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Horse Training – 5 Reasons Your New Horse Is Behaving Badly and What You Can Do To Improve It Now
Q. I bought a 9 year old mare about two weeks ago. She was backed at the age of 4 and didn’t do much until recently when she was ridden bareback across the fields to help gather a herd of horses. When she first came to the farm she was great. She seemed to be very confident and forward going. She only spooked a bit when a car suddenly appeared from around a corner – but nothing bad. I ride her out 1 or 2 times a week with another horse and then 1 or 2 days in the arena. But in the last two days she hasn’t been herself. She is in good health so I don’t think it is a physical problem. I have never been able to get on from the ground so need a leg up. But she just won’t stand still. She walks off and even swings her bum out away from me so I have a fight to try and get up. When I am eventually up I can feel that she’s on edge and ready to go. So I have to hold her back a little. She won’t halt when I ask for it either. If I lightly pull on the reins she will get annoyed and walk backwards or in circles. I don’t know whats happened. I would really appreciate any advice.
A. It is not uncommon for behavioural and training issues to appear shortly after purchasing a new horse and bringing her to a new home. Here are five tips to help you and your horse start building a positive relationship from the start.
1) Behaviour is Communication – The only way your horse can communicate is through her behaviour. If she is demonstrating behaviours that you don’t like, don’t assume she is just being “naughty”. Pay attention to her behaviour to understand how she is feeling. A horse who does not want to be caught in the paddock needs to develop more trust before coming willingly to greet you at the gate. A horse who does not want to stand to be mounted may be feeling pain from ill-fitting tack or is uncomfortable with how she is being ridden. A horse who doesn’t want to stand still is stressed and, as a flight animal, needs to move. Take the time to figure out the reason (the cause) for your horse’s behaviour rather than simply trying to “fix” the symptom. When you address the cause, the symptom will go away as a result.
2) Adjustment Time – Your new horse has been taken away from everything that was familiar to her and now has to adjust to a new environment, a new routine, a new herd and new people. Imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. It’s important to give her some time to settle in and become comfortable with all the changes in her life. You can help her by just spending time with her so that you can get to know each other as you start to build a relationship and develop mutual trust. Get to know your new horse from the ground up by grooming her, hand grazing her, lunging her and just hanging out with her for a few days.
3) Tack Check – Getting to know your horse from the ground up for the first few days is the perfect time to check that your tack fits properly and is good condition. Saddles and bits are not “one size fits all”. Physical pain or discomfort from ill-fitting tack, dental problems, muscle or joint soreness, or a chiropractic issue cause behavioural and training problems. Some of these physical problems may not be apparent in a routine vet exam. An equine sports therapist, massage therapist or chiropractor can identify problem areas, if there are any. A professional saddle fitter can give you an assessment of your saddle fit, make adjustments to your saddle or help you find a saddle that fits properly. The cost of hiring any one of these professionals (usually less than $100) is a small investment to ensure your horse is comfortable and will not have a behavioural problems due to pain down the road.
Make sure your bridle and bit also fit correctly. A brow band that is too small will pinch and put pressure on the sensitive area at the base of the ears. The bit must be the correct width and shape so that it does not pinch the sides of her mouth or her tongue. If she shows signs that she is uncomfortable with the bit or with contact (ie. she has a busy or “hard” mouth), have your vet give her a thorough dental exam to ensure her teeth are in good condition.
4) Training Review – A horse that has been ridden for years can still be “green” depending on the level of training she received. If she has not been given a good foundation, there will be gaps in her training that may not have been apparent when you did your test ride before buying her. If your horse has only ever been ridden by one or two people or only by experienced riders, she may have difficulty understanding your cues and become confused. The more sensitive the horse is, the more she will be affected by even a small amount of tension, stiffness, imbalance or crookedness in the rider. Have your first few rides in an arena or pen and take your riding slowly and calmly. Make sure she understands your cues and pay attention to any subtle signs that she is feeling stressed or uncomfortable. Only when you are sure that your communication is working – both ways – should you increase what you are asking of her.
5) Professional Help – Even Olympic level riders receive some coaching occasionally. Take lessons with an experienced coach/trainer as often as you can. If there are no coaches available in your area, check online for coaches who travel or offer video lessons; travel to a coach who offers private training at their own facility; or, participate in clinics that focus on horsemanship skills or your specific discipline. Having “eyes on the ground” – even occasionally – gives you feedback on how you and your horse are progressing together. If you are dealing with a training problem you don’t know how to resolve, getting help from an experienced trainer who can help determine the root cause of your mare’s behaviour and then work with both of you to resolve it and prevent it from getting worse. It always takes longer to “unlearn” a behaviour or habit than it does to teach a new behaviour.
By taking as much time as is necessary to develop mutual trust, respect and confidence with your new horse, and ensuring she feels safe, secure and comfortable in all aspects of her new life, you will be rewarded with a willing, trusting, and confident partner.
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