I rode my gelding, Pico, out on trail about 5 days a week last summer. I guided tours off him and he did really well. Guests even rode him out on the trails. I moved him to a different barn for the winter and he is now refusing to go past a certain point on the trail, taking off with me, and acting up in a way that really scares me. He is even becoming difficult to catch, groom, and tack up. Why did my quiet, easy-going trail horse turn into a horse that I am scared to ride on trail?
In order to answer this question, I gathered a bit more information. What was happening in the horse/rider relationship last summer, the horse’s habits, the horse’s temperament, and changes in behavior at the new barn are all factors in understanding why this placid trail horse became out of control for this rider. There were clues along the way that a potential problem was developing. Those minor issues were not addressed and this more dangerous behavior is the end result. Let’s look at the details.
The Rest of the Story:
Through our conversation I learned that last summer, while working as a guide horse, Pico’s behavior started to escalate but this behavior was explained away as Pico getting burned out toward the end of summer. On the ground, Pico could be a little bit nippy. “Nothing major – just love nips” according to his owner. He could also be stubborn about picking up his feet – particularly for any guests who rode him. The owner informed me that she does not lunge or do ground work with Pico because he will not let her get behind his shoulder to move him forward in a circle around her.
While riding, Pico’s worst habit last summer was trying to run out of the open gate of the arena. With a little more prodding, I learned that he also bucked off a rider mid-summer, ran away with a rider mid- to late-summer, and dumped a third rider on trail (and returned to the barn which was 2 miles away) at the end of the summer ending his use for guest rides for the season. The owner never came off but indicated that she was having increasing difficulty getting Pico to cross the canal, which he had crossed hundreds of times, without “getting after him”.
I also learned that Pico was constantly getting beat-up over the summer by more dominant horses. He was in with a herd of 10-15 geldings and at the bottom of the pecking order. Upon moving to the new ranch, he was in a mixed herd of 4 and had become the dominant horse who pushed everyone around. He also went from regular exercise to time off for the winter.
As the weather started getting nice in the spring, the owner pulled Pico out and decided to head out on trail picking up where she left off last fall. Instead of her trusted mount she is riding a whirling dervish. Her method of addressing Pico’s behavior when he refuses to move forward on trail or tries to whirl and run for home is to correct him by growling and kicking or pulling him up in a tight circle. The owner is also using ridden arena exercises to pull the horse around in tear drop shapes to assert her dominance and “move his feet”.
This is a lot of information but critical in understanding what is happening in this relationship. When you get more of the story, you can see that there are many elements, including dominance issues, a lack of trust, a strained partnership, weak leadership, and heightened emotions, which contribute to a breakdown in communication and partnership. Let’s look at some potential (not the only!) solutions to begin repairing the relationship between Pico and his rider. These are thoughts on the first steps to get the process started – each horse and rider partnership is unique – techniques will vary based on the specific horse/human dynamics.
The initial objectives for this partnership are: to set boundaries, to build trust between horse and rider, and to establish confident leadership. There are certainly behaviors described above that suggests that there could be a bit of a dominance play on the part of Pico. It is extremely important to set very clear black and white boundaries around behaviors like nipping. Boundaries are extremely important to establish leadership and keep more dominant horses from taking charge of the relationship but they will also help a horse to feel more secure.
Some of Pico’s behavior indicates an insecure or unsure horse rather than just a dominant horse. He was hesitant to pick up his feet with strangers, he protected his body when his owner tried to move behind his shoulder, and he was initially at the bottom of the pecking order. If Pico was truly just dominant, he would have cocked a hip at his owner and shown defiance when lunging but he displayed defensive, uncertain behavior instead. Therefore, you cannot just address these issues with the assertiveness you would with an overly dominant horse to establish leadership. By overly correcting the dominance and pushing the horse forward too hard, you will create leadership by submission rather than developing trust and respect.
The owner needs to take the emotional charge out of the equation and become a leader that is reliable so that Pico will be willing to follow her lead. If you have a horse that is testing boundaries because he is slightly insecure and does not fully trust his rider to keep him safe, and the rider’s response is to “get after him” or control him, the result can be an escalation of fear and uncertainty. This then causes more fear and upset in the rider who tries harder to control her mount, the horse’s behavior escalates, and before you know it all reasonable communication is lost. We need to turn that downward spiral into an upward spiral. To do that, we will start in the arena rather than on the emotionally charged trail.
The first thing I would recommend is a full day together to bond, create boundaries, and build trust. Take Pico away from his herd, that has him all charged up as the leader, to spend one-on-one time with his owner. The day should involve no great ideas to “fix” Pico’s issues – just a genuine desire to build partnership. During that day it would be good for the owner to really evaluate the way she feels. What behaviors from Pico cause an emotional reaction? What is the root of that reaction? How can she look at this situation with a new perspective?
As the bond is repaired it is important to take a step back and build boundaries, trust, and leadership slowly to be able to return to the trail with a confident, well behaved partner. Some of the exercises I would recommend are:
- Turn Pico loose in the arena or round pen, sit in the center, and read a book. As he gets curious and pushy you are more likely to set boundaries because you are more vulnerable while sitting. You are also proving that you are there without an intention to do anything with him. This will allow him to relax in your presence.
- You can try playing with him – maybe teach him to play with a ball or go through an obstacle course. Be sure to do this at liberty (no halters or ropes) and without a set goal. Collaborate with Pico on how to accomplish tasks, listen to his feedback, and just have fun.
- Start leading from behind. Establish your leadership and build his trust by pushing him forward from behind the shoulder rather than leading him from in front of the shoulder. You can so this at liberty or on a line.
- Take him for long walks to find some yummy grass. Scratch all his favorite spots while you are out there to build his trust being handled and your confidence in controlling his behavior out of the arena.
- Groom him while he is at liberty. Do not tie him and claim a right to touch him everywhere. Work with him so that he is comfortable with you moving behind his shoulder, touching him everywhere, and picking up his feet.
- Establish ground work skills and lunging skills in the arena. Once you have great communication on the lunge, hand walk Pico out on the trail and utilize those communication skills to help him move forward down the trail. This will also build the rider’s confidence in her ability to lead him through his problem areas.
These are the basic parameters of exercises to work on with this type of behavior issue. Work with a professional to help you learn solid handling and body communication skills to safely work with your horse. The important thing to understand is that you do not need to address the issue where it is happening. You need to break the issue down into its component parts, work on correcting those issues, and build the partnership. When you return to the task that was causing a problem, it will either no longer be an issue or you will have the tools, partnership, and communication to work through them safely. As always, the most important thing is to maintain a heart connection with your horse.