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Are all horses Trainable?

you may be interested in reading Establishing Leadership


Years ago I believed that all horses were trainable but after working with horses for over 30 years, I have changed my mind.  There have been a variety of kinds of problem horses including stallions that couldn’t be led much less be in a stall with a person.  Every horse has a different potential for training. Some horses are easy to train. I’ve had Mustangs that I was able to take out on the trail by the second ride but I have also had Mustangs that took two months of work before I took them on the trail. I have worked with domestic horses that took even longer than that to get out on the trail because their Natural Survival flight instinct had to be dealt with first. Every horse must be evaluated based on its individual background, previous training, emotional, mental and emotional state. So, what I have found after years of working with hundreds of horses is that there are a small percentage of horses that cannot be trained and the reason for that is their Flight/Fear/Fight natural survival instinct perhaps their most important survival mechanism! 

We can’t train all fearful, spooky, flighty and nervous horses never to be afraid but we certainly can build their confidence!  We can use exercises to link their minds and ours to exercises  that will help us help them deal with their  fears so that they do not become  so scared that they buck, rear , bolt  or become good horses with bad habits!   

Assessment of the Equines' Flight/Fear/Fight Trait

Whether we are  retraining, purchasing, selling, starting or before riding a new horse the first step is an assessment by an experience horseman or trained profession.  The process is aimed at fully assessing if the horse's flight, fear, fight level is acceptable. For more info read; Assessment/Evaluations

What is a Fear Response?

The flight response is variable in every horse.  The characteristics of a fear response are fight, flight, or freeze. In the horse, flight is the most readily used response. Flight does not always mean bolting away in complete panic, however. As Dr. Andrew McLean states in his article Fear Principle, “the flight response is extremely variable… it can be fully on or partially on.” Flight can be as simple as attempting to increase the distance between the horse and the object of fear. It may be a head shy horse raising their head, or a horse jumping to the side in a spook. Flight can be a horse constantly going too fast, or rushing towards jumps.  Other signs of fear or tension include tail swishing, high head carriage, a hollow back, teeth grinding, or refusal to move – known as freezing.

 

The Horse’s Fear Response

When riding and training our horses, fear is one of our biggest adversaries. The vast majority of accidents with horses are due to the horse being afraid and responding to that fear through bolting, bucking, jumping to the side, leaping forward, kicking, striking, rearing, etc. Horses are hard-wired for fear, they evolved to run from predators, throw them from their backs with a strong buck, or stand and fight them through striking and kicking.  As riders and horse owners, we may have many questions about handling this emotional response from our horses. What causes fear? How do I know if my horse is afraid before it escalates to dangerous levels? How can I calm him? Is there a way to prevent unpredictable behaviors resulting from fear? If I am a better leader will my horse will my horse recognize there is nothing to be afraid of?  When a horse acts in fear, they become very unpredictable. They may run into their handler, ignore the rider’s aids and in cases of complete panic may even run through fences or crash into jumps as their brain is under the control of stress chemicals and the horse’s perception of other things in the environment is diminished. In order to keep ourselves and our horse’s safe, understanding fear, recognizing it and looking to reduce or eliminate the fear while controlling the movement of the horse is critical.


Different Causes of Fear Memories

A fear memory can have two causes. The first is a past abusive experience and the other is introducing a new thing or a new sensation too quickly. It’s best to prevent fear memories from forming in the first place because a bad fear memory is very difficult to completely correct. A horse’s first experience with trailers, shoeing or new equipment should be very positive. A bad first experience is more likely to create a fear memory.  Fear memories that are associated with bits or other tack can be caused by abuse or by introducing the item too rapidly so that the horse is never habituated to it. A common problem that is created by introducing new sensations too quickly is a horse that bucks when it changes gait. He does that because the saddle feels different at each gait. If he’s been habituated to the saddle at only a walk and a trot, when he moves to a canter the saddle suddenly feels like a novel stimulus.


Behavioral Signs of Fear

It is really important to recognize the behavioral and physical signs of fear. A fearful horse switches his tail. As he becomes more scared, the tail moves faster. Other signs are a high head, sweating when there is little physical exertion, and quivering skin. A really frightened horse gets bugged-out eyes and the whites show. When a horse is being introduced to any new procedure such as loading on a trailer or picking up his feet, training sessions should be kept short and ended before fear escalates into an explosion that can form a bad fear memory. When a few tail switches start, end the training session with the horse doing something right. If a horse gets really agitated during shoeing or a veterinary procedure, the best thing to do is to let him calm down for thirty minutes.   A common mistake people make is mixing up fear and aggression. Most behavior problems that occur during handling, veterinary procedures, loading, and riding are caused by fear or pain — not aggression. The worst thing that can be done to a frightened horse is to punish him by hitting or yelling. Frightening or painful punishment makes fear worse.


If Our Horse Trusts us as a Leader, Will they learn not to be Afraid?

I have often overheard or been asked the question, “if I am a good enough leader for my horse, will it no longer be afraid in new or frightening situations as long as I am present and calm?”  Horses can learn to trust us if we are consistent and fair, and our relationship will certainly be much better if they form good associations with our presence, instead of associating us with fear, pain, or tension.  I believe we do have to be careful how we think about “leadership” when handling our horse; our ability to stay calm will help our horse to be more calm as well, but more importantly, staying calm allows us to assess the situation and respond appropriately. However, the expectation that our calm presence alone will always keep our horse relaxed and quiet is bound to set us up for disappointment.  We cannot teach a horse not to be afraid but we certainly can use exercises on the ground and in the saddle to help the horse work through its fear by focusing on us rather than what it is fearful of!

 

Some cannot be trained

Out of the thousands of horses in this country, there are probably 3 or 4 percent that I would say cannot be trained due to emotional, mental and/or physical problems.

 

·         Some horses just belong in a bucking string. People don’t like to hear that but today, bucking stock is well cared for, fat and sassy, only worked once or twice a week and it is not really a bad gig. I speak with tongue in cheek but just because you don’t get along with your horse or you are having training problems doesn’t mean the horse can’t be trained.

·         Truly, there are some horses that just don’t like humans on their backs. I have also worked with a couple of horses that had mental defects. One client told me that her horse had a major artery collapse and oxygen deprivation occurred at birth. I worked with the horse for a week and it was coming along but then after two days off, I had to start all over again. After a month of this I had the client take the horse home because there was never going to be improvement and the horse should just be a pasture or companion horse. I’ve run across several rescued horses like this where an emotional, mental or physical impairment including fear memories prevented learning.

·         There are other horses that have issues but are trainable and, with the right rider, one who is confident can be a good mount. I usually expect basic training for most horses to take around two months, but for some horses it may take 4-6 months before the “switch in their mind flips on.” I have evaluated horse that never should be sold.   One was a very high maintenance horse and that needed constant work on maintaining his training on a regular basis. We got along just fine, but with someone else who was less confident, the horse would not work out. Most of my clientele are older and they do not want a horse like this. It is important to match the horse with the rider. Otherwise, the rider may get hurt and the horse will get a bad reputation. Unfortunately, I often see the mismatch of horse and rider.

Most clients want me to do all the training and riding; it doesn’t matter that I can train and/or ride the horse; the owner must participate in the training in order to understand and be able to correct bad behavior the undesirable behavior occurs. It is good to have a relationship with your horse, but the horse will be safer and more pleasant to be around if it is accustomed to working it on the ground and in the saddle.    We need to train our mind and the horse’s mind to exercises on the ground and then link our mind to the horse’s mind mimicking similar exercises in the saddle.  If we and our horse are not programmed to use exercises to control the horse’s feet we cannot capture the mind of the horse, we can’t control the emotions. If we can’t control the emotions, it is difficult to train the emotional, mental and physical parts of the horse.  Some horses may be more difficult than others to train, but I believe that most horses are trainable. We just need to be patient and consistent in our actions, and be willing to follow through. It takes years to develop a finished horse, but it is worth the effort and as you continue to work with the horse, you will also develop a better relationship with your horse.