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Working with abused mare

From: Brooke

Hello Jessica!

I'd just like to comment on how much I have enjoyed your Horse Sense Mailing List, and on how much I have been able to apply it to my training. My heartfelt Thanks!

Now, to my problem. Since I have gained more and more of my barn manager's trust, I have been given free-roam of her stable, and can ride any of the horses. Well, I went and fell in love with this mare who my manager had bought from an abusive home.

Info on FA Aimee - She's about fifteen hands, 'white' grey with hardly noticeably flea- bits, seven year old Arabian mare. She was bred on an Arabian racing farm, as far as I know to be a breeding horse for racers. I don't know when she was broken to ride, but who ever did apparently didn't take enough time. She is horribly frightened of whips and spurs, ropes, head-shy, hoof-shy, touchy about her underside and hindquarters, and freaks out whenever someone raises their voice.

She was purchased unridden on account of her bloodlines, but her previous owner worked her in the round pen for my manager. I didn't see it, since she came to the stable before I got there, but it was described as tyrany on the handler's part, and terror on Aimee's. This was about three and a half years ago. A rider at the barn worked with Aimee for a while after she got there, rode her twice as far as I've heard, but soon quit with her. Aimee was put to pasture and bred once. Her daughter is now a two year old, Magic Genii. Aimee's racing lines are supposed to be impeccable and they want me to show her and get her calm enough to rebreed to a racer - her baby is 'wild' just like her. Aimee had not been ridden in about three years when I started working with her, so I went about it like I was starting her for the first time.

Well, that's all her background I could find out. Now, what I have been doing with her is a lot of ground work, bonding time, round pen, and longeing. She's made unbelieveably progress - lets me put on her halter, accepts being tied (tho' she still spooks and pulls back time to time), will let me pick her from feet, lets me handle and quickly pick her back feet (I was told that she was 'thrown' by her previous owners to be trimmed), fly sprays, and has accepted the bit. I recently got on her in the round pen.

I was bareback, since the cinch we have that fits her rubs her raw. She jumped about ten feet to the right, reared once really high, then bucked a little, but calmed down after about fifteen seconds of these antics. We walked around and worked on stopping and responding to the bit. She really prefers voice and weight shifting, as she's very sensitive to leg pressure and her mouth is extremely tender.

Now I admit I let my guard down as I dismounted ten minutes later. As I slipped off, she leaped away from me by rearing high and flipping to the right then kicking at me and trying to canter off. I held onto the reins as habit, and was dragged about halfway across the round pen, but luckily her kick missed me. She then acted horrified of me, like it was when we first started working. Her eyes rolled back and when I went to put my had high on her neck - A motion she normally finds soothing and makes her put her head down - She bared her teeth and rolled her eyes as me, threw her head up and sidepassed away from me again. For about five minutes, she acted like she thought I was going to kill her, but after a while, settled and let me run my hands over her neck and head.

Everytime I dismount now, she rears and jumps away and becomes horribly head shy again. As to mounting, she's gotten much better as I spend lots of time leaning over her and putting my weight on without actually getting on, then give her treats. She's learned that won't hurt her, but I don't know what to do about the dismounting part. I can't spend a lot of time getting her used to it since the second she feels me getting off she freaks. I have to be careful where I get off or she'll plow right through fences and hit walls or people, if I don't warn them and have them move.

I'm sorry this is so long :( but I hope you can throw some ideas my way :) Thanks in Advance!!!


Hi Brooke! Thanks for the kind words; I'm glad you're enjoying horse-sense.

When I read your letter, I was reminded of a time when I injured my knee quite badly dismounting from a mare in a similar situation. The problem, I figured out later, was that she had never been ridden bareeback! And although she was perfectly at ease while I was riding, the feeling of someone slithering down her side at the end of the ride was just too much for her. She reared. . . . etc.

First, I would suggest that you begin using some of the TTouch on this mare. In addition, here are some suggestions.

All horses are very sensitive and very aware of potential dangers in their surroundings -- abused horses are ten times as sensitive and aware, because to them, these are not POTENTIAL dangers, they are ACTUAL dangers. Move very slowly around this mare -- take extra time with every movement, whether you are bridling her or brushing her.

Loud noises and harsh sounds are terrifying -- so is anger. Be sure that you speak very softly around her, and keep breathing deeply. If you hyperventilate and your voice becomes tense, the mare will probably panic.

If you fall off, do NOT hold on to the reins, for two reasons. ONE: this mare has obviously been punished with the bit, and a sudden painful yank on her mouth will convince her that you too are using the bit to hurt her. It won't be deliberate -- but there is NO way to explain that to your mare. Just let her go. Ride her in an enclosed space so that you won't have to worry about WHERE she goes. And reason number TWO to let go: horses have a well-defined, easily-provoked flight- or-fight response to fear and pain. A horse's first instinct will always be to escape, to get away. If you force the mare to remain in one place while she is being frightened or hurt (again, although it isn't deliberate, she won't understand that!), you will very likely invoke the "fight" part of that response. "Fight" happens when a frightened/hurt horse is cornered and cannot escape -- and you don't want to provoke this response!!!

I would change EVERYTHING about the equipment used on this mare. She needs to learn to trust you, and she is obviously terrified of her bridle, for good reason. I suggest that you put her in a jumping hackamore, or remove the bit and cavesson on her bridle and replace them with a jumping hackamore noseeband. This is NOT a mechanical hackamore -- it's a circle: a piece of heavy rope covered with soft leather, fastening under the jaw (not too low!) with a leather strap. There are two rings on it, for your reins. It goes where the cavesson would go, and you may find that your mare is much happier when her mouth is no longer threatened. And since it's something that has probably not been used on her, it won't have any horrible associations for her.

Don't even think about showing her -- focus on calm time at home. It takes much, much longer to reclaim an abused horse than it does to train a green one, so be patient. Everything you are doing on the ground sounds good -- just make an extra effort to be quiet and calm while you do it, and whenever she gets especially nervous, BACK OFF and let her have time to relax and think. It won't be a waste of time -- she can't learn when she's tense, and it will give YOU a chance to relax as well.

Deal with her as though she were a wild filly right off the range -- only MORE slowly, MORE gently, and with even MORE care.

You're on the right track.


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