I recently got this heartfelt email from a couple that found themselves with a very troubled mare suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome:
…. Last April we purchased a six-year-old mare…We had her evaluated by a respected professional horse clinician. He discovered that, when asked to canter (she was trained for dressage), the horse begins to accelerate rapidly, until she eventually lost all control, Secondly, she seemed to go into an unusual form of panic that the trainer described as “her body as taking over with the mind gone…piaffing, passaging automatically, but the rider has no control, and [her]…mind is not there. His conclusion is her brain was “fried” and, perhaps, beyond all hope. We don’t really wish to give up on her but this is new territory for us and we really need help.
Thank you for bringing your question forward. It is clear you have given the mare a great deal of thought, respect, and consideration. With love, patience and a steady schedule of earnest training, your mare will learn to leave her past where it belongs—just as a bad memory. Your mare is suffering with the equine equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have seen it many times. Horses are, in that sense, no different than humans. Sometimes the experiences they have endured are so difficult that the brain relives the episode rather than merely recalling it.
Your assessment and that of your trainer sound spot on to the extent that your horse is reacting to her prior training. I suspect your horse was trained ‘hard’ in dressage and probably brought through her training way too quickly and rigidly. You’re seeing your mare doing what I call “squirting” — namely, the horse has been taught to react very quickly and demonstrate her training before she gets reprimanded. In essence, the horse wants to squirt into action before she might be disciplined. It sounds as though your horse goes into a reactive state where she either starts winding herself up in the canter, going faster and faster, or goes into what appears to be a kind of dressage meltdown. However, I would not say the situation is hopeless at all.
So the first thing I would do is stay away from dressage for now. Let’s not do something that reminds her of the old days and her old training. The dressage will be for much later down the road.
Secondly, for the cantering problem (called loping in Western), get her into a round pen (RP) to so some ground work. See if she picks up speed at the canter when you ask her to go around the RP. When she holds her speed to a nice, steady lope (what we refer to on my ranch as the slope for slow lope) just let her go around a few times and bring her down to the walk quietly and softly.
PAUSE, PET, BREATHE, AND PRAISE (this is your new mantra!). Stop. Pet your horse with a soothing touch. Breathe deeply and relax yourself and your horse by releasing tension. And then praise her abundantly. Let her hear with the tone in your voice how pleased you are with her achievement. You want your mare to see that loping can be a soothing, comfortable experience. It does not need to be a gut-wrenching, sweat-drenched experience. The key is to find a way to make the slow lope give her a feeling of success and praise. If, on the other hand, she becomes reactive and cranks it up–steps on the gas, and really starts running like she’s possessed–then you need to get in front of her and make her turn in the other direction right away. Every time she picks up speed, she has to turn. Again, this turning will tire her out and she will actually start to relax with each turn. The faster she wants to go, the more you are simply going to turn her. Don’t worry; just keep her turning and moving her feet. Be patient. She will figure out that she only gets asked to turn for speeding up and she will figure out to slow things down. I would not try to lope her under saddle until she has figured out how to lope slow and easy in the RP and has developed it into a good, solid habit. There’s no point in getting on her back if she can’t control her gait. She needs to associate getting reactive and squirting into a crazed run with just creating turn after turn for herself. It will be much easier for her to learn at liberty rather than associating it with a rider correcting her. When she will lope casually and slowly (with that beautiful slow, rocking horse lope), then you can consider saddling her up and take her to the arena. Let me very clear about this: there is absolutely no point in trying to go to the arena to lope under saddle if your mare has not learned to control her gait at liberty in the RP first. It’s fruitless and dangerous for you and harmful for your horse.
Once she gets the feel of that slow canter, you can take her into the arena. At first, ride her a lot at the walk and trot. Leave the lope out of it. Let her get a little tired. She will start thinking about stopping and that’s when I would very quietly ask for the lope-with the slightest squeeze of my calves. In other words, you want to ask her to lope only when she’s ready to stop. If she’s willing to give you a slow canter, go for maybe ten paces and then stop. Pause, pet, breathe, and praise. Reward her abundantly. Start all over again. Go for a dozen paces and then stop again. Pause, pet, breathe, and praise. If you feel her starting to pick up excessive speed, there are two techniques you can use.
In the arena under saddle, the first method is to just shut your mare down by bringing her to an emergency stop (one rein pull, head flexed laterally to the side, disengaging the hindquarters, and coming to a full and complete stop). Make sure she understands how to come to a one-rein full stop (a different task and skill I’ll cover another time). Then start again: walk, and then trot for a while, then up to the lope. If she lopes slowly, great. Is she picks up speed, bring her to a stop again. She needs to learn that going fast brings her right away to a full stop. She will eventually get tired of being pulled down to a stop and figure out that a slow lope is acceptable but the fast lope is not. It is important to shut her down as soon as she picks up speed and not let her wind herself up.
The second approach is my preferred method in this situation: what I call ‘harness the rail.’ Start to lope the horse along the rail in the arena and, as soon as the horse is starting to speed up, turn her directly towards the fence. She will have to slow. If she slows just continue loping. The other thing she can do is move towards the fence and spin around. If she does that she will essentially come to a stop or, at least slow to a walk, Then just ask for a depart and lope off in the other direction. Slowing down and turning takes a lot of exertion on the horse’s part. The horse eventually figures out: “Hey, every time I pick up speed, I have to turn and pivot hard on my feet. This is getting tiring. Maybe I just should go slow.” Very much equivalent to what you were doing earlier with in the RP. In her mind, she begins to associate going fast with turning and learns to quit doing it. It is important that you be soft and kind when you turn her. There is nothing punitive about the maneuver. In her mind, it needs to occur to her as a natural consequence of going too fast: “Hey, I pick up speed, we have to turn into the fence. Bummer.” You (or your trainer) should be acting as if you were saying: “Wow, that’s weird how we have to turn into the fence every time you go too fast!”
You should avoid harsh punishment at all cost. You need to teach her that it’s not about performing, it’s about learning. You are trying to teach her and she needs to learn that a mistake will simply be corrected quickly, without rancor, and with the least amount of energy possible.
Let me close by saying I am not a fan of the “let her tear around at full throttle until she can’t run anymore and she will slow down” school of thought. It’s true. Eventually, the horse has to slow down. But it is very hard on both horse and rider. It simply reinforces the idea of running out of control and the idea of defaulting to reactive behavior. It just makes her think cantering is a panic attack. Instead, we want to encourage her to start thinking: “Hey, I have to slow it down.” Also, if the horse runs more and more each day at full speed, she will just get fitter and fitter. Soon you will have to run her from 6 AM to noon just to wait until she runs out of steam and wants to slow down. Stick with either turning or stopping to shut down the fast lope.
The lessons in Zen Mind, Zen Horse may help you–especially in light of what I am about to say: you need to approach this problem as if you have years to get it resolved. It will improve your timing and your patience. The slower you are willing to take the training, the faster your mare will learn. Good luck.