New Riding Environment? Help With Your Horse’s Anxiety

I recently had an interesting question from a reader that related to some of the principles I talk about in Zen Mind, Zen Horse. I thought it would be helpful for everyone to review this real life example:

Dear Dr. Hamilton, (excerpted)

I have an eleven year-old mare, born and raised in Montana.  Although Barbie was broke, she spent the first seven years “out on pasture,” the majority of time in a herd of twenty or so horses.  She has been with me for the last four years, under similar circumstances.  Until recently, the majority of our riding has been on wonderful mountain trails with one other horse, of which she was the lead mare…..trail

Recently we moved to Wisconsin and are riding on a trail system with many more horses, and with horses who are not familiar or not very familiar to her.  This has proven to be difficult for her at times.  For example, she gets upset if horses are coming up from behind.  Also, if one or more of the horses (especially if it is the horse in the lead) gets “fired up” (because it can’t take a short cut home or takes off running up its favorite hill, for example), she gets very wound up, and has even bucked, jumped, and reared a little in response to this energy.  We got through it, and I was not upset with her as I felt she was just having an emotional reaction to the circumstances

When I read about the sensitivity difference between wild and domesticated horses in your book, I realized my horse has lived the majority of her life more “wild” than domestic, thus sharpening her survival skills.  As such, she appears to be very sensitive to the energy of other horses and doesn’t seem to understand the “domestic” dynamics of our new environment.  My question is, what can I do to help her with this?

Dear TB:
runningYes, you are correct that horses in the wild have a much keener sense of connection to other horses than those that are domesticated and well acclimatized to the world of human beings. All horses, however, have a keen sense of identity with the energy of other herd members. Just watch how quickly an entire herd of zebras can go on alert and then, as if they were all once a communal being, bolt into flight, all in unison, all in the same direction. The individual zebra that gets eaten is the one who is standing around asking: “Hey, where are you guys all going?” So our domesticated horse has evolved successfully because of (not despite of) a well-developed sensitivity and awareness to the reactions of other members of the herd.

When you were back in Montana, it sounds as if Barbie was pretty mellow and had to contend with only one or two other horses, over whom she played the role of the dominant alpha mare. When the two of you moved to Wisconsin, it sounds as if the situation became far more complex, variable, and confusing for Barbie.
So now let’s proceed in a stepwise fashion to answer your questions:

Helping your horse to address a situation in which she feels anxious and panicked will help your horse to become more “herself.” You will not change your horse’s personality but you will certainly make her feel more comfortable and confident being the horse that she is. While I am on the topic, let me harp for a few seconds on one of my pet peeves about horse owners: this notion that training or correcting your horse may somehow mar or change its disposition. If a person’s horse is cranky, stubborn, aggressive, unruly, and, most of all, impolite and disrespectful then, yes, that horse does need to have its personality changed and those traits need to be actively trained out of it.

However, that comment does not pertain to you and Barbie. What you are referring to is taking the “edge” off her and outright blunting her personality. And, yes, that is a genuine concern because I have seen people bore their horses to death with incessant, dull, unimaginative training. That can just turns horses off but, eventually, makes them outright cranky. Basically, the horse is saying: “Okay, okay, I got it. Could we please go on to something new?” So let me reinforce with you that helping Barbie with this problem will not change her personality.

Barbie gets fired up when a horse comes up from behind. That is a natural reaction of a herd prey animal. The idea is that if a horse is coming up from behind, then there might be a danger that is making that horse speed up. If that’s the case, then the horse in the lead needs to pick up the pace too in order to escape. The second part of this–the corollary–is: the faster the horse is coming up from behind, the more the lead horse wants to get out in front.

turnSo now the solution: practice having horses come up from behind you. Have a friend or two go out with you for a trail ride. The purpose of this trail ride is for each one of you to ride your horse at a slower gait while the other horses come up from behind at a faster gait. So, for example, you ride Barbie at the walk and then have your two companions trot up from behind and pass you. Then you turn Barbie around in the other direction and have your friends trot past you again. Now change directions and do it over…and over. What begins to happen is that the horse figures out with multiple repetitions that the horse coming up from behind is not a cue to escape because the direction keeps changing. Eventually all the horses will simply figure out to just wait and see when you change direction (see the section in Zen Mind, Zen Horse about the utility of applying Directional Reversal). If Barbie freaks out whenever a horse passes her, then start even slower and turn her around to face the horses and walk towards them as you hear them trotting up from behind. Now do it all over again, with you at the trot on Barbie and your companions loping their horses past. And, of course, one favor deserves another so you take turns so everyone’s horse can learn the lesson.

Barbie freaks out (bucking and rearing) when another horse takes off running. This is just a more pronounced variant of item number two above, but a far more dangerous one. The reason Barbie reacts so strongly is that her preservation instincts are on alert when a horse runs off. So exercise two listed above will help, but it will not guarantee no reaction. So, first thing is to proceed to item number three when Barbie is tired from, say, a long trail ride. The reason you want her tired is that she will be less reactive when she is already fatigued. Now when Barbie is all worn out, take her to a spot where there are intersecting trails and, preferably, a few hills. Put yourself and Barbie down at the bottom. Again, you will need some willing rider-friends that we’ll call “the bolters.” You are going to start doing some task with Barbie like asking her to trot in figure of eights or go around a tree. Then have the bolters run down the trails or up the hills at some distance from you. You want to keep Barbie on task despite the distraction of the bolting horses. Keep Barbie moving her feet and paying attention to your cues to move her feet. Gradually have the bolting horses pick up speed and start moving closer to where you and Barbie are working. If there is any sense that Barbie could be dangerous, then start this exercise in a large arena with Barbie slaloming in and out of cones while the other horses attempt to bolt past her. Once Barbie gets more comfortable, have your friends start rushing past you and Barbie, to and fro, from every direction and start really energizing their horses. Just keep Barbie on task. She’ll eventually figure out: “Hey, I’m going to just keep moving my feet and staying on task because the rest of these horses are plum crazy and just running in every direction.” As Barbie gets better and better at focusing on you and moving her feet, you can get her dialed in even more by having horses dashing in and out from everywhere, sometimes a singe horse, sometimes a couple of horses at once.

All of this takes time, but you have a lifetime with Barbie. As I describe in Zen Mind Zen Horse, give yourself a year to accomplish each task.  It’s worth the investment.  Be patient. It will pay off great dividends.

Happy New Year!

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