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What to do when your ‘perfect’ horse is beside herself

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - December 6th, 2012 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: I have a lesson horse that is my best money-maker at the ranch because she is easy to ride and everyone’s first pick. I can always trust she will take care of the rider and show them a good time. Here’s the problem: When another horse gets near her, she expresses all the signs of aggression. That’s why we do the lessons away from horses. I’m afraid to start something I won’t be able to handle, causing the good side of my horse to change. Should I worry?
Christina Walker, Pine Valley

HEY CHRISTINA: Thank you for taking time to ask a question about an issue that you feel needs further adjustiment to your particular situation for the sake of safety. I’m sure many folks feel the same way which will help them as well.

Yes, of course, you should worry. It just shows that you care and that you are responsible — as all good horsemen should be. Anytime I approach a new situation or challenge, I always focus on worse possible scenario and think backwards from there; that way, there are no bad surprises.

Believe it or not, this is a very specific and different question from all my previous columns. Usually, people ask me to help them come up with solutions in order to change a horse or a horse’s behaviors that they are not happy with. The horse you have, if it was the only horse on earth, in your eyes is perfect. It’s not until another horse comes around that bad things happen. So, really, you have a great deal to lose, including money. You really don’t want to change your horse; you just want to add to her. The solution lies more in the evolution of her social skills than it does in taking something bad away. The way your mare is expressing herself is absolutely NORMAL and NATURAL, but not necessarily acceptable. All she is trying to do is protect herself and her surroundings. She is doing nothing different than you would do if someone intruded your space or what you have come to regard as yours. This is not a behavior that necessarily defines who your horse is. It’s just a feeling about something she needs to get through.

All we have to really do is sell her on the idea that other horses are nice and come in peace without getting anyone hurt in the process. Now the process I’m talking about is quite easy and involves being active, which is the best part about being on a horse. We are going to create a scenario where your mare will change her preconceived notion of not wanting other horses around to appreciating them and hoping that they’re there.

First: Take your horse into the round pen and warm her up at the walk, then trot and finish cantering on both sides. It is important at the end of this, you stop on the rail and let her rest while scratching her and letting her know she did well. The standing on a loose rein and patting her are the rewards we will be associating with the second step.

Second: Introduce another horse and rider to the mix by asking them to step up to the outside of the round pen and walk towards your mare. At the first sign of aggression on the part of your mare, simply ask her to canter around the pen at a pretty good clip until the signs of aggression go away. The horse outside the pen simply needs to stand by the rail and wait until this happens. It won’t be long before your mare’s focus will turn AWAY from the horse standing there, TOWARD the need to rest. Do you see where we are going with this? As soon as you recognize a softening in her attitude, finish the lap around the pen with a transition to a walk as you approach the standing horse. Continue to walk and instruct the other rider to mirror your actions. If the aggression returns repeat step 2 until walking is not an issue. We need to have your mare look forward to stopping next to any horse and see them as a safe and happy resting place.

Third: As soon as appreciation for other horses sets in without signs of distaste on the part of your mare while walking, have your helper break off away from the pen and have your horse stand in order to celebrate her new accomplishment.

Remember that we are not looking to punish her for bad behavior. This would only add negativity and a bad association to you at an already negative experience. We are looking for an excuse to reward for an already established exercise (cantering) or a new welcomed attitude. If you recognized that your mare slipped in her attitude but then caught herself and tried to disguise her behavior, I feel that turning a blind eye at that situation would be in order. Welcome the approach of your helper back to the rail to mirror your walk until you achieve the standard that you are looking for. Repeat this step until a positive pattern is established then work the other side. We do not want to do any other gait than a walk or a halt because we do not want to associate the benefits of being social with work. Working side by side through the gaits should only be done when there is no mental issue with being social. Otherwise you may curve the aggressive actions but not the expression — she’ll do it, but she won’t like it.

Christina, you will be amazed how quickly you will achieve what you are hoping for, in an exercise that is mentally and physically positive for both you and your horse, while having fun.

Keep always and above all, a trust in 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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