Ben is a very big boy at my barn; he stands at 16.1 hands and is part Belgium draft. He doesn’t belong to me, but I take care of him. His owner is a lovely lady who likes to trail ride. Ben used to be great on trails, very sure footed and calm; however, a few months ago, he started acting up on the trails. It seemed to come out of no-where; he started spooking and getting easily agitated and wanting to run back to the barn. He’s such a big, strong horse that it is very intimidating to ride him when he’s in that state.
His owner had him tested for Lyme’s disease and sure enough, he was positive. Lyme’s disease in horses can cause behavioral changes, sensitivity, and sore joints. It can also affect their eyesight. He was treated for a month, and we had our fingers crossed that that would take care of his erratic behavior. Unfortunately, it didn’t completely bring him back to his pre-diagnosis calm state. So, for the past couple of months, I’ve been helping his owner work with him to help him get his confidence back; a combination of supplements, round pen work and riding and groundwork.
According to Temple Grandin, world-renowned animal behaviorist, “(a) horse is a sensory based visual thinker and fear is it’s main emotion” (from her book, Animals Make Us Human). Horses are prey animals, which means they run when they feel threatened. They do not usually turn and fight. For this reason, it is especially important to build trust with Ben so that if he does get scared of something, he can look to me for direction and support. If I didn’t acknowledge Ben’s fear, and try to help him regain his equilibrium, I could start making things worse for him.
Pre-flight (ride) Check
Riding starts on the ground.
Before even getting on, I have to work on being calm and present. I have to evaluate his mood and energy. Ben is tricky because he is stoic. Some horses show their emotions very easily, some do not. Ben does not. So, it takes an extra level of awareness; of assessing where he is while I am grooming and tacking him up; all the while keeping my energy calm.
While preparing to mount up, I work on not letting myself anticipate everything that could go wrong, otherwise my energy will change, and he will feel that. He will wonder if I know something bad that he doesn’t. With horses in a herd, all it takes is one of them to sound the alarm and they all go running. They don’t have to individually feel the threat, they’ve learned to trust the herd leader. If I am Ben’s herd leader, he will believe me if I am scared and feed off my nervous energy, therefore I need to keep my energy calm and positive.
When I am ready to get on, I picture a good ride; I try to feel it. This is especially important with a spooky horse. I’ve been working with him to stand still at the mounting block and not run off the second I get on. Keeping him still sets the stage for the ride. He needs to stand and relax and wait for me to get on calmly and then stay there until I say it is time to go.
Push Boundaries, Don’t Blow Through Them
We always hear that it is good to set boundaries, and I believe this as well. In setting boundaries, we are really protecting ourselves from people, situations and expectations. However, in this effort to feel safe, we sometimes establish boundaries that are too rigid and limiting. We sometimes need to re-evaluate our boundaries to expand our surroundings and grow.
With Ben, I realized by continuing to just try to push him through his boundaries without a break, he was getting worse, not better. I was hoping he would get used to going out on the trails again but that was not the case. When he switched to fear mode, it was hard to get him to come back to me. So, our tactic changed; I started riding him just around the barn, along the fence line of his pasture where he feels safe and secure. Then with each ride, I pushed his boundary a few meters at a time and then returned to his safe bubble.
I believe that pushing his boundaries without carelessly blowing through them is giving him time to adjust and slowly gain confidence. It also helps him grow in trust with me, and I can focus on being the most confident and relaxed rider for him.
Approach and Retreat
Pushing Ben’s boundaries and then retreating to his safe space helps him release his anxiety and learn to trust me. It is important with this exercise that I am the one that says when it is time to retreat; I cannot let him decide and take over. If I let him turn and run, that means he is not learning, he is just reacting.
With approach and retreat, he is given the chance to release his anxiety rather than just letting it build in momentum. He is given the opportunity to relax and then approach the boundary again, having returned with a more neutral energy.
Little by little his owner and I are helping Ben find his confidence again. It is exciting to see him responding so well!
My interaction with horses never fails to teach me lessons that help me in my own life. If you can, try to think of situations where some of these techniques can help you. For example, can approach and retreat help in conflict? Instead of reacting immediately with anger in a situation, is it possible to retreat, regroup, and then approach again in a calm manner?
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