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!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What do I do if my horse bucks again?

I was recently trail riding my 10 year old gelding that I purchased about 5 months ago. As we were riding down a ravine, my horse appeared to slip. When he slipped forward, I fell forward onto his neck. Then, as he was trying to get out of the ravine, he began to buck and bucked me right off. He has never bucked before with me, but now I'm concerned he will buck again. What do I do if he starts to buck (besides hold on for dear life)? Do I pull one rein to my hip, as if to stop? Any suggestions?

Congrats on the new horse! It is always exciting to add a new horse, but it can also be frustrating to adjust to a new horse. Of course, riding different horses in different situations is what makes us good horsemen and horsewomen.

You don't mention how experienced a rider you are, and that can make a difference in my answer. For example, if you aren't an experienced rider, you might not be able to tell whether or not your horse was bucking. Sometimes when a horse comes up out of a ravine or up a very steep hill, they take bounding or leaping steps that can feel like bucking. And if you aren't prepare for those leaps, then it is easy to be unbalanced and come off.

However if you are an experienced rider, then you probably know the difference between a leap and a buck. Your horse may have been bucking because you were unbalanced - you said you had slipped forward onto his neck. Sometimes an unbalanced rider can make a horse uncomfortable enough to buck. Or you may have startled him when you slipped onto his neck, and that may have made him buck. You can prevent those two things in the future. More riding time and lessons with a good instructor can help you develop better balance. Desensitizing your horse to you moving around in the saddle - leaning backwards and leaning forwards onto his neck can help him be better prepared in the future. You also should get your horse used to having you touch him on his neck, back, sides, etc. when you are on his back.

These bucks may have been an isolated experience: a reaction to stumbling, you slipping forward and then being unbalanced when coming out of the ravine. However if he bucks again, here are a few tips:

  • Try pulling his head up and sending him forward. It is more difficult for a horse to buck when their head is up and they're moving.
  • Teach him the one rein stop ahead of time and use if he bucks.
  • Teach him an absolute "whoa". That means teaching him that no matter what he's doing, when you say whoa he stops moving. This is what works best with my mare who occasionally bucks. If she starts, I say "whoa" loud and firm and she stops. However, she's been taught in training sessions that when I say "whoa" I mean to stop right now!

Good luck with your horse. I hope this helps and that you have many more enjoyable rides together.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How do I deal with separation anxiety in my show horse?

I have a 13 year old, Quarter Horse that is shown in western pleasure. He has been in training since his 2 year old year, and I purchased him as a 6 year old. When I bought him, he had no problems. However, over the years he has developed severe separation anxiety. Last week he and another horse went to a huge show. He was shown the first day, and then not shown again because his mental state deteriorated. He climbed the walls whenever the other horse was taken away to show or lunge. As long as someone or another horse was with him he was ok. I am at my wits end on what to do.

Separation anxiety can be such a frustrating problem for owners that I've published an article in EQUUS Magazine called Happy Together which discusses separation anxiety, and my first Behavior Q&A Column was about separation anxiety. Click here to read that column.

When dealing with separation anxiety, look at the horse in question. Is he normally a high-strung horse? They seem to be a little more likely to form such close ties to other horses. You said your horse had no problems when you first got him, so I'm guessing he wasn't overly prone to stress and creating such strong bonds. So something may have changed in his life to cause him to be easily stressed out at shows. You said he's been in training since he was two - so that's eleven years of training and showing. That in and of itself can be quite stressful. Maybe it is time for him to have some downtime, hang out, and just be a horse.

I would also have a vet check him out for physical problems. If he's in pain or uncomfortable, he's going to be stressed out at shows. And that stress may cause him to bond to another horse for comfort and companionship. Since he's been showing for so long, I would ask the vet to check him for ulcers as well since they can cause discomfort, leading to more stress.

You didn't mention if he was ok at home and only a problem at shows. If showing is the problem then once you've eliminated your gelding's sources of stress and given him some time off, it is time to go back to showing. Unfortunately, showing itself might be the source of his stress. So I would take it slowly: take him to some small, schooling shows. At first, just ride him around the grounds and don't enter him in the competition. If he deals with that ok and is willing to leave his buddy at the trailer or in the stall, then you can start showing him again. Make sure the experience is low-key and not stressful. You aren't showing to win ribbons, you are showing him so he can learn that the show ring is not so stressful and scary that he needs to cling to someone else for comfort.

If even riding him at the show grounds is difficult, then you have more work to do. I would start by taking him to shows and taking him on short walks around the grounds - start with five minutes. If he stays calm and doesn't get upset after five minutes, praise him and take him back to his stall or the trailer. If he gets upset, then you'll have to have even shorter training sessions. The goal is to have him listen to you and not panic for his friend. I would also haul him to the show with different horses - don't set him up to have one friend he relies on. Take longer and longer walks, always rewarding good behavior and heading back to the trailer/stall before he gets nervous and tense. Once he can handle walking around the grounds without his pal, then start riding him at the grounds, following the same procedure - short, low-key rides where you return before he gets upset, increasing the length of the ride over time. And eventually heading back into the ring.

This isn't a quick fix - but it is one that's more likely to get him back into the ring and winning again. If he's ok at shows now except when his pal is taken out of his/her stall, then you need to make sure to stable him at shows where he always has a companion.

Good luck!