Let’s face it. The reason that the horse is spoiled or a bad actor is because some arrogant biped caused the horse physical or emotional injury. 99% of the time it was not a congenital bad attitude.
Riders assign the label “bad attitude” to any action of the horse that the rider did not intend on eliciting or that the rider did not like. In most cases the horse is mirroring his own emotional conflict. The horse is telling you “Hey! I am “see the list below”
Any emotion exhibited by the horse, unpleasant or pleasant can cause the rider to punish the horse. Picture a young horse on a cold windy day that becomes happily excited and begins leaping nimbly about. The frightened rider then punishes the horse. The young horse thinks, “The rider does not like it when I am happy”. The rider probably wanted to discourage the leaping about but did not intend on the horse thinking he was being punished for feeling happy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is when a frightened horse spooks and runs off. The rider punishes the horse for “being disobedient” without addressing the horse’s reason for the spook—Fear.
The trainer charged with recovering a spoiled horse must be observant, disciplined and have a plan. If the horse is considered “spoiled” then the horse has ingrained habits to certain situations or disciplines. The trainer must have a plan for interrupting and replacing this unwanted behavior.
It is important to ask “What does the horse need?” because by addressing the horse’s problem you take away the trigger for the unwanted behavior and in the process develop trust between you and the horse.
Whole libraries of books and online articles are available for case-by-case examples and solutions. I cannot cover everything in this blog post but here is a thumbnail guide to finding a solution to your horse’s problem.
1. Rule out a physical complaint.
Come on, if it were you hurting then you would want someone to fix that first, right? Would you happily run a marathon in too tight shoes, would you?
2. Exactly what is the emotional problem?
Take a look the emotions listed above
Build a plan that addresses the base complaint.
For the love of god, don’t just grab the lead shank and make it up as you go along! That is probably how the horse got into the situation to begin with.
The hard part about this is accurately seeing what the horse’s problem is and not casting your own feelings into the horse that the horse does not own.
3. Change the venue
You may not have control over the horse’s meltdown but you have control over where it happens
When the horse’s behavior is triggered in the arena start by addressing things in the pasture or by riding out of the arena. The important thing is that you have a plan to lay a foundation of trust in the non-trigger area. You build the trust with some increasingly more stressful projects
4. Use the Buddy System
Herd animals use the example of their fellow herd members to decide to be frightened or to be brave. Let an older horse show the young horse correct behavior and confident attitudes
5. Change the Cue
When a certain use of the aids causes an angry reaction in the horse then simply teach another cue for the same movement. Be smart. Figure out a compromise.
I rode a horse that was taught to lope by touching the shoulder of the leading shoulder with the toe of the boot. The old trainer was a long legged guy and it was just easier than folding his leg back. It worked for him. But there I was, a short girl in a western saddle with stiff fenders. I was a comical sight trying to reach the shoulder with my toe. Worse, I could not even get close to “the spot”. The horse was a good egg and we eventually got a hybrid system of leads going that he was happy with and that I could physically accomplish.
6. Teach Don’t Punish
The famous teacher, Ann Sullivan, did not teach the blind-deaf child, Helen Keller, sign language by beating her.
By the time it gets this bad the horse has already had his fill with punishment. He/she probably has his dukes up ready to fight before you even ring the bell. Be smart; don’t even climb into the ring. Start by setting an example of cooperation on the ground with some exercises or even “feel good” projects on the halter. Whatever you do that builds trust will bleed over to under saddle work. Yes, the saddle may trigger the “bad attitude” but at least you will start off with a whole list of things you both agree on. You’ll have to be persistent. You will have to be clever. You will have to be disciplined.
To paraphrase Helen Keller “Be the Light in the Horse’s Darkness”
7. Catch the horse doing something “right” ten times every ride (at least every six minutes). Ignore wrong answers.
This will probably be a novel experience for the horse.
Keep praising any attempt at any behavior (no matter how “wrong”) that is NOT the trigger behavior. It’s a game of You’re Getting Warmer. Play it. You both will win.
I had a horse that would “lock up” and freeze anytime I began to cue piaffe. She loved passage and had no worries about that. I was reduced to leg yielding—then pausing but keep “prancing”—then leg yielding before she froze. I would not ask every day, just a day here and there. Immediately after a few piaffe steps I would go into something she enjoyed doing (passage, extend). It took months but we succeeded and had fun.
Some Additional Thoughts
You may never know just what happened to sour the horse to something. It is your job to figure out how to solve the horse’s problem.
If your riding skills are not equal to the challenge it is smart to hire the perfect person for the job.
What tactics do you use when recovering a spoiled horse?