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teaching respect or fear?

From: Kathi

Hello Jessica, Thank you very much for the time you spend with all of us. I look forward to your email every week.

My question is about teaching a 6 month old colt. I wonder if I he is learning respect or fear? I have a wonderful 6 month old paint.(MAX)I can catch him any time I want to and he is always so happy to see me.(he isnt always perfect, but very good) We go for walks around the yard and explore new things. Sometimes things scare him but we take our time and let him explore it when he is ready we move on.Sometimes he pulls back a little at a strange sound but Im sure most colts do. One time a few months ago my farrier came for his regular visit. He is a great guy and seems to have a lot of knowledge and respect in the area. He came into the pen before I had Max caught and haltered. I was so suprised that I couldn't catch Max. He wouldn't even let me get close. It started getting a little frustrating although I remained cool. My farrier then said that Max was being defiant and needed to be caught on my terms. Well I had never had any major problems catching him until this day. My farrier ended up lassoing him. Well, he did get caught and eventually calmed down but he was afraid of the lead rope for two weeks. Everytime I would walk up to him with the lead he would jump and sometimes run off. I thought to myself "what did he learn"? My farrier came back yesterday and wow did we have fun.(not really) I had Max caught and ready to go. He is very used to having his hooves touched, picked up and doesn't seem to mind the farrier tools. My farrier walked up to Max and all of a sudden Max reared up, pulled back and got away from me. I caught him and got him calmed down. As soon as the farrier walked up to max he went up on his hind legs and pulled back again. He didn't get away but sure tried. He kept doing it every time the ferrier would move torwards him. My farrier took the lead. Every time Max would pull, my farrier would pull him back to him. THe same would occur when Max would rear up. Max had on a halter with a chain going under the chin. I noticed that Max was bleeding (slightly) from the chain rubbing. We put a different halter on but he continued to rear away. My ferrier got kicked a few times. Im sure they will both hurt for a few days. THIS IS MY DELIMA: I was always taught that horses need to do what you want them to when you ask them. I agree with this but tend to take a gentle, positive approach with horses. One time Max bit me and I used the three second rule and gave him a good smack to the ribs. He has never bitten again. So in this whole thing what did Max actually learn? Today Max would let me go up to him but would jump at anything. (like the hose) My thought is that Max remembers the tight rope around is neck and remembered the ferrier doing it to him. My ferrier said"well now he has learned that he can't push people around and act crazy". Well Im not sure that Max really did learn that. I wonder if he has taught him fear. Or am I to soft because I hate seeing my baby go through that? I am sure anxious to hear what your opinion is. My farrier says that I need to get him gelded. What does that have to do with their relationship and they way Max acted around him? He is no problem with me or the gelding that is with him. I am so confused about this whole deal. Did we win the war but lose the battle? I like this ferrier, he is also the only one that I can find that comes to my farm on a regular basis. Do I need to just let them two work it out or find someone else to work with Max? I'm afraid that this is going to happen every time. PLEASE HELP Thanks Kathi


Hi Kathi! I'll take the last question first -- what you did, or rather what your farrier did, was win the battle and lose the war. You can always force a horse into submission ONCE just by overpowering it, whether you want it to be caught, stand for the farrier, get into a trailer, or just about anything else. But it's not training, at least not in any sensible systematic way, because what it teaches the horse is that this is something he should avoid at all costs. The object of any ONE lesson should be to build on the previous lesson and build for the next lesson. Putting a horse in a trailer, for instance, might take an hour the first time, but it's worth spending the time to teach the horse that there is no pain, no threat, and no need for fear -- and the next time you want him to load, he will load in less time... and so on, until he just loads quickly and calmly. Similarly, getting a horse accustomed to the sound and feel of clippers takes time and patience, but if you take time in the beginning, it will take less time and be easier later on. Time and patience are requirements if you're going to work with horses, because you're not just forcing a behaviour for that moment, you are teaching him for the future. Every time you work with your horse on ANYTHING, it should make the next time easier and faster. You're teaching your horse for the future, not just trying to prove to him that you're tougher and meaner and can force him to do something RIGHT NOW.

Max learned that he doesn't like to be roped. Max learned that he doesn't like the farrier, and that the farrier hurts him. These are not useful lessons! What he NEEDED to learn was that he must allow himself to be caught when you want to catch him, and that he must stand reasonably still and allow his feet to be trimmed. These are not difficult or complicated lessons.

You may have to find a different farrier -- not because your farrier is a bad farrier, but because he was, on two separate occasions, a bad TRAINER. He has set up a violent, angry, adversarial situation with this young horse, and even if he is willing to be careful and patient from now on, it may be too late.

I know from personal experience that a young colt that has once been frightened, confined, and hurt, especially if there is a rope and a chain involved, can simply decide never to go near that particular person again. It's the risk you take when you opt for violent, forceful methods of dealing with horses. It's a bad risk, especially with a young horse. A ten-year-old gelding that has a cranky day and doesn't want to stand for the farrier won't be injured, physically or mentally, if he gets a whack on the shoulder and is told "STAND!". He has ten years of experience with farriers and handling, and he knows what is expected of him. He also knows, from experience, that ONE yell and ONE whack mean "You're out of line, now stand still" and that it's discipline, not abuser -- he won't think that he is in a battle for his own survival.

At six months and with limited experience, Max doesn't have that backlog of past experience that would tell him "just stand still, and this guy will finish with you and put you away." He thinks that he's fighting for his life, and that this person is an enemy -- someone who hurts him and won't let him run away. Horses react to fear and pain by running away -- flight. Only if running away is impossible do they opt for fighting back. So holding a horse in one place and frightening him or hurting him is, in effect, ASKING for a fight. Many "trainers" (and some farriers) will do this deliberately, with the idea that they will force the horse into doing what they want and leave it "broken" and cooperative. In practice, this doesn't work well unless you are willing to take it to the limit and really BREAK the horse -- crushing his spirit and his mind. Then you may well have a completely quiet, inert, resigned horse.

If you are in a situation that demands that an untrained or partially-trained horse stay still -- an emergency medical procedure, for instance -- a calm handler with a twitch will get results much more quickly than an angry handler with a rope or a chain.

Now, having said all that, I want to say something on behalf of your farrier, and on behalf of other farriers in similar situations. Farriers don't like to deal with difficult horses or horses that bounce around -- horses that do these things are likely to injure the farrier, and farriers that get injured can't make a living. A young colt IS a baby -- but even a very young horse can cause quite a bad injury. You pay your farrier to trim your horse's feet, not to train him for you -- the training is YOUR job. And if you put the farrier in a position where he has to do some "training" to ensure his OWN safety, it's not going to be kind, slow, systematic, or progressive. Your farrier wants to come in, set up, do his job, and leave, and he doesn't want or need to have to catch the horse or subdue the horse to get the job done. And most of all, he doesn't want to put himself at unnecessary risk! There are plenty of physical risks in his job -- even if no horse ever kicks him, bites him, steps on him, or jerks him around, he is very likely to end up with back trouble after a number of years in the business. Farriers have their own safety and professional survival to think about, and that is going to come FIRST -- and that's perfectly understandable.

Furthermore, farriers can have bad days, just as you and I can, and just as our horses do. If your bouncy baby horse happens to kick out at a farrier who is tired and sore and has already been nailed by another horse, the farrier's reaction -- again, understandably -- may not be pleasant or patient.

If you need to keep this particular farrier, then YOU, not the farrier, will have to work things out with Max. At six months, he can learn, and he NEEDS to learn, basic ground manners. Standing is basic. Leading is basic. And these things aren't as simple as they seem -- standing means that your colt learns to stop and stay in one place when he is told to stop and stay in one place. Leading means that your colt learns to go forward when you tell him to go forward, whether it is in the pen, in the pasture, in the barn aisle, through the woods, through a puddle, into a stall, or into a trailer. These lessons are basic, but they are essential -- everything your horse learns during his life will be based on those two concepts.

Max MUST stand calmly for the farrier -- for his sake, for the farrier's sake, for your sake, and for the sake of all of his future training.

I'm assuming that your farrier will be back in about six weeks. You can do a LOT between now and then. Here are my suggestions:

First, wear your helmet while you work with Max. Rearing and striking and kicking are all normal colt behaviours, but you don't want to take unnecessary chances. On many farms, helmets are required for all people working with youngstock -- it's a sensible precaution.

Then make leading, standing, and "farrier work" part of Max's daily routine. If he doesn't tie yet, you can run a long leadrope from his halter through a ring on the wall and back to your hand -- this gives you the ability to be flexible without allowing him to pull back and run away. Ask him to stand, walk around him, touch him everywhere, run your hands down his legs, and pick up each foot in turn. Move the foot around, lift it high, move it out in different directions (without unbalancing or hurting Max), tap the bottom of the hoof with the back of your hoofpick. Praise him for standing quietly, and put each hoof down carefully -- never DROP a foot -- when YOU are ready. Practice until you can take his legs forward and backward, just as the farrier will do, and until you can hold each foot and tap it for as long as the farrier will. TAKE YOUR TIME.

When Max is calm about this, bring in a friend, preferably a male friend, put a helmet on his head, and have him watch while you go through your routine with Max. Then hold Max while your friend repeats the routine -- possibly a shorter version at first, picking up the feet for briefer periods and holding them closer to the ground and to Max's body.

When Max does what you want, praise him. When he doesn't, just don't respond at all; give him a moment and start again. Save the thumps and the yelling "NO!" for those moments when he does something that is totally unacceptable under any circumstances. Biting is one such behaviour, and the way you dealt with that situation was exactly the right thing to do. Kicking is another, rearing is another. But remember that a frightened horse (especially a colt) that can't pull away is very likely to rear, so try to set Max up for success by teaching him to stand calmly with his feet on the ground. If you are holding your horse for the farrier (or under any other circumstances) and he begins to think about rearing, lead him forward and sideways one step. If he is coming forward and on a slight curve, he won't be able to rear, and you can then praise him for coming forward when asked -- THIS is setting him up for success. If you wait until he rears and then try to pull him down or punish him, that's setting him up for failure.

Do these things as often as you can, and make the experience as pleasant as possible. You are trying to build a habit in Max: standing quietly with you holding him while someone else picks up his feet and handles them. Then talk to your farrier before he comes out, tell him what you are doing and what you want him to do. If you are working hard to train Max to stay calm and quiet, and you want the farrier to put the foot down and stand back if Max gets agitated, TELL HIM IN ADVANCE. If you want him to step back and let you lead Max in a circle and then reposition him when you say "time out" or "just a minute", TELL HIM IN ADVANCE. If he understands that you are working with your horse and that you are making every effort to keep that horse under control, that you have a plan, that he can be part of that plan, and that you are ready and willing to use a twitch if you need to, to keep Max steady and the farrier safe while he trims Max's feet, he will be much more amenable to following your suggestions, and he will be much less quick to jump in and punish Max!

You have two aims here: you want Max to learn to stand calmly and quietly while his feet are trimmed, and you want your farrier to be willing to come out to your farm, knowing that your horses are easy to work with.

One last issue: gelding. On this subject, your farrier is probably quite right. Six months is certainly old enough to geld, and the sooner the better. Many breeders geld their colts at a few weeks -- some breeders geld at a few DAYS. There is only ONE reason NOT to geld, and that is if you are planning to use this colt as a breeding stallion. I'm assuming that this is not the case. The earlier you have him gelded, the easier the process will be, and the more quickly he will recover. Don't put this off -- call your vet today and make the appointment! Gelding can only improve matters. At six months, Max is on his way to becoming the equivalent of a middle school child: hormones with feet. The sooner you have him gelded, the sooner he and you can relax and focus on the things that he actually needs to learn.

Good luck!

Jessica

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