Question: I have a 7 year old Trakehner mare that gets very anxious whenever another horse leaves the stable, even if there were still other horses there to keep her company. She starts jumping about and it is safer just to leave her alone for a while to calm down rather than get trampled on in her stable. But this makes my life pretty difficult because I have to organize that there is another horse and as little traffic as possible in the stable when grooming and handling her. I cannot get any contact to her when she gets nervous. She is virtually impossible to bring to the stable alone. But she behaves completely differently when ridden, I have no problems hacking alone, and in general she is much more calm when ridden that when handled from the ground. That is why I am hoping that this habit could somehow be pruned. How could I teach her to keep calm in the stable when other horses leave, or perhaps even to stay alone in the stable?
Answer from April Reeves: You have a long road ahead of you, and one that will be time consuming. However, being a 7 year old mare, you may have no choice. If she was never bred, this behavior could develop into something more serious. The herd instincts of mares are strong.
The good news is that she is 7 and has not had 15 years of this behavior to undo.
Being that she is good to ride and not so good on the ground is a bit unusual, as the horse you lead is the horse you ride. Let’s use this to our advantage.
Many horsemen will try to work a horse that is fresh, but since your mare can be ridden, we are going to do this backwards. It will be easier.
Take her riding and really work her. Not to a sweat or over exert her physically, but ask her to ‘change up’ continuously. ‘Changing up’ is a term for asking the horse to switch whatever they are doing within 10 or less seconds. The point is to occupy her mind; really occupy her mind! This can tire a horse faster than any physical exertion can, and will set her up to absorb the real lesson she will have after the ride.
Start for about 3-5 minutes of warm up. Then change up: mix up your circles, stop, move off at the trot, stop, back, side pass, stop, trot off straight, stop, trot off at 10m circles. Keep the mix going until she is tired. Once she is quite tired, let her relax. I always let a horse walk when they start to get warm and settle down, and let them think for about one minute, then off again for more brain stimulation. Work her like this for a good hour, and when she has had enough, do it for another time or two.
You want the mare very quiet. She is now ready to absorb the new information you are about teach. Most people quit at this point, but this is the point in training that the horse has their ‘emotional’ brain turned off and their ‘learning’ brain intact.
Let’s go to work.
I will assume she does lunge, and you have a place where this happens.
You will need some equipment, which you may or may not have; rope halter, 12 foot lead line, horseman’s stick. If you do not have any of these, use a shorter lunge line and the longest, heaviest whip you can find. If she does not pull against a web halter or drag you around by it, use it.
This next phase of work will take up an hour or two. The two of you will now walk all over the barn, through every aisle, down every row past stalls, around the outside paddock areas. She is to stay with you quietly. If you notice a point where she is sighing and licking her lips, stand her there for a few minutes. Then move on. Find another place where she is quiet and rest. The purpose for this is to let the horse understand that being quiet is comfortable and being anything but quiet will mean work.
If she begins to act up, you both head to where you lunge her, and keeping her on a shorter line, make her work. If she calls out and gets silly, make her work. Ask her to trot for once around, then turn and trot off the other way. Do this again and again and again until she begins to settle. This can often take some time, but if you stay with it you will have a breakthrough. The trick is to make it very difficult for her to be bad. Make it uncomfortable. Then when she is good, make it very pleasant. In time they really get this.
As you lunge her, mixing it up and changing direction, keep the line reasonably short; do not let her out too far away, but not so close that you are in line for a foot in the face. While she is trotting, take the line in and ask her to stop, putting pressure on the line to bring her head in and stop. At the moment this is taking place, move to the side and with the whip, ask her to move her hindquarters away from you. Point the whip at her hindquarters, and mean business. Make her stand and think, then move out again and begin to trot. Repeat this on both sides, left and right. If she doesn’t move her hip, use the whip to move it. Sometimes you just have to spank Fluffy. Eventually she will only need the ‘intention’ of what you are asking, to move.
The minute she is quiet again, go back to the barn routine, walking around, and set her up to fail. This is where the learning is. There is no advancement in staying in the space where she is comfortable. Take her to the one place you know she has a tough time with. If that is her stall, walk back and forth, and if she blows up again, go back to longeing. Make her instinctual behaviors very difficult for her.
To get her to stand without walking on you, stand her in an aisle way and face her. Keep your lead loose, and tap the whip rhythmically on the ground for a few seconds, in front of her chest. If she backs up at all, stop and tell her she’s a good girl. Continue, and praise her for the smallest try. If she does nothing, tap the whip in 3 stages, softly, asking her to back up, for about 6 taps, then tapping harder and close to her chest, with the intention that she had better back or else, and if this does nothing, it’s time to connect. Tap her with intention and firmness once on the chest between her legs. Mean it. Do it and when she startles and backs, keep the lead soft (no pulling what so ever) follow her and stand and look at her for about 5 seconds. If she runs back and wonders what hit her, just let her back, staying soft with the lead line, no pulling, and stand very quietly. Let her blow on her own; it will teach her to take responsibility. Then repeat. Keep repeating until you only have to tap the ground and she responds. Now take this lesson around the rest of the barn.
Humans must set up the situations for horses to learn and use their thinking brain before their instinct brain. You teach horses how to learn. You show them how to think.
Now that you have been there for about 3 hours, if she seems quieter that usual, it’s time to cool her out and put her away.
This is not the end. You will have to do this again and again for 5 to 20 days. You are not so much taking the herd bound away, but setting up yourself as a herd buddy that she respects.
There will be times when she is still explosive in the stall, but if you keep this routine up, you will find that by just bringing the stick in and tapping the ground, you will get her mind back quickly.
The purpose for riding her first is to get her tired enough to start thinking and not just reacting. Once she begins to respect you on the ground, begin your groundwork first before riding. If she begins to calm down and work with you as opposed to against you, you are on the road to establishing a life long connection.
I have always had good ground manners with all my big Warmbloods and Jumpers. Six years ago I bought a tall weanling Quarter Horse for the hunter divisions. All was fine, reasonably, until the fall of his 4th year. He became violent and dangerous, and I had some groundwork, roundpen and Natural Horsemanship under my belt, but until this horse, had no real need to learn it well. This horse demanded that I become proficient in groundwork, and it took two years of very hard slogging to break through with him. I was almost at the point of getting rid of him. He would rear and strike, bolt and kick with dead accuracy. I felt his back leg next to my face more times than I care to imagine.
Today that gelding is safe, kind, respectful and even though there are times when he really wants to be bad, he thinks about the work he will have to do or the reprimanding he will get, and sighs and relaxes. He has been my greatest teacher, and has made all the other horses seem like a walk in the park, even the 17.2HH ones. When the wind is blowing and all the other horses are bucking and snorting, this one gets down to work and performs without a hitch. I’m telling you this to let you know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For you it’s likely about 2-3 months, not 2 years. Mares are so much smarter; instinctual but smarter.
The trouble with re-establishing manners is that it takes an enormous amount of time at the front end, and it’s not a matter of letting it go and see if it works itself out. Horses by nature will get themselves wound up to the point of being dangerous and unrideable. They look for leadership and connection, as they prefer to NOT be the one who makes decisions.