Question: I have a four year old Morgan who was doing terrific in her training and then I hurt my back. I couldn’t ride, had her trainer working with her and an experienced rider exercising her. I had just started to get back to walking on her in early August when she started pinning her ears for everyone who got on her back and refusing to move forward. We had her saddles checked by a certified saddle fitter, had the vet come out and check her (she’s also a chiro/accupuncture expert) and we let her rest for over two weeks. I’ve stayed off her; only her trainer works with her but she still will sometimes put her ears back or kick out when she’s asked to move forward into trot. It’s now mid-October–what haven’t we thought of to solve this? She was doing so well all of last year and had moved into learning to canter before this started!
Answer from April Reeves: Hi SallyAnne. This is a common problem but not easily solved at this stage. There may be several things going on here to build this mare up to this point so I will go over them individually.
Multiple riders: regarding having more than one person ride your horse, especially a young or green one. Humans need to fully understand how sensitive horses really are. While you may think both these riders ride the same as you, nothing is farther from the truth. It sounds like you started the mare and you both were getting along fine. Often instructors can ride a student’s horse for a short time, but eventually the horse may become frustrated at the slightest variance. Rider weight distribution through turns, balance, hand position and more all signal to the horse to do something. Without consistency, a horse can become agitated and bitter. And eventually fight back, if the horse has a tendency to this in the first place. There are many horses that will just tolerate it and shut down. That’s the other side of the problem.
I will give you an example of just one of the barns I teach at that suffers endlessly from this method of multiple riders, and has not figured it out yet. There is a 5 year old mare with little to no real training. I taught one student on this mare’s mother, and at the beginning it was a nightmare, as others would ride her, even though the owner said they all ride the same and are good riders. The mare eventually became a full lease to this student and things improved dramatically. We spent a year in shows doing exceptionally well. The student left and the horse went back to “other good riders”, where the mare went back into anxiety and stress, and at the age of 16, died in the pasture one day. No blood tests could find the problem. I knew what the problem was, but no one was listening.
I was asked to ride this mare’s filly. I only work young horses if I am the only person that touches them for the first 6 months. I was assured of this. At month 3, when this mare was making great headway, I found a group of kids riding the filly in the field. I stopped training on the filly that day.
I now teach another adult student on this filly, but the same signs are showing up in her as was in her mother. She is highly anxious and strung tight. It’s only a matter of time when fates collide.
Your statement “she started pinning her ears for everyone who got on her back” was the trigger for me. You don’t need anyone else on your horse. You have an instructor that’s good. You have support. You seem to be doing well. If your back still hurts, do slow work. Much can be accomplished at a walk: indeed, most of my work for precision is at a walk. I call it “the forgotten gait”. Everyone uses it at the end of the ride only. The walk is such a valuable tool.
Mares: I have ridden countless mares and find them to be the best, over geldings and stallions. When you get a good mare, you get a great one. I believe it’s because, like stallions, they have all their hormones. But one truth I know for sure, many of them are sensitive and one-person animals. Not everyone can ride a stallion, and the same goes for mares. So now we have this issue with your mare and being asked to accept 2 additional riders. Although I can’t watch this in person, I can put money on it that she is acting out her disgust at the lack of consistency (which humans cannot feel) and having to “process” each command given that has any variance what so ever. Not all mares can take this, especially at a young age.
Speed training: We ask too much too fast sometimes. Horses learn faster by going slower and steadier. Humans often have a difficult time acknowledging this, and trainers often push a horse before they are ready. Often you will know this is happening through the reaction the horse will give back. In your case, your mare is telling you something on no uncertain terms.
Punishment: I see far too many riders/trainers punish a trait out of a horse, thinking the horse needs “discipline”. What horses need is consistency (I keep going back to this because some things are worth repeating). When a horse does something you don’t want him to do, set him up to do the right thing. You can alter the habits of a horse easier by working with the things he does well, reward him often, and bring in new information once the horse is not just comfortable but firmly established in a permanent pattern to his previous training.
I’m not saying this was what was happening, but I am giving you big clues as to how to solve the problem of her pinned ears and kicking out. If you were to show any form of aggressive vocals when her ears go back, or spank her for her kicking, you could increase those nasty habits. Slow down, find something she’s good at and likes to do, reward the heck out of her (I like treats) and eventually she will enjoy her work.
I have watched brilliantly trained top show horses move into homes with really lovely riders on the outside, but instead of using proper “tools” to get through rough spots, they take it out on the horse, destroying the symbiotic relationship you can have with your mount.
Morgans: I have trained and showed many of them. I do know that there are certain lines that are more emotional than others. I have witnessed a Morgan gelding have a complete mental breakdown from being pushed too far too fast: it’s something you won’t ever forget. My first show horse was a Morgan mare, and one of the best horses I ever had. No one else rode her the whole time I owned her, and it showed. Beautiful, loyal, honest, faithful, trustworthy and kind. This is not a horse I got by chance: this was a horse I built, step by step, as she was emotional, and you could either bring it out or pay attention and ride her with respect. Many horses only ask that you meet them half way.
Back issues: you can test muscle damage yourself by running your thumb and index finger lightly down the back on either side of the spine. Start light so you don’t get hurt. Go back and repeat, adding pressure. If the horse still doesn’t flinch, repeat and add quite a bit of pressure, but not so much that any horse would flinch under this. You will know right away if it’s a back issue, and all horse owners need to know this simple exercise.
Equipment: Anyone using spurs improperly? Seen this more times than I want to. We can count the saddle as a neutral since you had a professional out. I examine everything: bit fit, headstalls, girths/cinches, saddle pads, everything. I was called to a big barn to work with a great horse that just started bucking out of the blue. I tore the saddle off to find a small piece of wood lodged in the sheepskin, poking him in the kidneys. The horse went back to work and was fine. I could have discovered this and brought the horse out and ridden him: his owners would have though I was magic, but it was a valuable lesson for them to look for the smallest of things. Overlook nothing.
Inconsistency: Here’s that “consistency” thing again! Everything we do is “training”. Everything. Should a horse begin to balk, and that balking and “getting sticky” is not addressed by the third time it happens, you have now begun to set up a bad habit (human words) but really, you’ve established “training”. The horse does not know the difference between bad training and good training. Maybe it’s not the training you wanted to see, but none the less, to the horse, it’s training/habit. If your mare went unchecked for too long by either of the other riders, she may have considered herself to be suppose to NOT move forward and getting sticky is okay. Then she’s either smacked or punished for the very thing she was just “trained” for, and in this, you set up a pattern for anxiety and aggressive behaviors as the horse “acts out” from sheer frustration. This is not an easy thing for many to see, but after enough years you can see this being set up within one ride. If a horse does not have a solid, consistent background, anyone can mess the horse up, unconsciously. People don’t mean to: it’s a tough habit for a rider to get out of or even realize they are doing it.
I find when a rider is off for a while, consider it a good break for the horse. She is only 4. Her bones are still growing, especially her spine, more so than her legs. My thoughts: get everyone off the mare and only you work with her. You can longe her, take her for walks and do a lot of other things with her to re-establish your bonds. This is so vitally important for mares. They are strong herd members, and thrive on one-to-one contact. Just try it for 2 months and see if it works. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you were my student I would suggest to keep your horse to yourself. If you don’t feel you have the ability to get the horse where you want it to go, either set your standards to a place your mare can work with, go slower, take lessons that deal specifically with the problem you are having at that point (I find way too many instructors hold students back or don’t focus on riding in the “here and now”).
And if your back still hurts, give me your address off this site and I’ll send you a free non-drug pain reliever that’s awesome. It’s my horseman’s little secret….
Thanks for the question SallyAnne and I hope something here resonates for you!
Thank you for such an amazingly detailed and inspirational answer. I’ve read and reread this so many times. Youv’e given me such insight into this horse–and now I get it. She has always been proud and has always wanted to get things right and just as I was getting back on her she was being ridden by too many others who each had their style and struggles with her. Your description of her “fighting back” resonated with me–that’s her spirit.
I’m a new rider so I’ve been dependent on the trainer and by extension the young riders at the barn but throughout it all my trainer has been telling me not to “share” my horse. We’ve put in one of your changes–everyone is off her back except the trainer who took her back to the basics and me to a tiny degree until I get my own riding back up to a confident level. I took her out on the trail with a ride this weekend and we did great together; she was happy and relaxed and I remembered why I loved being with her. Right now we’ll stick to that, walks and visits and some real simple ground work until her confidence is restored. Yesterday she rode with the trainer, ears forward, for the whole lesson and only looked at her leg when she briefly touched her with it to give her direction.
Awesome SallyAnne – I’m so glad! I knew you would get the meaning of this answer! That mare is lucky to have you as her “human”. Let me know if there are any future issues, but by the sound of it, you are in good hands with your trainer, and you are on your way to being a good horseman!
Just wanted to bring you up to date on my mare–it’s been a year. We are doing amazing together: blue ribbons at the last three shows and champion to boot. But more importantly, we are a team and she just gets more and more confident and brilliant in her movements. And I am also concentrating on improving all the small details on my end as well so I can be the kind of rider she needs! Thanks again!
Thank you for the update Sally! I’m so happy everything is working for you! This is what happens when a person applies themselves and does the work. Good for you! Keep in touch: love to hear about your horse adventures!
This is such a wonderful article! I have a wonderful 3year old mare, a Missouri Fox Trotter. She has had 90 days of professional training.
She took to the saddle without issue, and also the bit. I’ve had her since she was a yearling. We have built a wonderful relationship together. I am also a first time horse owner. This has been a wonderful journey of watching her grow to be a beautiful sensitive, funny and lovable filly.
I can certainly appreciate what you have said about letting others ride your horse.
Two days ago I let my husband ride her around the round pen, he said that she wouldn’t’ do anything he asked her to do, but she kept coming up to me,
I would send her on around again, because I thought she should listen and follow his direction, but now I can see that this was the wrong thing to do.
He was heavier than I am and he used less finesse in giving directions than I use with her. when he got off of her I got back on and she start having a temper tantrum for the gate to be opened. That told me she had enough of all of this. She had an attitude where she was shaking her head and stomping her front feet wanting to get out of the gate, I slapped her on her shoulder and had her go around the ring once more. My trainer said that I should do something like this because she is a baby, and that would get her mind back on the job and me. It seemed to work , and when the gate was open she walked out and she walked back to the barn just like I would have wanted her to do. Do you think I was wrong in scolding her with a slap?
Not at all. I have a saying, “sometimes you have to spank Fluffy” and a slap often puts the brain back into the skull….it’s one of the few ways I use when necessary, and usually with mares… I do have a very tight regime on “scolding”, as it’s the horse’s way of saying something isn’t right, and that’s when, as a horseman, you either listen and become better, or you scold and become bitter. It takes humbling to be able to listen and adjust. I’ve been starting a big warmblood and have had to undo a great deal before re-establishing good foundation work. Not once have I had to scold this horse. Instead, he’s made me sit back and rethink a great deal, of which I’m grateful for. We only think we teach them: yet in reality, they are our greatest teachers.
I’m curious about the pain reliever you mentioned. I live with constant knee and back pain but don’t want to go on narcotic pain meds. I can’t find your e-mail anywhere to ask you about it though!
It was likely Recovery EQ; the EQ is for horses but the product is the same for both human and horse. The horse is cheaper and you take a very small amount; about the amount you could hold in a vitamin capsule. I’ll try to email this to you as well Mandee.
I have a mare, who has always been a b@@ch, no one liked her but me, we get along great, everyone treated her like crap, didn’t or wouldn’t ride her, because of the way she acted, no one rode her for awhile, lady said let me have her, she either beat the crap out of her, n gave up on her, we don’t know, went n picked her up, she was nervous as heck, would not go in trailer, backed up n layed down, took a hour to get her in, she was shaking bad, two years later no one has ridden her, she’s my horse, im the only one who gets along with, everyone hates her, n u can tell, n I think she knows it, i take her on lead away from barn, towards the pasture were the others are, down the road, she’s fine, walks a little fast, but ears up, licking, we go past the driveway, away from the other horses, by herself, ears pinned tight to her head, head snaking, shaking, refusing to move, we get her finally going, she is the same way, she’s fine riding with other horse’s, but don’t like being the last horse, she lunges great by herself, you can ride her as long as u are with someone, the trainer said she refused to go any were alone, any help please, she’s 16, teeth, feet, great health,
Just lurking here from Sundre area hoping to learn some things. (Training a green young wildie. I’m neither green nor particularly experienced. So far so good.)
I just wanted to say that this “resonated” with me:
“And if your back still hurts, give me your address off this site and I’ll send you a free non-drug pain reliever that’s awesome.”
The world needs more folks like you. Right-on. As is the rest of this response.
Hello Jon, thank you for the reply! And a neigh-bor apparently! If you have anything you think is worth filming, let me know. I’m starting now to put up video and more articles on deeper subjects about the horse. Any and all suggestions are welcome!