It’s obvious this guy has some trauma. But, at the same time, he’s a pretty sensitive and reactive guy. So, how much of it is new and how much of it is his personality. After just a few days of working with him I’ve determined that the “unwanted behavior”, not allowing anything to touch him without shaking and trying to bite it, is learned. It’s not a sensory behavior that cannot be fixed. Here’s why: he’s fine with being brushed, he’s fine with being hosed off in the wash stall. Likewise, he doesn’t overreact when a fly lands on him. The most important part… he doesn’t just react when I actually put a rope or something on him, he still reacts when I go through the “motion” of putting something on him and not actually following through; as if I were going to throw the rope but don’t actually let it go.
Horse training is a lot of “best practice”, but also involves a lot of trial and error and thinking outside the box.
My idea day one was to push him a little and see if I could mentally and physically exhaust him to make the behavior become less of an issue. But, by day two, he was pretty relaxed with the ground work so pushing him from the start would have been unnecessary and done nothing but give him more anxiety. So, instead, if I put the rope on him and he has an unwanted response, I would move his feet with purpose as opposed to working him first, then allow him to relax and try again. This was working.
By day three, I was seeing steady improvement. First going through the motion of throwing the rope, then actually throwing the rope. There were times he didn’t anticipate and didn’t shake. He also started yawning and standing with a relaxed, calm look in his eye. We are making progress!!
With a horse like this, when their brain can’t slow down, we have to slow things down for them! Allow them to lean in a relaxed manner. The saying “slow and steady wins the race” is very true when training horses. I will continue to keep Nico learning. Stay tuned while we work…From the Ground Up!
Why train horses? I like the challenge. Can I get this done? Can I make this horse better? I am very competitive, but It’s not me against the horse, or me against me. It’s just about wanting to improve on what I know and see if I can implement it to help make horse better than when it started with me. I work with a lot of different horses; different breeds, different disciplines and different issues, non-issues and so on. The toughest horse I’ve ever worked with was a 7yo paint gelding who had never been touched, and he was fearful. He had to be loaded into the trailer much like a wild mustang would be, 6' mental round pen panels made into a chute.
How I fell into this particular type of training, I honestly don’t know. During my time learning from John Lyons and Josh Lyons, we did a lot of problem solving as well as learning how a horse moves, why they move the way they do, how they think and how to think ahead of the situation. The style of training allowed me to grow my toolbox and gave me the confidence to think outside the box and problem solve, We also learned the detailed process of starting and finishing horse. I guess you could say we ran the gamut. But, for some reason, problem horses just became my bag. I do get young horses in my barn to bring along, as well as sale horses, but those are a smaller portion of my clientele.
I am typically introduced to a client because they need to get their horse back on track, or it may be a little tougher to start. Most recently, I was approached by a new client with an 11yo Morgan gelding. She bred him and has had him his entire life. He’s shown extensively, has given lessons… basically has done a bit of everything and well! So, what’s the problem?
I try to get the whole story when I’m meeting a new client. How old is the horse? How long have you owned him/her? What behavior are you uncomfortable with? When did the behavior start? And the most important question… have you had a vet evaluate the horse to eliminate and pain related responses?
After we talk, or after I let the client tell me all about their horse, I work with him/her to see if they display any of the behaviors the client discussed. I can generally tell in a short time what the problem is and how to fix it. Likewise, I can usually tell fairly quickly if the horse will respond to the training. The one thing I don’t typically know is how long it will take. That’s up to the horse; the one thing I have absolutely no control over. Don’t get me wrong, I can push and get results, but how long it takes to stick is up to the horse.
With 16 years experience, I do have a pretty deep toolbox. But, there are times where I have limited experience or limited knowledge. The problem that this 11yo Morgan has… I have never seen anything like it and I don’t know if I will be able to fix it. I do have ideas on how to approach it, but I won’t know until I try. I have to really reach outside the box on this one.
So, what is the horse doing? Basically, anything that touches him causes him to react in an aggressive way towards the object and the handler. He will shake his body, and eventually reach around and try to bite it off, likewise, he will try to throw his shoulder at the handler and try to bite the handler. And when I say anything… I mean even the reins over his neck.
During the initial evaluation, I met the horse while he was standing calmly on the cross ties. I listened to the owner's story and my initial thought was ‘it can’t be that bad, he’s standing pretty quietly now’. After we talked, I wanted to work with him a bit, so I had the owner put the bridle on. I didn't want her to put the reins over his neck until we got outside for safety reasons. We took him to the outdoor and I wanted to get right to it to see what his reaction would be. I put the lunge line on him, put the reins over his head just behind his ears, then tied them up under his throat latch. I then slid the reins down his neck and sent him out on the lunge… she was right, he freaked out; shaking, coming towards me with his shoulder and eventually turning to bite at the reins… I’ve never seen anything like this. And it basically happened overnight.
Two vet opinions, blood work, xrays… nothing. Nothing except… instead of shipping him to the indoor without the saddle, the owner decided to ship him saddled with a cooler in 20 degree weather. After that it went down hill fast. I don’t think the owner did anything wrong by shipping him saddled or with a cooler. So, the horse was not handled inappropriately.
Over the next several weeks, I will be continuing to work with the gelding at my farm to see if I can get to the bottom of it and help this horse get back to normal. I’ll continue to write blogs to keep you all in the loop. I’ll take it one step at a time, and start…From The Ground Up.
John Lyons Certified
Horseback Riding Lessons
Jessica Forliano is a John Lyons Certified Trainer specializing in Problem horses / behavioral issues and starting young horses and ponies under saddle. Her passion shows through the accomplishments of each of horse or pony she works with as they reach their potential in the show ring.