass hay will be much lighter than a 3" flake of good alfalfa - but it's primarily a function of the way the baler was set when the hay was being baled. Two balers can produce very different flake sizes even if the hay itself is identical - even if the balers were both running in the same huge hayfield on the same day! In terms of an individual horse's diet, if two barns are feeding the same hay from the same field, but the flakes at the first barn weigh 4 pounds and the flakes at the second barn weigh 5 pounds, four flakes a day would be sixteen pounds of hay at the first barn and twenty pounds at the second one, which IS a significant difference. People who feed horses aren't always feeding the same amounts in any case! Unless the barn owner has taken the time to TEACH everyone who feeds - husbands included - how to weigh hay or estimate hay weight, there can be a lot of variation. I've seen feeders double a horse's feed because "those flakes just look small to me, so I gave him 4 instead of 2", and I've seen feeders cut a horse's feed in half because "those flakes are so big, I know it says two on the card, but he doesn't need two of those!" Sometimes the feeder is absolutely right - the flakes are unusually small or large - and sometimes he or she is wrong, which is why it's important to know what the hay weighs. Grain is similar - you'd think that feeding grain would be foolproof and that the feeding of grain would be absolutely consistent at any given barn, as the process involves a physical scoop made from plastic or metal. Not so. Some feeders feed level scoops of grain or pellets whilst others feed heaping scoops... and the differences can add up! I should point out that even extreme variations are very rarely due to any ill will on the part of the feeder - the cause is usually a combination of ignorance and personal habit. (This doesn't just apply to feeding horses - take any three coffee-drinkers at random, measure the actual amount of liquid in each one's morning "cup of coffee", and you may find that one person's "cup" is six ounces, another's is twelve, and another's is twenty or twenty-four - because "cup" doesn't mean "eight measured ounces", it means "the amount of coffee that I habitually pour into my favourite cup or mug". These are just some things to think about! They may not help you right now, but they may help you someday, someday down the road, perhaps even with another horse at another barn, when you find yourself wondering how your horse can possibly be getting fat (or thin) when her feed card reads exactly the same as it did at her previous barn, and the feeders swear - quite truthfully - that she's getting two flakes and one scoop (for example) at every meal.

Horses that are being overfed don't necessarily become fat. An unhappy, stressed, overfed horse may simply begin stall-walking or weaving, or find some other way to use its excess energy.

And speaking of ways to use energy... She does need exercise and education, but running her around the round pen and "showing her who's boss" is unlikely to be very productive, so I'm glad you refused that "opportunity". There are some very good things about "natural horsemanship", but the idea of chasing and chivvying a horse until it submits from sheer exhaustion is NOT a good thing. But please remember that it's also something that you won't see if you have a chance to watch the BEST (as opposed to the most commercial) "natural horsemanship" trainers - you'll never see Harry Whitney or Mark Rashid harassing a horse like that. Don't write off "natural horsemanship" because of this person's misunderstanding and aggressive attitude - just look for better examples to follow.

This mare actually sounds surprisingly sane when you consider her history. Being weaned and then spending six years living alone in someone's back yard is no life for a horse, and it's no surprise that she's socially stunted. If she were physically stunted and uncoordinated, THAT wouldn't be surprising either. You didn't say what the mare's current owner had done with her, or how she had kept her, for the last ten years before you began taking care of her, but you're certainly right about the mare presenting certain challenges! It does sound as if there's a good horse in there, though. She has responded well to you and your husband and the way you ride and handle her - that's all good. I'd advise you to go ahead and take her to the barn where the physical and social environment will resemble those of her previous barn (but with better management, I hope). The current situation just isn't for her.

I'm glad to know that your "bottom line" is finding a place that's most comfortable for your mare, because you're right - that's what matters most, and that's what's going to have the biggest effect on her, and on the relationship that the two of you are developing. I hope you'll let me know how it works out for you both. Good luck!


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