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When Your New Horse Goes Wrong

The arrival of your newly acquired horse is a special moment that you will never forget. How smoothly things go after your horse steps off the trailer is in large part up to you.

Akiko and Zen

                                      Akiko and Gambol's Genevieve

It's typical for horses that have not had much exposure off the farm where they were born to exhibit much anxiety when they find themselves in the hands of new people at a strange and foreign location with different horses in the vicinity.

Introducing a horse to anything new should be done slowly and with every effort to take things step by step so as not to heighten anxiety, and done in such a manner that encourages trust. Horses do not do bad things with intent, they do not plot and plan to be difficult. They are simply looking for guidance as to what they are supposed to do and seek ways to feel safe.

Many people consider themselves more 'experienced' in training horses than they truly are when it comes to understanding the equine brainbox and knowing how to handle and work with a frightened or anxious horse. This lack of experience results in a challenging situation that can quickly escalate into horse or human injury.

If you add into the equation the factor of taking a horse from a professional trainer's knowledge in handling and care and supplant a horse owner with less experience in the breed or gender even of a horse. Perhaps a new owner that rides horses that are already well-trained and well versed in what to expect from varietal cues and varietal personalities of riders and handlers versus one that is accustomed to training horses from birth to finish, then recipe for a disastrous outcome for work and learning in the first few weeks or months is tripled.

Horses that are fresh off the trailer, whether they have been around the block a few times or not, should always be settled first in a safe stall environment where they can relax and avoid direct contact with other equines. Leave the visitation of extra humans to another day too, and allow the horse time to settle. 

Turning a horse out should never be done in the evening or at night, as the horse has no opportunity to assess its environment. 

Neither should a horse ever be thrown out into an existing herd of horses, however small that herd, with no opportunity to meet and greet a mid level herd member over the fence and enjoy a few days of buddy up time with just the pressure of one new horse to become acquainted with and to work out the hierarchy. 

The buddy should preferably be of the same sex unless a stallion, and both horses should be carefully observed for compatibility. Adding one mare to a herd of gelding for example, will often cause one gelding to take command of the new female 'prize,' and set the mare up for a whole bunch of stress and worry.

Once the pair of horses are successfully introduced a third one and then a forth can be added. 

The attitude of, " Throw them all out together and let them get on with it," will almost certainly end in horses running through fences or jumping gates, or injury to one or more horses. A paddock or field, however large, is not the same as being out on the open range. 

I have written on this topic for over 25 years and it amazes me that as late as last week, I was still seeing advice to 'throw them out there,' pop up on a Facebook group.

When it comes time to work the new horse under saddle, it is wise to carefully pick the environment and allow time for the horse to explore and accept it in hand with ground work before riding.

One mare we recently sold went to a lovely lady called Akiko in Upstate New York. She wisely turned the horse out with a flake of hay in the indoor arena alone each day for a week, to give the horse time to become settled in the building before she began picking up the mare's current known level of training on the longe line. Even here she began at the beginning, adding components such as side reins and boots slowly.

Horses operate very much on, " What you see is what you get." They do not suddenly become perverse or untrainable and change personalities to become feral beasts. Horses live very much in the moment, taking their cues from those that handle and care for them. Trust is earned not taken, and demands must be appropriately directed with consideration for what works for a particular horse. Negative reinforcement, direct enforcement, positive reinforcement. Many horse owners don't even know the difference.

While things can go wrong for any horse and their owner at anytime and smooth transitions from one home to another can sometimes be difficult to accomplish, the most common reason for failure for a horse to thrive and work well in a new home is usually because the handler/owner is not taking a leadership role, is not consistent, or/and is just not knowledgeable enough to know how to train the horse.

Perhaps they have overwhelmed the horse at the outset, or misunderstood the degree of experience they need to develop the horse. Bonding is about building trust, and it takes years and years. Trust can be broken in a moment, and takes time to rebuild.

The best option for those that find themselves out of their depth with a new horse is simply to find a trainer to help them sort through the mismatch issues. Ultimately, with the RIGHT trainer's help, the horse will be brought back to confidence and given a clear understanding of the tasks it is expected to perform and the new owner and horse can be reunited under the watchful eye and direction of the trainer.

It is much better to take the time to educate yourself and learn your own shortcomings and master them, than to try a haphazard approach not built on a clear method of training that works for the personality of the horse. 

Over the years I have bought many horses. In the early years particularly, things did not always go well with a new purchase. An ex Grand Prix showjumper I bought as my first horse in the U.S.A. for instance, McCloud, challenged me from day one. 

My fault for sure, as I moved him into a large boarding facility and attempted to ride him out on the 1500 acres of Caumsett Park on Long Island alongside a horse he had never met. And that companion horse was also a very hot and excitable sort. 

While McCloud was well used to travel, he was not used to me. I put a snaffle bridle on and took him out in the huge expanse of grass around the Marshall Field's old estate. To say he was excited was an understatement. I found a paddock empty and took him in that space and rode him in circles to try and calm him down and garner some control. We ended up galloping around in circles and whenever I tried to face a fence to slow him down I realized that he was readying himself to jump it! So that was not a solution. To my chagrin, soon a crowd of boarders gathered outside to watch the spectacle. Eventually, I managed to slow the horse to a canter and then a trot and then hopped off smartly. 

Despite my tears and embarrassment I sucked up my pride and asked my husband if he would pony me from his horse. We rode out onto the trails and I stayed nervously on the leadline riding McCloud at a walk for an hour discovering the beautiful trails until we were both more relaxed. As we approached the stables I asked him to take the leadline off and managed to ride into the waiting throng of interested strangers with some sense of achievement. 

Of course I later learned that McCloud was noted for jumping anything you ever put in front of him, had been ridden in an aggressive bit and martingale before I had purchased him for over six years. Notwithstanding things would certainly have gone much better if I had taken the time to do things quietly step by step from day one and not gone off assuming I knew more than I did.

I will say with much persistence and help from noted dressage trainer Raul de Leon, I did manage to calm the very forward McCloud and went from a pelham bit with a converter to a snaffle bridle and ultimately made him from a showjumper into a dressage horse.


Sorry for the lack of riding helmet in the photo..don't know what I was thinking..

I share this story to highlight that how things start out, even if it is badly, can be overcome with some patience and professional help. So take heart.

Meantime, educate yourself and learn more about how horses think and how to elevate your knowledge of different methods to train them.

Read a book! That's a start. Learn how horses experience life, not how we perceive they learn or mentally operate.

A few great titles to try are:

Horse Brain Human Brain by Janet Jones PhD.

What Horses Really Want by Lynn Acton


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