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How can I calm my horse down again after he blows up from something new?

By RAY ARISS /Horsetrader columnist - November 18th, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY! How can I calm my horse down again after he blows up? Unless we’re doing normal patterns, he panics and his mind slips into another world – and he won’t listen to me anymore. Lead changes trigger his blow-ups, too.
–Kathleen, San Jose

HEY KATHLEEN: The answer to your challenge lies within your question. If the only time your horse doesn’t panic is when he’s doing normal patterns, then start creating patterns with everything he does in order to settle his mind. You do this with repetition and an understanding that there is value waiting for him at the end of each choice.

I’ve talked in previous columns about looking for an excuse to reward as an alternative to punishment. This philosophy applies precisely to your situation. Your horse associates a negative experience attached to the choices he is not clear or sure of. He is literally losing his mind over what may happen to him.

Let’s take the flying lead changes as an example. I am going to assume that when you ask for a lead or a lead change, if your horse makes a mistake you correct him (i.e. spur or spank) and ask again. Some horses can recognize they’ve done wrong and make an adjustment. Other horses, like yours, worry and focus on what will happen to them if they make a mistake. Consequently, they become distracted and mentally blurred with your efforts, resulting in failure. Their perception of what you are doing to them may be perceived as “the end of the world.” It doesn’t matter whether your punishment was appropriate and acceptable by most standards — some horses are just hypersensitive to things that scare them. They over-react.

If you “purposely misunderstand” an undesirable response by your horse and interpret it as his request for something else from you, it gives your horse (1) a way out and (2) an excuse to be rewarded. The good news is that you don’t have to be the bad guy in the eyes of your horse. I propose the next time your horse does something that you consider wrong, don’t punish. I want you to ask yourself this question. Can I reward him for this? If the answer is no, find an exercise that is slightly more taxing than what you are asking him to do, and reward him for that. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what can be more taxing than jumping over a 6-foot fence or doing 30 steps of piaffe. Prolonging a simple exercise until you see an element of regret in your horse’s eye and acceptance to the exercise is all that is needed to have a change of mind.

The thing to remember is, why you are attaching this consequence to begin with? It is not because he did something wrong. It is because you are looking for an excuse to say, ”good boy.” What’s important here is the intention behind your approach. Horses are masters at recognizing intention, so it is important to be clear in your mind what you are doing and why. This clarity of intention is critical if you expect your horse to be a settled, willing partner. Some reward-able exercises may include: circling/spiraling, backing up, turn on the forehand, flexing to a stop, and / or lateral exercises.

The next time you find your horse losing his mind over something, divert his focus to one of the reward-able exercises mentioned above and continue with it until he is settled and accepting before stopping. Rub and or scratch on him afterwards. Your horse will appreciate being taken away from what is blowing his mind until he is in the right frame of mind to deal with it. This process will help your horse get there. The last thing you want to do is add anxiety and pressure to confusion. You may sometimes feel the need to spur or spank in order to correct. Whenever I feel this to be the case, I try not to attach it to what I am teaching or working on. I instead apply it to the reward-able exercise as a form of motivation for more effort. The horse soon recognizes that what we are asking him to consider is the smart choice.

Kathleen, continue with this as necessary until you see the horse you are hoping for. As always, trust your instincts and think safe,


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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