Question: Hi there like you I have a reputation for riding and re-training horses that are deemed dangerous untrainable or non ridable however I have just bought a lovely ex-racehorse who is terrified of life. He has been completely checked over from head to toe and there is nothing physically wrong with him however he trembles if he sees his tack, rears when being bridled and has progressed to rearing and going over with his current rider. I am bringing him home tomorrow and plan on riding him as he was great when I tried him out. He did try to rear but got a good boot and a slap on the bum with my stick and sent fowards and then he went lovely.
I believe he just needs a firm hand but am concerned for his well-being mentally as his tack terrifies him and his rearing has already broken bones of his previous rider.
It would be great if you could give me your insight as to the possible cause of his fears and how you would rectify the situation.
He will not be sold on as I believe he has had a rough enough life, so I expect him to work, and after an initial tantrum was a well behaved, well balanced horse. Thanks for your time.
Answer from April Reeves, Horseman’s U.com: When you get a horse like this, unless you dig and ask questions you will never know the history that made the horse what he is today. On the other hand, does it matter?
I try to assess how chronic the problems are. That alone tells me how long the horse has had the problems. And how long it will take to change them.
You have a set of problems that will take skill, but more importantly, time. I’ll start with rearing. I have found that horses rear for a variety of reasons, and some of those reasons are easy to deal with and solve. I just worked on a horse that reared every time the owner went to get on. He was graceful and eloquent about it, with no real intent to hurt anyone. When I got on him, he reared, and promptly got smacked on the hind legs. He shot forward, shook his head, and has never reared again. I can only assess that the horse was ‘trained’ to do this, unintentionally, but the previous owner likely trained this horse to rear without realizing she was doing this.
You however seem to have a horse that rears from fear. This is a long process, and one that I would suggest you spend tons of time with. Not just time in training, but just being with the horse, handling, brushing, walking (I find this a huge benefit, just to walk a horse somewhere) and moving around the barn, in and out of stalls, up and down aisle ways, back up into spaces, you get the picture.
This horse needs to know you will not put him in harm’s way, which is what the history of the horse is, and what has put him where he is now. Somewhere in his history, someone did something to him on a continual basis to cause enough anxiety for him to fight for his life.
Think of your job, for the immediate future, to be the person who allows him to trust again. Take this into everything you do with him. Do not attempt to do anything that scares him. If he rears to bridle, don’t bridle him. Instead take his halter on and off a dozen times a day until he is comfortable with it. If he hates tack, bring it out and put it on the fence near him, but don’t do anything with it for a few days. Once his eye looks soft when the tack comes out, just put the saddle pad on him every day, on and off, until his eye is soft again.
This is so important to read the horse through all of this. Great trainers are not magic; they just pay attention to these details and work according to them. Training is not in the big things we do, like teaching spins and stops. It is in the way we listen. And when you have a fearful horse, you pay close attention to this, or get injured.
You can speed through all of the training and work you do by listening. If I can offer any advice, this is the most important, especially with this boy. There are the horses I love to work with the most, as they demand that you pay attention and be fair. You can also turn some really damaged animals into brilliant working partners. The speed at which you do this is determined by you. If you are paying attention, the horse will reciprocate.
I never come out with a set agenda each day when working with fearful horses. I let the horse tell me what we will work with next. I always set the horse up for success. This means that should we be walking somewhere, say around the arena, (this is just an example) and there is a spooky corner with a purple jump in it, and the horse’s head shoots up, I immediately turn him around and walk away. Why would I do that? Their basic instinct is to approach and retreat. They will do this several times to see if the purple jump will eat them. Once they realize the jump is dead, they accept, and often move right up to it and investigate.
It is important that you allow the horse this natural instinct with everything you do. When the horse begins to panic, take him away from the source. Eventually he will begin to trust that you will not put him in harm’s way, and you will have a willing partner that few horsemen on this planet have discovered.
When I bring a horse into an arena, no matter how long we have worked in that place, I still walk them around the perimeter first, either on foot or in the saddle – if they are more mature and stable. It tells me a story I need to know before I begin the day with them. If the purple jump could attack at any moment on a particular day, I avoid the area, working in the quiet places, and slowly move into larger circles until the horse realizes the purple monster is still dead. This is how they think: this is how you must think too. I always shake my head at people who force their horses into spooky situations, and then get after them aggressively if the horse panics. You won’t win. If you ask the horse gently but firmly, and the horse still won’t accept, you either need to use the approach/retreat method or go back and get the trust of that horse before you go there again.
As far as fear of tack, make sure everything fits properly. Check for dry spots after a ride; they are not areas where the saddle does not sit – they are areas where the saddle sits and pinches hard enough to block sweat glands, and eventually will erode muscle tissue and atrophy the muscles in the area, which are not recoverable.
I find that once a horse realizes I will not put him in harm’s way, I can do almost anything with him. When most trainers work only on the direct problem, I gain trust and correct all the problems at once. Problems are not singular unto themselves; they are all part of one systemic problem, usually fear or spoiled behavior.
It’s like taking a pill for a headache. Find the source of the headache, fix that, and you will find a whole bunch of other problems disappear also.
I also let fearful horses be just horses; put him out with another buddy for a few hours a day to enjoy a run and eat some grass. When you are stressed, the last thing you want to do is go back to work. Sometimes you need that short vacation to clear your head and refocus. This is one area where horse and human are similar.
I don’t know how old the horse is, but if he is 3 or younger, I would give him at least 6 months off from seeing any bridle or saddle. I believe, with OTTB’s, that they need this time to get their brain back. I have rehabbed many of them, and the time I left them alone turned them into better horses. Call it an ‘extended vacation’.
So, words of wisdom to you – do not push any issue. Take the time it takes. Allow him to set the pace. Pay attention. Watch his eye; it tells the story. Set him up for success. Firmness is not aggressive. Go for trust first before you ride. And – lots of groundwork.
I hope you enjoy him and become one of the few in this world that experience what it’s truly like to connect with a fearful horse. It’s one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.