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Changed horse?

From: Jonna

Jessica, Not sure how to ask this so I quess I will give a little back ground. We bought an Arab gelding 4 years ago. When we purchased Shilo he had just been gelded (he was 4 1/2 years old at the time, but they assured us that he had never been used as a stud). I had not owned a horse in almost 16 years and so was very excited and trusting of the stable that we purchased him from. The stable had him for 2 1/2 months before we realized that things were not what they seemed and due to an injury to Shilo's hoof decided to move him closer to our place.

When we purchased Shilo and while he was at this Stable he was almost unmanageable. He was known for biting, kicking and dragging the handlers around. He was stabled 22 hours a day, grained and feed alfalfa hay. I was scared to death of him. The first time I tried to turn him out into the arena he drug me to the gate. There were only 2 people at the stable that would even handle him and they always used a stud chain and carried a whip. I saw them use both numerous times and it just seemed to make him worse.

We moved him to a friends place after a few months of being there he stopped biting. He was not stalled all day, he did have more room to move around but it was still pretty small. I still was not riding him. As soon as someone would sit down in the saddle his energy level shoot up and it felt like you were sitting on a rocket ready to explode. We had lots of people tell us we should just sell him and get another horse, that he was to much horse for me. Not to long after we moved him to our friends place he cracked a coffin bone in his back hoof. The vet recommended laying off anything for at least a year. Well we waited a year and 1/2, just to make sure and also because I was still afraid to ride him.

During this layoff he really changed. We have moved him to our place, he now has 5 acres to roam around on. He never offers to bite or kick. And I have started to ride him. I've been taking lessons and he is really calm and quiet now when we ride at least in the arena. Most of the friends that said we should get rid of him cannot believe that this is the same horse.

A year ago we did send him to a trainer who we have used with some of our other horses. This gentleman was the one who actually started Shilo as a 3 year old. At that time he told us that if the horse were a child he would have attention deficient syndrome. He had taken him on a 25 mile trail ride and he said that Shilo was a basketcase the whole time. Shilo ran almost the whole 25 miles and was totally afraid of cattle and spooky. Once we got him back I started taking lessons on Shilo with a trainer in our town. She suspects that Shilo has been abused and that could be part of his problem.

I dream some day of taking this horse out on the trail, but am afraid that he might go nuts and get us both in trouble. Since we have started riding this year, he has been absolutely wonderful. We have moved from the arena to the big pasture with no problems at all. He no longer feels like he is going to explode when you get in the saddle, in fact sometimes you have to really push him to get him going. He does (almost) everything I ask of him. He is a joy to ride now.

I have had some people tell me that if he acted like he did with the trainer he will never be a trail horse and that he is to old to change. So I guess my question is: Can this horse ever be a trail horse? And what would be the next step in getting Shilo and myself ready to go out on the trail. I am not giving up on this horse. Even if we never get out on the trail and have to just ride in the arena or pasture he will always have a home. We have been through to much together and he has come so far already.

I would appreciate your view on this and thank you for offering this service to all of us horsey folk.

Hi Jonna!

From everything you've described, it sounds as though you have a lovely horse that is finally being allowed to settle down and BE a horse, in a more natural and friendly environment than he has ever had before.

You say he wasn't gelded until he was over 4 -- it's a safe bet that he was confined most of his life until then. You KNOW that he was confined to a stall and over-fed afterward, when you had him at that first barn. The combination of confinement and over-feeding is just about guaranteed to create a "monster" out of even the most placid old nag, and absolutely guaranteed to create major behaviour problems in a young, energetic animal (especially one that has just been gelded).

Let me see if I can recapitulate what you've said about Shilo:

1) he was wild when he was confined and overfed 2) his behaviour improved dramatically as soon as he had a little more room 3) his behaviour and attitude improved immensely when he came home with you and had the freedom to play in a 5-acre field

All of this sounds like a nice, normal, good-citizen horse. ;-)

What else have you said about Shilo?

1) you were told bad things about him by a "trainer" who tried to take him on a 25-mile ride, apparently with no preparation. I wouldn't count this against the horse, especially if, as I suspect (your timeline isn't quite clear) this happened at a time when Shilo was not accustomed to living outdoors. To a horse that has always been confined to a stall, EVERYTHING on a trail is cause for alarm: rocks, mud, small animals, trees, rustling leaves, even bars of sunlight. ;-)

2)"Since we have started riding this year, he has been absolutely wonderful. We have moved from the arena to the big pasture with no problems at all. He no longer feels like he is going to explode when you get in the saddle, in fact sometimes you have to really push him to get him going. He does (almost) everything I ask of him. He is a joy to ride now."

Jonna, I think you've really answered your own question. The Shilo you've just described, the one that's "a joy to ride now", is the real Shilo -- he's just had a hard life in his early years, and is now, because of your good care, becoming the horse that he was always meant to be.

That doesn't mean that he's never going to put a foot wrong. He's a horse, after all, and he's going to react suddenly to things that frighten him or hurt him. That's horse nature. Any horse can stumble, any horse can shy, any horse can become worried or fearful, and any horse can react badly to an ill-fitting saddle or painful bit. But that's NORMAL behaviour that you should expect from any horse at any time. Horses don't "go nuts" out of the blue, for no reason; they're REACTIVE animals, and there's always going to be a reason for the behaviour you see. A horse that's been asked to do too much, too soon, may seem to "go nuts",, but only to an outsider who doesn't know horses. Anyone who knows horses can see the warning signs and the steady buildup of pain, confusion, frustration, and sensory overload that can eventually cause a horse to "blow". If you work with the horse instead of against it, and bring it along slowly, you will never provoke this kind of reaction. You may get to sit out an occasional shy, when the horse flushes a pheasant or when a dog comes charging through a cornfield, but this isn't a blowup, it's a brief, temporary, instinctive fear reaction that is entirely normal to horses. A fearful, painful horse may be pushed over the edge by such an incident, but a secure, comfortable one will startle momentarily and then relax again ("Yikes! What's that? Oh.... just a dog.... okay...").

Shilo can learn to be the same horse OFF the property that he is ON the property. If he's gone from the arena to the big field, and he's fine, why not take him on some short rides off the property? "Trail rides" don't have to mean hauling to a trailhead and riding all day. Start small, and build up gradually. The key to his security, and yours, is keeping everything as normal and ordinary as possible. Don't take Shilo far from home, put a different saddle and different rider on him and send him down a trail -- that would be asking for trouble with ANY horse. Instead, let him have his usual tack, his usual rider (you), and take him for short rides off the property. Enlist the help of a friend with a calm horse known to be good on trails, and start with short rides close to home. If you live on a quiet country road with wide verges, walk a mile down the road and then go home. Have fun, take it easy, make it fun, enjoy the scenery and the horses, and make it a pleasant experience for Shilo. You'll be able to build up to longer and longer rides, and by the time you take him somewhere for a more challenging trail ride, you'll have a lot of miles under your belt and you'll be more relaxed about the situation too. At that point, you and Shilo will both be ready.

In the meantime, even if you're never out of sight of your own home, take all of the usual trail-ride precautions: comfortable tack for Shilo, comfortable clothing for you, a note to let other people know where you've gone, when you left and when you expect to be back, and WEAR YOUR ASTM/SEI HELMET! These are lifetime safety habits, and it's never too soon to acquire them. ;-)

Other preparations you can make: physical fitness is always useful. It makes you feel more secure, and it makes you better able to cope with any sudden stops or changes of direction -- and it makes ordinary riding more enjoyable too. ;-) Mental/emotional fitness is also good, and you work on that in the same way: a little at a time, building slowly. Have a lot of good, short rides before you go for longer rides, then have some good longer rides, but never be afraid to drop back a notch, go more slowly, go less far. What you want to prove to Shilo and to yourself is that you can have fun together on the trails, and the only way to prove it is to set up both your horse and yourself for success. Have fun, take it easy, take your time, be a little bored if you must, as long as you're secure and safe. If you go too far, too fast, you'll both be nervous, and that's NOT fun. Keep it quiet and pleasant, and remember that this is a young horse, and with any luck, you'll be riding him on trails for another twenty years, so you can take things slowly now.

You've brought your horse a long way. You aren't changing his nature, you're letting him be himself, free from pain, fear, and the excess energy created by confinement and too much feed. As for his attention span, I wouldn't take that comment too seriously if I were you, especially since your own experience contradicts that of this "trainer". One thing I've learned over the years is that a horse's attention span is exactly, precisely the same length as that of the rider/trainer. ;-)


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