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Wrangling on the Range #87

Do not Coddle your Horse



by Clinton Anderson

from "Horse and Rider" October 2010

For best results, treat abused, rescued, and other special-needs
horses the same as any other horse.

"Clinton, because my mare has been abused, she has these little
fits from time to time, and she's probably notgoing to be able to
do what all the other horses can do."

The woman speaking, Emily, was at one of my clinics. She'd asked
to chat with me before we got started, to negotiate special
treatment for her mare.
"She's probably going to need some adjustments to these
exercises," she went on. "You might even want to change what we
do at this clinic a little bit to allow for her needs."
I looked at Emily and said, "I'm so sorry your horse was abused.
She looks to be in good health now. Is she still being abused?"
The woman's eyes widened in shock. "Oh, no! I'd never hurt my
I smiled and replied, "Good. Then here's what I want you to do."
She moved a step closer so as not to miss a word of the special
instructions I was about to give her.

"I want you to act as if you just bought this horse from me this
morning," I said. "You don't know where she came from, you don't
know how old she is, you don't know how much she's been ridden.
You have zero history on her."
Emily took a step back. Her shock had turned into confusion. "Why
would I do that?"
"To make some progress," I replied. "What you're doing is
carrying around all these big bags of excuses for why your horse
acts the way she does-and as long as you keep doing that, your
horse is never going to get any better."

Reality Check

I could tell she still didn't get it.

"Think of it this way," I suggested. "If your horse had been
starved and beaten every day for a year, then we took her out of
that environment and put her in a new pasture with 10 new horses
- horses she'd never met before - would those horses treat your
mare any differently from how they'd treat any new horse? Would
they say, 'OK, listen up. Nobody eats until this new horse has
had all she wants. Just look at how skinny she is! No, no, no -
she gets the shelter - she's been homeless! Stop it! Everybody
just leave this horse alone. She needs our love.'"

I looked at Emily. "Would the other horses do that?"

"Well, no," she admitted, laughing sheepishly. "I guess they
wouldn't." "Right!" I said. "They wouldn't treat her any
differently. They'd still kick her, bite her, chase her around.
Then again, maybe she'd chase them around, if she were dominant.
My point is, whether or not she'd been abused would have no
bearing on the matter.
"So," I continued, "I want you to pretend you just bought this
horse from me today, and I just won her in a poker game last
night, so neither of us knows a single thing about her
"OK," Emily replied. "But what do I do when she acts up?"
"Just respond as you would for any other horse," I told her.
"Don't make any excuses for her - remember, you don't know
anything about her."

It was tough, but Emily was able to pull it off. And, over the
next three days, I watched her amazement grow as her horse
responded to her efforts and soon began behaving just like all
the other horses.

By now you know the moral of this story: The more you treat an
abused or rescued horse like any other horse, the more he begins
to act accordingly. In other words, he turns into a broke,
respectful animal.

But the more you protect a horse like this, the sillier and
sillier he gets. I know it doesn't seem to make sense, but with
horses, the more you try to scare them in a planned, intelligent
way, of course the quicker they stop overreacting and start
getting quiet.

Obviously, I'm not talking about physically hurting your rescued
horse. I'm talking about keeping the "scary" pressure on until he
relaxes, then removing it, so he can begin to learn he has
nothing to fear from it.

How 'Scary' Can Be Good

To accomplish this, "frighten" your rescued horse with things
that are never going to hurt him - noises, plastic bags, a rope
thrown at him. Also desensitize him by slapping your training
stick or whip on the ground all around him, as I've described on
these pages many times before.

(This is where I strongly disagree with many horse trainers. In
breaking many horses over my lifetime, I never used this "modern"
desensitize stuff. You get to be able to tack them up and ride,
in time horses will desensitize themselves in your environment,
and horses will still be jumpy in new surroundings or things
coming at them unexpectedly. You as a rider must always realize
horses can "spook" no matter how old they are; they can and often
will spook at new surroundings you take them into, or things that
pop out at them. The idea of throwing blankets and ropes and
whatever at them to desensitize is a fairy-tale. In time they
will desensitize themselves where you ride them and what is
always there; but remember they will still spook if things pop
out at them, or something "strange" or "new" is there for the
first time, which wasn't there before. Horses are by nature
always on the lookout to protect themselves as they are "prey
animals" - others out there want to eat them, so they are always
ready to jump and run at unexpected things they have not seen
before or something poping out at them from the trees or a bush.
Some horses are extremely scared of all the things in a town's
parade, if they have never seen or been in a parade with lots of
noise and floats and all kinds of things waving around and
flapping. Some take it better than others. My horse Goldie was
not a bit bothered by anything in the first parade I tool her in
- the Cochrane town parade - she acted like she'd done it all of
her life; but another horse would possibly have freaked out; and
you could have done all the "desensitizing" in the world before
the parade. I did no desensitizing with Godlie before that first
parade. Some horses take a parade with no trouble, another horses
will not - each are individual. But remember horses can and will
spook when riding them in your home area at strange things or
things poping out at them, no matter how much desensitizing you
have done - Keith Hunt)

Just as other horses will in the pasture, you must establish the
same rules, set the same boundaries, instill the same behaviors,
and maintain the same pecking order - with you as the dominant

Obviously, when you first get an abused or rescued horse, he
might need an individualized feeding regimen and other kinds of
specialized care to be brought back to full health; your
veterinarian can guide you here.

Then, once he's ready for training, don't make any special
accommodations. Now, does that mean you shouldn't change anything
in his training program? Well, you might want to do your training
exercises in a different order than you would for a normal horse.
Plus some exercises could take a little longer to master than
others, and you might have to spend more time on them.

But, when you think of it, isn't that the same as you'd do for
any horse? Shouldn't you tailor training according to what a
horse needs and how he progresses?
Of course you should. And if you treat your rescued horse this
same way, you'll be amazed at the progress, just as Emily was.


To be continued from time to time

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