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Rehabilitating abused horse

From: Rebecca Jones

Dear Jessica,

Firstly, I really enjoy your page and look forward to seeing the latest entries every time I log on. Keep it up!

The reason I am writing is to ask for your advice about this horse I've been schooling English on for the past few months. His name is Harley and apparently the farm purchased him from an abusive owner. He arrived with girth sores and VERY bad, defensive habits. He has earned the reputation as "land shark" and has been condemned to wearing a basket. His biggest problems are when you groom around his shoulder and girth area (but he's getting a little better), tack up in general but he REALLY hates the process of tightening the girth (even loosely). Then, since he's in a bad mood, he tries to bite as you put his bridle on. When you are out in the arena he tries to bite if you stand along side him to slide down your irons, he circles around you as you do the secondary tightening of the girth, and he sometimes tries to pull you of the saddle with the reins. JEESH!

I have felt that besides all this he and I were developing a good raport because I don't use the basket during the tacking and untacking process, or while leading him around. People are constantly excliming how "good he's being" and "how cute he is". But he's almost seriously gotten me a couple of times.

Basically, is he fixable? He's been at the farm in the school environment for 1 year and he is still trying to bite. I've been trying calm talking and making a nasty noise as he thinks about bitting, that deters him for a millisecond then he tries again and again until I push his head away. I hope there's either A) some understanding trainer that wants to teach him better manners B) you have great advice that I can send to the farm for everyone to do with him.

Sincerely, Rebecca

Hi Rebecca! Thank you, I'm glad to know that you're enjoying horse-sense.

This is a tough question -- I can't tell you that he is definitely "fixable", and I can't help as much online as I could if I actually SAW Harley. But as long as you understand that, I can certainly make some general suggestions.

In my experience, many abused horses are, indeed, "fixable." If Harley is one of these horses, it may be possible to change his ways -- but be warned that it will take a great deal of time, a great deal of patience, and -- this may be the most difficult thing to arrange -- CONSISTENT handling by everyone at the farm.

Changing a horse's ways means changing the way he is handled, AND changing the way he reacts, AND changing his expectations, AND building up a set of new experiences based on those changes. This is much less difficult to achieve when the horse is dealt with/retrainged by ONE person, or perhaps by two people with very similar styles. It may NOT be possible to retrain this horse as long as he is in a school-horse situation, with many people handling him.

First, I would be certain to tell everyone to wear a helmet when handling Harley on the ground -- it's just a sensible safety precaution.

Second, I would suggest that Harley's training be started over, from the very beginning, and that he learn ground manners and how to be handled. This means that everyone will have to work with him as though he were a young horse that had NO previous experience. He will need to be approached with the same caution that you would use when approaching any new horse, and he will need to be handled in the same way by everyone.

If it's possible, I would recommend that Harley be handled by ONE or two people, no more -- and that this be done for several months at least. It's much easier to teach a horse something for the first time -- teaching him to do something DIFFERENTLY takes more time and effort, and the horse will have the best chance of learning if the teaching is one-on-one.

Abuse is sometimes a matter of consistent and BAD handling; more often, it's a matter of careless, thoughtless, INconsistent (and bad) handling. If one person allows Harley to walk around whilst he is being brushed, and another jerks the lead to tell him to stand, while still another punches him under the chin, Harley will merely become confirmed in his belief that humans are unpredictable, inconsistent, pain-causing entities, to be avoided whenever possible.

Even with just ONE person involved with the horse, it's not going to be instant or easy. Your difficulty will be in teaching Harley how to behave, which includes disciplining him for unacceptable behaviour (biting is definitely in this category) while letting him understand that HE is acceptable although the behaviour is NOT -- in other words, that discipline is merely DISCIPLINE and not PUNISHMENT. This is much, much more difficult than it sounds.

You seem to be well on your way to establishing a good relationship with Harley, and this means that he DOES distinguish one handler from another, one situation from another, and should therefore be able to learn to respond to other humans in the same way.

It's easy to guess that a horse that arrived abused and with girth sores has very good reasons for wanting his shoulders and girth area left alone, and for being unhappy about being saddled and having the girth tightened. I would approach this in several different ways:

1) Use T-Touch exercises -- go back to the OLD T-Touch books, the simple, inexpensive, straightforward ones that explain how to do simple, light, fingertip massage motions. What this will do for Harley is allow him to learn a new way of being touched and a new way of reacting to touches in those sensitive areas. It's a very useful tool when you're dealing with a horse that has the memory of pain and the anticipation of pain.

2) Be VERY careful that the saddle and pad and girth FIT Harley properly, and are properly adjusted so as to cause no discomfort. I would suggest a shaped leather girth -- and perhaps even a sheepskin girth cover to make it more comfortable. When the saddle is put on, the girth should first be fastened loosely, and Harley's front legs pulled forward one at a time before the girth is tightened. If there are any wrinkles in his skin just behind the elbows, those wrinkles can cause a good deal of pain when the girth is tightened. This gets rid of the wrinkles -- and horses soon learn to enjoy the leg-stretching.

It's no good trying to change a horse's behaviour if that behaviour is the result of a reaction to pain. If Harley, or any horse, has a back problem or a leg problem that makes riding painful, or has tack that makes riding painful, no amount of effort will convince him that he isn't in pain. The memory of pain is hard enough to deal with, but actual pain is impossible to ignore. So FIRST, be sure that there IS no physical pain anywhere!

3) This may be difficult (unless, as I suggested earlier, you can put him into a one-on-one situation for a few months): try to see that he is ridden only by secure, competent riders who won't react to Harley with temper explosions of their own. Every bit of the behaviour you've described is consistent with a horse that associates PAIN with being tacked up, being mounted, and being ridden. If you can be certain that nothing is hurting Harley, and if everyone who handles him and/or rides him is consistent, careful, and kind, uses a mounting block when getting on, and takes time to tighten the girth gradually instead of doing it all at once, this PLUS the other suggestions should have an effect eventually.

EVENTUALLY is the key word. It won't happen overnight even if all goes well. You can't make a horse forget bad treatment, and horses are reactive animals -- even if you manage to overlay the memories of bad treatment with hundreds and thousands of new, GOOD experiences, Harley will have flashbacks to his earlier situation whenever he is nervous or stressed, or whenever something (an angry rider? a dirty girth cover? a careless hand jerking the girth tight? a badly-adjusted saddle?) triggers the memory.

Now, in the SHORT term, to deal with the biting -- hitting a horse for biting, or for attempting to bite, isn't actually very effective. Arranging things so that the horse hits or hurts HIMSELF (or thinks he has hit or hurt himself) when he tries to bite, is VERY effective as he will teach himself a lesson. Two methods come to mind -- but be careful to whom you recommend them, and supervise whoever is using them.

The first method involves holding the snap of the lead rope in your left hand as you groom him with your right hand. Keep the leadrope hand just under his chin, whistle or hum a tune, and focus on your brushing. When he makes a move to bite, bring the leadrope hand up under his chin, suddenly, so that the snap collides sharply with his jaw FROM UNDERNEATH. Don't turn to look, and don't stop humming. If this happens a few times, he won't associate it with anything YOU have done, but will think that biting may be a less profitable behaviour than he had previously imagined. It doesn't get attention of any kind, and it HURTS. You can also do this by holding a dandy brush vertically in your leadrope hand, and bringing the end of the wooden brush-back up under the chin. UNDER THE CHIN is key -- it has to be invisible and it has to seem to have nothing to do with you. You are basically just putting something hard where he is certain to run into it when he thinks "Bite Now." The trick, with this AND with the next method, is that YOU aren't hitting HIM -- HE is running into something uncomfortable when he puts his head where it doesn't belong. THIS IS IMPORTANT. If HE runs into something, he can get away from it instantly; if YOU are hitting HIM instead of just putting something where he will hit it himself, he won't be able to get away instantly, and the desired effect will be lost. Just put the object where he will have a short, sharp encounter with it, and it's nothing at all to do with YOU. He'll teach himself the lesson he needs to learn.

The second method works in a similar way -- you take a thumbtack and a piece of tape, and put the thumbtack inside the back of your riding glove so that it pierces the glove and comes out just next to the proximal knuckle of your middle finger. The piece of tape goes inside the glove to keep the thumbtack securely in place -- this is NOT something you want to drop into the bedding of a stall or into the footing of an arena! Then you simply conduct your grooming and tacking-up business as usual, but remain ready to bring your closed fist up under his jaw (again, without looking at him or stopping your humming or whistling) if and when he makes a move to bite. Again, he won't know that YOU have done anything, but he will associate the attempt at biting with a sharp sting under the chin. Horses are NOT stupid, and these methods allow them to teach themselves that biting is not a profitable behaviour. ;-)

If he is the sort of horse that can accept treats without getting pushy, offer him something nice when you put his bridle on; if he isn't, put something pleasant-tasting on his bit, so that he will have something on his mind other than how much he detests being bridled. And do check that his bridle fits him, and that the other riders know how to bridle a horse properly -- I've seen several cases of horses refusing their bridles and becoming quite nasty, when the bit was entirely suitable and their teeth were fine, but the horses were anticipating pain from a too-short, too-tight BROWBAND rubbing against their ears! A longer browband was all it took to solve THEIR problem.

And remember that from the riding school's point of view, this horse may be a liability -- if a horse that is KNOWN to bite takes a piece out of someone, there can be very nasty legal implications. At the very least, Harley should have a warning sign on his stall. And he may never be suitable for this particular job -- I suspect that he could be retrained for an individual, but it's terribly difficult to make a horse's handling consistent when the horse is handled and ridden by so many different people. The owners of the school may decide that this horse simply can't be kept as a riding school horse -- and if they DO reach that conclusion, try not to take it too personally. It won't be a reflection on his worth or your training ability, it will just be a realistic business decision. The best type of horse for most riding schools is a benevolent, relaxed animal, one that is kind, forgiving, and able to put up with all manner of mistakes while riders are learning the basics. An abused horse is unlikely to fill the bill, although he might be an excellent rehabilitation project for an experienced individual.

Good luck with this project. Take your time, be careful, and let me know how it all comes out.


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