In my recent years, three horses stand out to me as some of the toughest nuts to crack. These horses had big, significant behavioral issues that their riders had tried to understand and address, but without much real improvement.
I think what will shock people the most, when they read this, is just how long I spent working with each horse. When you’re dealing with a horse who is nervous, anxious, or has learned behavior, you’re usually talking about months, sometimes over a year, to retrain them. You’re quite literally rewiring them, and retraining a horse will almost always take longer than training a horse from scratch.
With all three horses, I tried to talk the owners/riders through the issues first. That was unsuccessful for a number of reasons - in part because with horses like these, you have to be okay with things going badly for several weeks or even several months because you’re confident in your plan. Chipping away, day after day, when you’re seemingly making no observable improvement takes a hell of a lot of confidence. It also requires a great deal of confidence in the saddle to stick to the plan when you’re in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable. And finally, part of it is the feeling and timing to switch very quickly the ways that you’re riding depending on the feedback the horse is giving you.
Horse #1: Carolina
Behavior: This mare would rear out of the start box, stop and rear between fence 1 and 2, etc. She did it at home, but mostly at shows. My wife Sinead had her in her program, and the mare threw one of our people off here at home, came galloping back to the barn, then slipped on the cement - it was a mess. When explaining what happened, the rider said ‘a twig snapped and it set her off.’ To the rider, you’re left wondering why such a small thing would set her off, and why is it a twig setting her off? You may wonder, ‘Do I need to get her used to twigs or sudden cracking noises?’ But as I explain in my Masterclass, it’s almost never about the twig - the twig was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
She didn’t really accept the saddle, the bit, the person, the wind, the situation. She didn’t really accept bending around the leg. All of these things built up anxiety in her. You had all these things that were gradually building up and the twig snapping was the final straw.
The Process: I started with groundwork. I put her on a 22-foot rope and thought I’d work with her on line for a couple weeks before getting on. As it turned out, I didn't even get on her for 2-3 months. The number one way she would react to pressure was to try to go faster. If you tried to slow her down too quickly, she’d try to stand up.
It took probably a year to start to feel like nobody else could tell she was anxious except for me.
Outcome: She went up to the CCI2* level. We thought she was going to go Advanced, but determined she might not have held up physically.
One really special thing for me is that the people who have her now as a broodmare have a child who loves to pet her on the nose. When I got her, she never liked being touched on the face. Every time I went by her stall - every single time - for a year or so, I'd hold her halter, rub her between the eyes and give her a treat at the same time. So to know that that effort is making a kid happy is really special, even if the horse didn’t go Advanced.
Horse #2: Vasiliev, “Larry”
Behavior: This horse was competed by a talented event rider, Zachary Brandt, but issues began to crop up at the Advanced level. Zachary explains: “…at the beginning of 2017, he felt better than ever and made the move up to the Advanced level which he did without issue. Although the move up was seemingly very easy for Larry, he had a show jumping round at his first CIC3* that really affected his confidence and he was not the same after that. His desire to compete in atmosphere and high pressure situations had vanished. By August of that year, it had manifested itself in a way that left me walking back to the barn after unsuccessfully attempting to get him to leave the startbox in the Advanced division at Millbrook Horse Trials. He began violently rearing and striking out and there was no way I was going to get him to do what I wanted him to do.”
|Tik breaks down his methods, demonstrates groundwork and ridden work, and even provides exercises with a complete workbook in his FOUR Equestrian Masterclass Courses.
Understanding Horse Behavior 101
Training the Anxious or Spooky Horse
Solving Common Training Problems
Training the Young Horse
The Process: With Larry, I set frequent and firm boundaries with him. In contrast to Carolina, he was much quicker to rear when things became uncomfortable and it became a learned behavior for him. The hard part with a horse like that is not being too firm. The big emotional challenge is that right after you’re firm, you must go back to being soft and relaxed like nothing ever happened. You wanna call them a jerk or a bully - the problem is that none of those words are helpful.
It was 3 weeks of groundwork before I even got on him, but then he progressed faster than Carolina. It’s hard to say if that’s because he caught on faster, or because I had learned a lot from Carolina.
Outcome: Larry competed up through the 2* level with me.
Horse #3: Privatised, “Hutchy”
Behavior: Hutchy was ridden by Liz Lund (owned by Heidi Kelly) and began exhibiting some dramatic spins, bucks, and rears at the Training/Prelim level.
As Liz tells it: “After we imported Hutchy, I did some Trainings and Prelims on him - and he was doing great. At my last prelim run in 2016, before I planned to drop down to Training so he could end the year on a confident note, something happened while I was waiting to go in for my show jumping round. He had warmed up great and was standing by the ring, and all of a sudden I felt like I was on a different horse. It’s hard to describe - he had been lazy and easygoing, never naughty or tense.
We went into the ring and he jumped fine, but then became super spooky when we got him back home - spooky in the corners, in the outdoor ring, while jumping... I rode through it but then went to that training level event and I had to ride so hard over the first 15 of 18 fences on XC. He dropped his shoulder and spun from a dead gallop and I went flying. The TD let me get back on him and he finished, we went home, and then I came off of him 3 more times because of his spin move. Then he started rearing because I figured out how to stay on his spin. I worked with my trainers and it just wasn't helping.
I rode him with Tik in winter of 2019. He's a huge horse and I just realized i didn't want to ride him anymore after I got him back in a good-ish spot. We talked to Tik and he took him in January of 2020.”
The Process: He was half way between Carolina and Larry in some ways. He had a high level of worry, but also had a lot of learned behaviors of evasion. In the first 3 months, he probably tried the spin/rear move twice a month, then it went down to once a month. He got me off once in the warmup at Stable View once, because I just didn’t read how much worry he had. After that, I was able to read him better and he realized that his moves wouldn’t work to get me off, but more than that, I worked with him on the ground and under saddle in a way that helped his confidence and eased his worry.
Outcome: Hutchie is doing great - he recently completed his first two-star event. The thought of trying to get me off is still there, but it rarely goes past being just that, a thought. If it does it is much more half-hearted. Part of that is he's more relaxed, part of it is from me not falling off, you start to change the neural pathways. It wasn’t the desired outcome for him.
My big picture plan was the same with each of these three horses.
- I’m going to back up as much as it takes. When someone is going prelim, they want to work on it at that level, they don’t want to go down to training, or novice, or beginner novice or further. But most of the time, problems need to be addressed at a lower level, a lower height, a slower gait. I was completely open to however far back I’d need to go - even if I didn’t even sit on their backs for a long time.
- I’m going to take as much time as it takes. I was willing to do this because these were athletic horses with a lot of potential. I really enjoy the learning and the challenge, and I wanted to help the horse.
A note for the young pros out there: Unless you have lots of money, getting good at dealing with behavior problems is one way to get the ride on nice horses and progress your skill set. The more you learn, the safer it gets for you, but there’s always a degree of risk.
- I will create a black and white environment for these horses to learn in. I’d say 90% of the time I was really, really nice to these horses because they needed to have a positive experience to want to do the work. I gave them treats, let them have rest, and was very soft in how I rode them. And maybe 10% of the time, I set firmer boundaries than they’ve ever had in the past. Another way of saying that is I had a lot of contrast in their training so that they could really understand what I was asking of them.
A lot of times, horses push through boundaries because they don’t understand the boundaries. Sometimes it comes from fear/anxiety, sometimes it’s aggression, and sometimes it’s learned behavior (in other words that have simply inadvertently been taught to do the “wrong thing” instead of the “right thing.”) When you’re watching the people who are good at this, you might see the 10% of the time that they are firm and you might think you need to ride that way. Most of the time people don’t pick up on how slow and soft I am with them the other 90% of the time.
You’re literally rewiring the neural pathways. A great way to think about things with horses is this: they might understand intellectually how to do something, but it doesn’t mean they can do it easily. It’s the same with us. You can throw with your right arm easily, but you can’t do it easily with your left even though you know how to throw. For a horse that has always put resistance into the lead rope, for example, every time the horse does it, that habit gets stronger.
Overall, don’t underestimate the time, the patience, and the challenge that can come with retraining these types of horses. But if you take it on, you will learn more than ever before.
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This piece was originally published on Dec 3, 2020.