Performance Horse Focus for spooky, inattentive 3 year old?
Sorry in advance for this being long. I have a 3 1/2 year old warmblood gelding that I bought as a weanling. Since I got him he has been very insecure in general. Always very focused on whether the other horses are and difficult to handle when away from his herd, to the point he would go through fences if separated from a pasture-mate. He was also very dangerous to lead - as he would get very visibly nervous, snorting, not wanting to go forward, and prone to spooking and bolting in hand - spooking into me if I happened to be in the way. But despite all that, he's very sweet and easy to handle when he is calm and focused.
I more or less didn't do much with him except occasional handling and left him turned out with a buddy most of the time for the first few years. When he turned 3 last June, I had taken some time off from working and decided to start him myself. For the most part, I've been pleasantly surprised at how easy he was to start. He seems to have plenty of trust in me and introducing him to tack, lunging, and riding was no big deal and caused him no stress or anxiety. He's still nervous to lead anywhere away from his safety zone without a stud chain but he does not bolt or run you over anymore. The issue continues to be maintaining his focus as he worries about where the other horses were, in addition to issues with him fixating on spots in the arena to spook at that I couldn't get him past. It was more than just a little spook, it was stopping and refusing to go forward, or going forward extremely tense and inverted and then inevitably bolting away. Despite this issue, he's been easy to train and progressed to nice walk/trot/canter, leg yields, etc. But our ability to work is limited by his lack of focus and his refusal to go near portions of the arena. Over the summer I hauled him to another arena to see how that went, as expected he was beyond tense, calling endlessly to other horses, and I completely lost my "whoa" as he wasn't paying any attention to me under saddle - I had to keep turning him into the wall to stop him. I was able to ride him but he never relaxed, even after an hour long walk around the property.
Fast forward a few months and the issue wasn't getting better at home, so I made the decision to board him out at a large facility for a couple of months, to completely get him away from his buddies in hopes we could eventually get some focused work done. He was nervous in the stall at first, calling and kicking, but that has stopped. He paced in his turnout for the first couple of weeks, but that seems to have stopped also. So far I seem to be the only boarder that rides at night after work, which means we usually ride by myself (which is fine, because he has never really had other horses in the arena when he is ridden and I think that would cause its own set of issues). That part is going well - I can take him out of his stall, tack him up, take him into the arena and work him, and there is no stress about where the other horses are, and generally I have much more of his attention than I did at home and am making much faster progress. But, like at home he has chosen an area of the arena to fixate on (the spot where you enter the arena) and no matter what I do, I cannot get him to go safely past that spot under saddle. There are sliding doors to the entry, which are a little difficult to close so they are usually left open, but I have tried closing them anyway and either way I get the same result. He walks in and out of the entry no problem. He will stand there all day relaxed without concern, but as soon as he is asked to go past it in any gait, it's extremely scary. It seems more like evasive spooking to get out of work, except he seems genuinely scared.
We always start out lunging in side reins and he's not the type to do a lot of bucking or running around - it is focused work both directions with lots of transitions. We will work our way up and down the arena and work in front of this gate both directions at all gaits on the lungeline - he will start out spooking and usually get to where he is just a bit tense as he passes it. But as soon as I get on, we go back to square one. He is worse approaching it from one direction vs. another, one way I can eventually get him to go past it very tensely at a trot, the other way I can barely convince him to walk past it.
The first couple of weeks I have been just avoiding the spot in favor of being able to accomplish anything in my ride, and it is a large arena so I can avoid it. But the other night I was getting frustrated by this and spent the entire ride working on trying to get him to go past it without much progress. When he gets nervous he is also VERY strong and my arms, especially my left one, are very sore. He does sometimes get to the point of being naughty to avoid going where he doesn't want to go (balking, kicking out at my leg), but for the most part he is very willing and compliant when he is not in his spooky spot.
At a loss I ordered the 7-day money-back guarantee portion of Focus by Performance Horse (can't hurt to try, right?). I've never used any type of calming supplements and don't have a lot of faith in it working, but at this point as nice as this horse is, I am having a hard time envisioning him being able to be safe at shows or in any new environment. I keep thinking the issue is one of extreme insecurity and the answer is just more and more exposure and him learning that he can trust me to keep him safe. But I am starting to feel discouraged by this issue.
Anyone have a horse like this that can tell me he will in fact grow out of it?