New horse owner wonders if she should sell the horse

Question: We recently bought a 3-year-old horse for our daughter.  I know it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do but the horse was very quiet and we were assured that he had no problems.  He does seem quiet most of the time but every now and then when your not expecting it he will blow up.  It’s not a bolt but more of a jumping straight in the air and then striking out.  I think he is simply trying to avoid work, but I am worried that someone will get hurt.  I am trying to decide if selling this horse now would be my best decision as with a more experienced person I’m sure he will be great, I just want something safe for my daughter (she is 14 and has 6 years experience riding). We are an experienced horse family but if this is likely to progress into a continuous problem I don’t know if we want to deal with it.  Thanks for any advice.

Answer from April Reeves: This is one of my favorite questions as I deal with this every day. First, buying a young horse for a young girl who has had time in the saddle does not bother me. This horse does not sound aggressive enough to do any real damage, and in fact may become one of her better ‘teachers’. But the learning curve begins here, as there are differences between a horse below 7 and a horse above 7 that we will discover in this answer.

I first want to speak about thoroughbreds, as they are one breed I have done a great deal of work with. In my opinion, the thoroughbred is a ‘foundation’ horse, in that the breed’s influence when crossed with other breeds improves it, much like the Arabian. They have spirit and exuberance that is much needed in today’s competitive environment. Thoroughbreds are athletic, clever and mature into beautiful horses when schooled and looked after. Many of them have the same capabilities as hunter/jumpers as Warmbloods.

That being said, there are some things about thoroughbreds, especially before the age of 7, that are a bit different than many other breeds. And you are experiencing this.

When you buy a breed that is known for its ability to perform beyond it’s appearance (super athletes), you buy a mind that is both clever and easily influenced. This breed is intelligent. They demand that you know your stuff and speak horse language. They erupt when you do not ask the question properly. While some may think of thoroughbreds as unpredictable and dangerous, it is because they do not have the skills to work with them. These skills are easily acquired, when you let go of preconceived ideas of how a horse should be trained. Thoroughbreds learn at a faster rate (than many other breeds) if the trainer is consistent and quiet. Before the age of 7 they are babies, and at 7, they can alter their behavior into a quiet, level headed horse, leaving you wondering where ‘Crazy Charlie’ went to!

Training is a constant state of learning. There is no goal because there is no end.

I’m going to change the ‘language’ of training, so that you both have a better understanding of ‘why’ horses do what they do. It’s very likely he did not have any problems when you bought him – not that I’m saying you caused this behavior consciously, but we, as humans, tend to put our human values onto the horse, assuming he behaves in a manner that a human would. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Horses are very simple in their language. Their biggest difference is the lack of ego. Their emotions are clean and transparent. They are much like newborn babies (human). Think of your thoroughbred as a newborn until 7.

When the horse does something the human does not like or want (jumping straight in the air and striking out) we humans look for answers that we understand (human language).

However, the horse is trying to communicate to you in his language.

Horses do not try to avoid work unless the work is:

1. Too much for them to grasp. We often miss important parts of the training ‘mix’, and then ask the horse to perform a movement he is not acquainted with or understands. This happens when we jump from grade 1 to grade 7 in our commands. Horses need to learn in an order that makes their learning easier. While the techniques and methods you apply may change from horse to horse (each horse absorbs information differently) each horse has a rate at which it can learn and apply what it has learned. For example, constant contact with the face on a 3-year-old is something a 4 or 5-year-old learns. Young horses have much to learn before then, as the contact is how the human asks the horse to ‘gather’ and ‘connect’, an exercise of about grade 5. No 3-year-old should be in grade 5.

When we skip vital pieces of the training mix, we put the horse in the position of ‘questioning’ the aid. That is when you get the horse doing things you don’t ‘want’, but in reality the horse is just letting you know that he does not understand because you have not set him up to learn properly. He is telling you in his language that you need to ask the question differently or fill in the missing pieces for him. Unfortunately, his language is kicking out, bolting, bucking and what ever a horse can do to get it through to the human. Mix this ‘language’ with a 3-year-old and you can see the exuberance of your thoroughbred’s questioning is coming out as a violent and bad horse.

2. Inconsistent aids: when you ask a horse through an aid (legs, hands, seat, weight, voice) it’s vital that you keep the aid the same in your asking until the horse understands. Yesterday I went to a lesson with a lady and a green horse. The first thing she wanted to show me, above everything else was how well this horse could turn on the forehand (move haunches around). She began to draw her leg back and up, and when the horse did not respond, she began to move her leg all around the horses barrel, increasing and decreasing the pressure, taking the leg off and changing position, in an erratic movement.

As you can visualize, the horse did nothing. The face of the horse was very questioning.

This is one of the most important things to remember, and I stress this in every clinic I do and article I write. Consistency is the backbone of riding. Every time you change your ‘question’ (aid) to the horse, you change the lesson. This poor horse had no idea what she was asking since she changed 1.Rhythm, 2.Speed, 3.Pressure, 4.Position/Placing of her foot every second. In her mind, she was demanding this young horse respond as if it was fully trained. When she did not get an immediate response, she changed her way of asking, but what she was saying to the horse was “Do this, now this, now this, now try something else, how about this….” in a matter of 10 seconds.

When you stay soft and use the same pressure and placement until the horse responds in the manner you are asking (the smallest try is good) even if it takes time, the horse will have an easier time grasping the request. But we humans rush into things expecting the horse to read our minds. They can read our intention and emotion, but not our language.

I am going into detail because I want you to think about keeping the horse and moving through the process instead of moving on. Your daughter is old enough to learn, and young enough to gain valuable skills of staying on during those rough moments. This horse can teach her things that many young people avoid to learn, but it is in this training environment (for both horse and human) that your daughter’s greatest challenges and breakthroughs will occur. If it is too easy, it is easily dropped.

I am going to give you a one-year program for this horse, and in the end you will have one big beautiful horse if you follow it, take the time, and accept the challenges as ‘your’ challenge and not the horses. These are pieces of training from my blog, and they should take you one year and a new learning curve that will allow you and your daughter the grace to accept and work with almost any horse when you have learned their applications and advantages.

With thoroughbreds, and by the sound of it, yours in particular, you will have the challenge of training this horse through these specific methods:

  1. Make the right think easy and the wrong thing difficult. This does not mean punishing the horse when it does something you don’t want. It simply means that the second the horse moves to do something you don’t want, you will be asking him to do something uncomfortable.
  2. Changing habits you don’t want with habits you do want. There is no need to ‘punish’ a horse with the use of crops or aids or anger. With thoroughbreds, this would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, you will use the above and add to it. Once the horse understands that his habit leads to discomfort, and begins to slow his habit down, you ask him to try something new. This encourages the horse to start using his brain. Horses by nature are animals of habit and instinct. They don’t need to take the time to think in the wild; they must react and do it fast or be eaten. Humans come along and ask that they start to think. This is not something a horse will do automatically. We must teach them; allow the thinking process to be the first thing they do, instead of using reaction. In order to do this, a human must understand how to set up the learning so this can happen. Because thoroughbreds are so close to their instincts (hot) they are a bigger challenge than many other breeds. But it is this closeness to their instincts that make them good at running.

These next long reads are from my blog. You may choose to try all these techniques, or change and add as you go. Just keep in mind, the minute you do not get the response you want, it is because you are moving too far too fast with the wrong question.

When reading through remember that I wrote those for other horses, so if you find places that talk about a different horse you will know why. The training methods apply for you though. They should take you up to next spring or a bit later; depending on how many days you ride in the week.

The first article is for a herd bound horse, but the methods apply to your situation. While a herd bound horse may appear to act out differently, the reasons are the same, and the training methods to get the horse back to thinking apply for your thoroughbred.

Basic Groundwork and Saddle Work for the Herd Bound Horse

The next article deals with more advanced training:

Teaching Connection and Collection

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