Monday, January 31, 2011

Is ear-pinning a sign of worse things to come?

I bought and adorable 6 year old small show pony this week at the auction at USEF Pony Finals in Kentucky. He is great when you ride him but very green. The problem is that he pins his ears at you when you approach him. He then licks you if you don't show fear. I am confused by this behavior and worry that it is a sign of bad things to come. The previous owner says that he was gelded just two years ago and broke to ride a year ago. She also said that he needs to get to know you and has been ridden by many children. He is also very hand shy and it looks like he might have been abused by his reaction.

Congrats on the new pony! You've brought up a few different issues here, and I want to address each one.

1. The pony pins his ears when you approach him. You say he then licks if you don't show fear, but you don't mention what he does if someone acts fearful or how you approach him. Horses like humans are individuals, and some of them are just grumpy. I have a one here that I call Mr. Grumpy Pants (a non-scientific term!). He walks around with his ears back and puts them further back when you first approach him, especially if he's in his stall or its dinner time. He has good ground manners, though, and I ignore his pinned ears. He's just a grumpy horse.

You don't mention where your pony is nor how you approach him. If he pins his ears when he's in his stall and eating, then leave him alone during dinner time. When I feed my horses, I figure that's their time to eat and hang out. I don't ask them to do anything else and if they put their ears back at me, I ignore it (I will not ignore bad behavior like kicking, biting, etc.).

If the pony's ground manners are otherwise good, then I would ignore his grumpy attitude. By good ground manners, I mean that he doesn't kick or bite, he leads and stands tied, etc. You can't really discipline a horse for having his ears back - all you are likely to do is make him more grouchy.

2. He was gelded two years ago. Unless he's displaying stallion-like behavior (calling to mares, chasing and attempting to mount mares in the field, etc.), I wouldn't worry about this. Four isn't a late gelding age, and many stallions are gelded at four years (or even later) and adjust just fine to being geldings.

3. He is hand shy and you believe he was abused. You've touched on a big pet peeve of mine: horses being labeled abused because they act a bit headshy. Truly abused horses are few and far between - there are many who are not taught properly, but there are very few who are truly abused.

You don't describe what he does when you move your hands around his head, but I would wager that he's not headshy/abused. He may have learned that if he moves away from contact with his head, he'll be left alone and not have to work. Or he may never have been taught to stand nicely while his head is handled. Another possibility is that he just wants to be left alone or doesn't like being petted on his head. If that's the issue, pet him on his shoulder instead of his head and see how he reacts.

If your horse is violently headshy meaning he throws his head into you, strikes out with his front feet, tries to spin around and kick or displays other behavior that could get you hurt, then seek a professional trainer who can help him overcome these issues.

If he just moves his head away, puts his ears back or walks off, then you can work with him and start desensitizing him to having his head handled. It is best to have him in a halter and leadrope and leave him untied. Hold the end of the leadrope with one hand. Move the other hand around his head. Let him toss his head, move around (keep enough pressure on the leadrope, though, that he moves in a circle around you with his hindquarters away from you). Keep moving your hand until he stops moving, drops his head and licks and chews. This is a sign he's relaxed. Stop immediately, pet him, let him rest a minute, and then start again. If he's ok with your hands moving around, move closer to him and repeat. Keep this up until he's letting you touch his head and standing quietly. This is not necessarily something you can accomplish in just one training session.

During the handling sessions, if he gets worse or starts to react aggressively, then back up and repeat the last successful step. If you are unable to complete even one step successfully, then seek professional help.

Good luck with your new pony - I hope he turns out to be just what you were wanting!

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