Is there hope for a 3-year-old mare with her flighty nature and inability to learn?

Question: Hello, I have been training horses since I was 12. I’m no expert by any means and have lots to learn.

But as of right now I am currently working with a 3 year old quarter horse. She is the most nervous insecure horse I have ever worked with. Her previous owner told me they had started her under the saddle already and she had accepted it, which I found through further training was a lie. I have been constantly working with her since October and am hardly moving forward. I started right from scratch with basic halter training. Now, I have ridden her only because I was pushed into it by her owner. I stopped because I felt she was not ready, every time I sack her out its like its all new to her. I have used many objects such as a bag on a whip, a cowboy hat, a blanket, just a plain stick, and she still flips each time I bring out an object. Even if it was an object she has previously seen! She is having major difficulties with switching eye to eye. And frankly I am running out of ideas. I’m not sure if I should just move on and ride her in hopes I can work it out of her on her back.
Answer from April Reeves: I have run across a mare like this. You may have to back off from using objects to desensitize her as it makes them worse.

Where this problem originated was back in her history somewhere. Owners never tell you the whole story. It’s up to you to assume the worst and work from there. People can really ruin a young horse.

This mare will take a great deal of consistent gentle handling. Get rid of bags on the end of whips and other cool toys that work on other horses. With this mare, you will be doing basic work. But it’s not the work you are doing, it is HOW you will carry out this work.

This is where quiet, steady confidence pays off. Don’t try new things. Stick with simple things that become very routine and ‘safe’. This mare is fighting for her life, which is why you can’t move forward with the usual groundwork exercises. What she needs is to feel safe around you, and introducing objects to her to desensitize her will produce the opposite results.

I suggest you start to ride her. But before you go any further, you are going to do something that I rarely suggest to do. You are going to fill your pockets with small bits of carrots. She is going to become a treat freak. I know what you’re thinking right now – April! You have lost your brain! I don’t use treats all the time (although I am trying an experiment that I will be writing about shortly on my blog) but in this mare’s case, you need to establish a bond and fast, and there’s nothing like treats to take away that flightly edge. I would rather have a horse all over me looking for reward than a horse all over me trying to get away.

For your groundwork, keep it simple. I have a great article on groundwork exercises you should read. They are easy and do not require special tools. As you move through each one, treat her each time she is good at first, then slowly back away from the rewards. Once she has both eyes on you, begin to ask her simple things without treating her for a few times. She has to learn to listen as well as look for rewards. You can find the article here:

Keep your movements very quiet and soft at first. You don’t want to scare this mare at all. You need to establish a friendship and a bond first.

I had a very flighty mare this spring that I gave treats to for 3 days straight. She lost all flightiness and ended up being one of the easiest horses I have worked with. I have no problem bribing a horse with food. But I don’t allow it to become a daily habit where a horse will only work for food. I like to keep a balance.

About using ‘tools’
With all the Natural Horsemanship around these days, it’s easy to miss a few steps and details that ‘knit’ the pieces together. One of those is timing. Timing is everything when it comes to groundwork. How to introduce bags on whips is more important than the bag and whip itself.

Let’s start with a saddle blanket. When you first bring a blanket up to the horse, don’t hesitate or stop half way. It’s a strong signal to a horse that something is wrong. If you move with confidence and intention, you will find the horse won’t react much if at all. When I am faced at saddling a spooky horse, I move in and get the job done. Non-stop. I don’t try to teach the horse anything. I just get on and get it done. I start by brushing fairly aggressively non-stop. If the horse moves, I move with it. If the horse doesn’t tie, I just keep a loose lead line and allow the horse to circle while I’m working. Eventually they stop, but if you try to control these situations you never give the horse a chance to solve things on their own. You must set up the experiences for the horse to learn how to think.

If the horse moves away when you approach with a blanket, and you stop or hesitate, you have just taught the horse to move, as your hesitation or stopping was the horse’s reward for moving away. Thus, you just compound the problem when you continue to hesitate, and the horse thinks she’s learning to move away. When the human gets mad at the horse for continuing to move, it only starts the fear cycle and natural flight instincts within the horse, as she becomes confused.

This is why I state that it’s not what you do but HOW you do it that’s so important when moving around horses, especially timid ones.

About 2 eyes
Mares are notorious for having a ‘hard’ side. It’s part of their maternal instincts. All mares have a preferred side for their foals to nurse and move on. Getting 2 eyes with a mare is extra work, as one eye is always looking out for danger. This is how mares are. This is what Mother Nature gave them to survive.

When you ask your horse to move away from you through a turn (you at her left, turning right) you often need help to guide her head around at first. I carry a long whip upside down and raise it very high – higher than she can put her head, as they will try to bring their heads back over yours to assume dominance. Since you can’t grow taller, bringing the end of the whip up will help her to understand that if she doesn’t move, she will hit the whip end. This is different from you hitting the horse. The horse knows the difference between being hit and running into something. The former will make her head shy: the latter will smarten her up.

Treats will give you 2 eyes very fast! If you have to bribe her to get 2 eyes, then so be it. You sometimes have to use what works. The trick of some of the best trainers is treats, but they will never tell you that! Once she has had her carrot treat, get back to work and get on with it.

Once you have 2 eyes, do not destroy the trust by being aggressive or fast. You want to slowly build up that trust and bond. I find with mares, once you have established that you can do great things with them. A good mare is always a great mare. A good gelding is not always a great gelding.

Under saddle
For more advanced saddle work try this article on connection and collection:  It has some basic and advanced exercises that I would suggest using on her. For sure, the one-rein stop for lateral flexion and safety, and the exercises for rhythm and responsibility of gaits. I stay off their face for the first year if you have no intention of showing. She can learn bits and pressure later when her confidence is high. I use just a rope halter and rope tied around for reins for the first 3 months, then move into a bosal. If I don’t show, I often never introduce a bit. Although I train for the show ring and hunter/jumper, I also believe in keeping a horse as comfortable and natural as possible.

Start working her under saddle slowly, and when you first get on, ask her to bend her head half way to one side until she stands still (one-rein stop). You want this mare to stand quietly every time you get on. This is one fault I see in too many riders. They let the horse move away when mounting, but they don’t realize this sets up a path of bad habits right from the start. Your terms, your time. Not hers. When I see horses walk away from being mounted I know I’m looking at an amateur.

I think if you take it down a notch with her and try to make friends and encourage her to be confident you will have a very nice horse in the end. Patience, quiet, confidence, timing, doing less than more, and restoring her faith in mankind is a good start. If you move through and start to progress with her, you will open yourself to a world few humans ever see. It’s a gift to train a ‘problem’ horse, and when you get handed one, unwrap it gently. You will take these lessons with you forever.


Thank you very much for the advice, it makes alot of sense! i do enjoy problem horses but this is one i found rather difficult and i very much appriciate the extent of ur advice! i wil step back and try the treat thing, which does worry me, but i am confident of your advice and will definatly try it!

2 responses to “Is there hope for a 3-year-old mare with her flighty nature and inability to learn?

  1. I have a yearling Arabian filly that I want to feed correctly. I have gone through countless pages of books, online websites, and opinions from feed stores, friends, trainers, and breeders. EVERYONE is an ‘expert’ – no one has a consisant opinion and I’m getting frustrated.

    What I DO know, is that she is doing really well on her Orchard/Alfalfa (30% alfalfa or less) and now that she’s a yearling I want to drop her Protien from 16% to 14%. She gets 2 Qts a day of the grain. She ok on the feed I was giving her, but I DON”T like how sweet it was. She has free access to the hay, and I’m wanting to put her on something that she will truly benefit from as far as her graining. I saw in another post your comments on Arabians and sweet feed and its effects on their coat and system.

    What are your opinions on feeding the Growing Arabian Yearling? Do you think their tendency to take a little longer to mature physically should change the “regular” young horses diet? In what way?

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