by Nanette Levin, HorseSenseAndCents.com
There are a number of circumstances that can make a horse sour. It's important to be creative and responsive in how you approach the training and communication regimen.
"Studley the Impossible"
All deemed Studley a lost cause, except his insightful, reticent trainer who wasn't ready to admit defeat with this horse and his green owners, who were enamored by the idea of having a racehorse stallion. The moment he arrived, we began to question our creative capabilities with this monster, not to mention our sanity.
Studley was a stallion with a mean history and a quarrelsome attitude that rendered training attempts at the track impossible. After we developed a strategy addressing his sour nature became a priority. Ultimately, it was clear we'd have to work around his bad attitude to get him fit enough for speed training.
Usually, mean horses have been beaten into submission or forced to perform through extreme pain to a point where they find the only recourse is violence. This can create a dangerous horse, particularly if they are abused to the stage where their existing physical pain makes any additional hurt a person can put on them inconsequential.
If they don't care anymore what you do to them, they quickly learn that they are bigger and stronger and can certainly be nastier and more effective than you on your worst day. It's critical that you can control them but will not do so through violence, no matter how much they bait you. Consequently, groundwork is essential in reshaping their attitudes and asserting your leadership qualities.
The First Steps
Round pen work was interesting with Studley. He was quite willing to allow a rider up while he stood quietly, which was a surprise. He even responded positively to walk and stop requests on cue. Faster gaits were a little more challenging sometimes he'd comply but was equally ready to resist. Still, we felt we had enough control to hit the trails.
On the first day in the "wilderness" we made it about fifty yards from the round pen before he planted himself. This became a routine each day for the next month or two of our training regimen. We waited until he was ready to proceed on most days, and this was a sufficient win for him to comply with future requests.
Patience was the ideal, but frustration sometimes turned to stupidity. Carrying a crop was essential for achieving any gait faster than the walk - and sometimes a halt - using it in any way other than a gentle tap on the shoulder was a mistake.
Interestingly, we found him much more comfortable and cooperative with a repeated routine vs. a more dynamic and exciting workout. We routinely spent each day covering the same ground.
We're Making Progress
Every day we'd trek up the hill, at a walk initially until we hit the point in the trail where he was willing to trot. Then down the slope to the designated field. If we asked him too soon, he'd plant himself and we'd spend a half hour asking and waiting for him to proceed. Every second turn around the field, he'd slam on the brakes prior to galloping. His behavior was tough on the rider's back, but certainly predictable. Accepting his demands in exchange for compliance with our requests became a daily requirement to getting this stud ready to race.
Studley was tough but he was trainable. If a groom led us twenty feet past the clocker's stand, he'd plant himself but ultimately proceed, particularly if a horse passed him and he had a hind end to focus on.
He ran second in each of his five allowance races during the latter part of the season, and headed south to Florida for the winter with a younger trainer, a different set of grooms, and a new exercise rider.
Practical Advice for Sour Equines
-- Rule out physical issues that may be causing pain and the horse's associated frustration in his failure to communicate.
-- Do not continue to push a sore horse, or you will only make him more sour and could turn him mean. Give him the help and the time required to heal prior to resuming training.
-- Figure out whether routine or varied activities are the preference of your sour horse and give him what makes him happiest.
-- Be patient, flexible, and accommodating with a sour horse when their behavior is justified. Conversely, if you've taught a horse to be sour by rewarding bad behavior, resolve to stop the pattern or get some help.
-- Try getting a horse out of the routine with some fun activities, trail rides, and long walks if his sour behavior is likely due to too much of the same grind. Some sour horses will bounce back pretty quickly once relieved of the drill that has made them bored and cranky.
-- It is rarely effective to discipline a sour horse for his behavior. If a horse has come to resent riding, punishing them aboard only reinforces this conviction. Instead, try finding an easy activity they enjoy and rewarding them for their cooperation. Once you've gained a rapport, reintroduce them to the discipline training in lighter doses and with greater rewards for their achievements.
-- Horses that have turned sour rarely become standout competitors (unless you change their career to something they learn to enjoy), nor fun pleasure horses. If your aim is to put them back into the routine that created their sour nature (unless this is due to pain you address and correct), you are likely to be disappointed. Consider a different project if your aim is to have fun with this horse.
-- Find some riding activity that's really fun for your sour horse and reward him with this after every positive response to a lesson (this could be trail riding, jumping, riding with a companion horse, going fast, going slow, a long rein, a swim in a pond each horse is different and you need to figure out what makes your horse happiest).
-- Know when to call it quits. Sour horses are some of the toughest to turn and sometimes there is no reward for the effort. If you come to hate riding or working with this horse, it may be time to say goodbye. Quality of life (yours and theirs) is something worth considering with these projects.
Nanette Levin publishes the "Horse Sense and Cents" series and has been horsing around for over forty years. Check out her blog: HorseSenseAndCents.com or visit HalcyonAcres.com for horse training tips.
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