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Horse Problem - Abused or Wilder horses - Some training tips for training wilder or more abused horses









QUESTION: I was wondering if you could help me out - words of wisdom that you might have, or maybe you have shared similar experiences. In February an abused horse came to me. I took him in, gently started him, got him going and still have had one problem that has not subsided. In the saddle this horse is confident, has a low head, long stride, and is awesome to ride. But on the ground he is a totally different horse. I do natural horsemanship and have not pushed this horse. I have not forced him to submit in any way, but he is SO afraid of people. When he's out on trails, or with other riders, he's great, until he sees a human on the ground. It seems if I work with him steady for a good week, he makes some progress, and if I take a few days off, he starts his day extremely nervous again.

The latest project horse I have is a wild mare. I've had the mare and her foal for a month or so now. She is similar in the respect that each day it seems we start from step one again, though the more I work with her, the shorter that step lasts. She's had the saddle on, and done some ground driving, and lots of moving her around, stopping and rubbing, ropes, anything I can think of really.  Is it common for abused or wild horses to keep that wildness to them - when they first see you? Or is it something I am not doing consistently that is causing them to test me every day - to see if I am still the same human being? Should I do lots of short sessions with them, or do you have any recommendations?

The abused guy is an Arabian, about 7, it seems the only hands he had before me were rough ones, and the wild mare seems to be a thoroughbred, about 4... never been touched.

Any suggestions could be helpful, if there is anyone you recommend I talk to, or spend time with, would be appreciated.

Thanks so much for your time. Have a wonderful day.

REPLY: I've found in my experience that the older the wilder horse is, the longer it can take to let go of those kinds of "wild-ways" fears. The cut-off in my mind for those that don't take as long, I find, are aged 3 & under (wild horses, I'm talking about). Four and older -- and certainly 7 -- is going to be a bit more difficult to gentle when they've been left wild so long. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it does mean: when afraid, they are going to more quickly revert back to wild prey animal mode, instinctively. So the key is to place in their foundation something that interrupts that wild response reflex. Let me suggest a couple of things.

For one...on the ground, regularly use manual relaxation techniques, some of which I go over on this link on my web site:

In particular there...focus on the finger-in-the-mouth technique to relax the horse, and teach the horse to drop the head (using pressure/release). Remember: a lowered head is a relaxed horse, a high head is a tense/on alert horse. Where the head goes, the mind follows instantly, so use the finger in the mouth to get the horse working the mouth, then drop the head, and the horse will relax instantly. It's not physiologically possible for a horse to be very tense with the head down. When I'm ground working a wilder horse (or any new/green horse even), I'm going to be stepping in regularly to manually relax the horse if/when they get too tense via those techniques. Horses don't know how to relax themselves when we're working with them usually and if they tense up. Using those techniques will relax the horse, guaranteed. Use them often, real often, with the wilder horse throughout your lessons. Do it enough and it begins to pattern the horse's brain that when he needs to relax, he needs to work his mouth & drop his head and he'll eventually take over doing that himself. But until then, I'm going to do it for him every time I see him tensing up too much.

Once you work on that for a while, then get a number of people to come in and do the same thing, one at a time. The problem with abused horses or wilder horses, especially the older ones at first...they compartmentalize learn that maybe only YOU are safe for them to be around, but maybe no other humans are. Whenever I get called in to gentle a wild horse (or a formerly abused horse), after I've accomplished what I need in that first session and the horse is now relaxed and no longer afraid, I then introduce the horse to more people, one at a time, and I direct them to do the same. Bond with the horse. Finger in the mouth to get the horse working the mouth. Then drop the head.

Here's a link on my web site Q&A section that goes a little more into that/people fears:

This approach helps the horse to begin to recompartmentalize that...wait...maybe all humans are safe, not just my trainer here.

I had a horse I recently trained and among one of his many problems I fixed was: a morbid (and quite volatile) fear of vets. After retraining him, I then brought in some vets from the vet school here and had the vets come in and first using advance/retreat (to allow the approach), then bonding with the horse, getting the finger in the mouth and dropping the head, then they "pretended" to give a shot, then exited/retreated. Step by step the horse let go of his vet fears (which wasn't about the shots, but about the past heavy abusive handling he'd had before a shot/treatments by some more abusive vet somewhere). And the horse then compartmentalized that: "hey...vets aren't dangerous predators after all; I'm okay here!" benefited the horse as he completely let go of his violent fear of vets, in one session, but it also benefited the vet students to learn horse whispering "tricks of the trade" to relax a fearful horse.

I would also recommend doing a lot of desensitizing of those horses there, because the opposite of fear is: confidence. Don't avoid the things they are afraid of, but instead, head into them and help the horse to be desensitized to them. This raises a horse's fear bar so that less things frighten them, and it also creates a more confident horse all around. Some things to work on to raise the fear bar in the horses you've got there, which should help multi-directions --- and I'll direct you to links on my site that go into each in more detail:

Don't underestimate how much more confident and fear free a horse is going to become, even a formerly wild horse, when you do all the above desensitizing exercises thoroughly (and repeated a couple of times until there are no issues there whatsoever). And get good at the relaxation techniques (finger in mouth/dropping the head) throughout those lessons, ongoingly, to help manually relax the horse as you go along. This: 1) bonds the horse more deeply to you because he realizes you are taking care of him emotionally there and that goes a long, long way, and, 2) begins to teach the horse HOW to relax when afraid, and how to turn to you for help instead of having a flight response.

Finally...after you've accomplished all the above, then work (from the ground first) to teach the ever-important one-rein stop/safety zone, which I teach in greater detail here:

It is so much more than just "about the stop," but is about creating a "safety zone" for the horse to turn to whenever afraid. And this removes the flight out of a flight animal, and instead, replaces that with a tangible thing he can do when afraid: turning to you, his leader for help when needed.

All of the above (and much, much more) is taught in my Whispering Way 12-Step Total Training System DVD set. Usually it helps to see this natural horsemanship art taught visually, to really understand how it is all done. You can get that DVD set here: CLICK HERE a lot of ponying of those horses off another very domesticated, obedient horse, which I go more into here:

This helps a lot with your wilder horses especially, as they begin to mirror the already-trained horse, so, is highly effective to have in your training program. You can even work on further desensitizing from up high now, but while ponying the horse in training.

Wild horses can be different! It takes more time and lots of patience, and in all honesty, with the older ones (like 7 & older just starting them out -- and I mean mustangs especially here) some of them may stay wild in some form or another forever. It's much like, I feel, trying to domesticate an adult feral cat (feral cat is a cat born of another feral cat) and often they can just get too old to ever expect them to be domesticated on the level that we perceive a domestic cat (or domestic horse) if/when we try to gentle them too late/too old. That's my personal opinion, based on working with so many wild horses. The problem with the older wild horses: if/when they become afraid, they are very quickly going to revert back to prey animal instinct in a nano-second, it's been too long ingrained in them. have your work cut out for you with the 7-year-old there, especially if he was kept wild all those years! But it will be a learning experience for you as well. And since every horse we work with teaches us something new, that's a positive for you. It's the more difficult horses that are put in our path to work with that seem to teach us the most!

Hope this helps and good luck to you there!


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