HEY RAY! I recently adopted a 5-year-old Thoroughbred mare off the track. She behaves well except when I put a saddle on. Then she gets antsy and walks on top of me and sometimes rears. But once the saddle is on, she’s fine. How do I get her to stop before she gets too dangerous?
–April Zimmerman, Aguanga, Calif
HEY APRIL: Let me start by thanking you for creating a new home for a horse in need. As you probably already know, acquiring a horse—whether you adopt or buy—is the smaller part of the investment. The responsibility of figuring out what will be needed to make this commitment stick is where most of your efforts will go. If you truly want to be successful, you will have to be ruthlessly honest in the evaluation of your horse.
What concerns me about your question is that you seem to minimize the problem. You need to recognize that you have a horse that you should not trust in any situation until she learns to be sweet, willing and predictable (S.W.A.P.). It doesn’t matter whether the behavior is from fear, attitude, or both. Your horse needs to realize that as long as you’re with her, she has nothing to fear, regardless of the situation.
This feeling is something that you need to earn from your horse. I feel that the lesson of holding her ground can be better achieved by using anything that unsettles her other than the saddle, initially. That way if, she had a bad experience before she learned the lesson, it wouldn’t be associated with the saddle. Remember, the only reason that the horse moves is because she hopes that, by doing so, she will leave the scary object behind (saddle, blanket, paper, bag, whip, etc.). Do not tie or influence the horse by saying whoa or by pulling on her to stop, during this process. The connection you have to the horse by the lead line, reins, etc. is simply to help you keep up with the horse while she’s figuring out her next move.
The most that you should represent to the horse at this moment is a ball-and-chain that she’ll have to deal with if she chooses to move. The freedom of choice to move is hers. Once the horse realizes that she is not getting hurt, but moving is not helping her, she will eventually stop. This will be a good time to introduce the saddle. Continue to put the saddle on and off , over and over again, until she doesn’t move before you cinch her up. This will be an important step in re-establishing the trust that will make her S.W.A.P.
If at any moment she becomes aggressive or threatening to you in any way, have her back up until she has a soft eye and reward her for the back-up. You should practice backing up and rewarding her before you establish this as the “Reward-able Exercise” while on the ground. We are looking for an excuse to reward her, so don’t forget that backing her up is not punishment for the aggressive behavior.
I truly believe that the reason your horse has a problem with the saddle is because of lack of preparation. I’m convinced that somebody put a saddle on your horse’s back before properly desensitizing her from movement, sound, and sensation. When going back and working on these things, make sure your horse is not just simply tolerant, but truly accepting. I’ve talked about this in previous Hey Ray! columns.
April, I’m certain that if you follow these simple steps, not only will your mare perceive the saddle as being harmless, but she will appreciate the approach you have taken. If you don’t rush this process, it will take less time than you expect.
Always trust your instincts and stay safe,
Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com.