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Dressage training an older "green" warmblood

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    Dressage training an older "green" warmblood

    I have recently acquired a 9yo Oldenburg mare. She has NEVER had any formal flatwork/ Dressage training and has learned soooo many bad habits, ie, head tossing, kicking out at the leg and bucking for the first 5-10 min under saddle. Once she gets going and realizes that its time to work and actually starts to "learn". But it seems to be a constant argument... and that is after lunging in side reigns.
    I have had my saddle reflocked to fit her, changed to a better size snaffle bit, Vet checked and teeth floated. She is in no discomfort or pain under saddle or during work. I have been told that she is just a "mare", that she needs draw reigns to keep her head down and to "see saw" the bit to get her into contact and stop throwing her head around.
    I have a heart and hate all the aggressive techniques. I know she is 9 and should know better but her entire life she has been spoiled and when she misbehaved the previous owner would get off, put her back in the field and say "I guess she does not like Dressage".
    I acquired this mare because the owner is active duty military and is moving out of the country and just wanted her to go to a great home.

    Note: She only resists and kick/bucks/ears pined when asked walk to trot transition. I am super tired to fights. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. (Also, I am taking lessons under my Dressage Trainer.) I am just not sure what we have been doing is working best for her.

    Find someone with an excellent reputation at starting youngsters and work with that person to restart the mare from scratch. This will involve quality groundwork as well as mounted basics. If you can work with the trainer and learn the techniques, this horse will be doing you as big a favor as you are doing her!

    Good luck.


      I’m not clear on when the misbehaviour happens — is it only W-T transitions, or is it generally during the warm up? Does it go away? Does it matter how you warm up?

      Not trying to be snarky, but whenever someone posts confidently that a horse has no pain/discomfort whatsoever, my reaction is “and you know”. Consistent misbehaviour associated with a specific movement screams pain/discomfort to me. I’m guessing a horse consistently ridden in draw reins by the previous owner could be pretty body sore. A lot of work in side reins can be pretty taxing, as well.

      I think shes she’s trying to tell you that something hurts.


        It could be pain, it could be that she's had 9 years to set in her ways, and now you want to change her. I know a few trainers who will not take on older Warmbloods who haven't been ridden because this is not uncommon, and now, at 8 or 9 or 10, the horse needs a specialist to work through the behavior. This seems most common with mares, but I suspect that is because many mares do start in a broody career, whereas most geldings are started at 4ish.

        It could be pain, do investigate that thoroughly, but it also could simply be - she is set in her ways, and it will require a very experienced person to convince her that there ARE new ways.


          Is your dressage trainer the person telling you she needs draw reins and/or to see-saw the reins to get her head down?

          If so, I would suggest looking for another trainer. Regardless of anyone's feelings about draw reins as a tool, this is clearly a misuse of them, and see-sawing is never correct, and will not accomplish anything good. At "best" you will manage to completely shut this horse down, scare her off contact, and create new, different, bad habits. At worst she will react even more than it sounds like she already does, and that can get extremely dangerous extremely quickly.

          When you say vet checked - what did that entail? Did she get neck/back x-rays done, has she been scoped for ulcers? (or treated with Gastro-gard diagnostically? Sometimes that can be a better bet if scoping is not accessible). The behaviours you describe can be a product of poor training, but it can also very much be due to pain.

          Follow your instincts and your gut when they tell you these harsh approaches are not right. If it feels bad, it probably is bad. Yes, sometimes a firm hand is necessary, but these do not sound like the suggestions of an educated, experienced trainer. Yes to groundwork, starting from scratch (with competent help), and a review of what vetting has been completed.


            A comment to your original post:

            no. She should not "know better" (not just because she is nine, especially). Horses are not mind readers. They are not born knowing how to do the things we ask or understanding our expectations.

            She's green and sounds like her exposure to worthwhile basic education is minimal. Of course she doesn't know better.

            Treat this horse as if she knows nothing and bring her along that way. That means abandon more advanced expectations (and talking about where her head is and the emphasis on side reins/etc make me think whoever is involved in these decisions are focusing on getting the headset but not an actual connection - abandon this approach and ditch those professionals immediately. This approach can and does ruin horses).


              Nine years is not that old. And age has nothing to do with the quality and consistency of training.

              The more I keep on keeping on in the horse world, the more I believe horse problems come in two flavors: discomfort or rider. Often times, it's both.

              I have a horse that for the first decade of her life, I would have sworn to you that she was not in discomfort. She was. No, it wasn't major discomfort-- nothing that would cause her to flex or react to usual tests. I put a low port mullen in her mouth and she was like a new animal. I thought, "no... a bit wouldn't make that much difference." I put her old bit back on and I got the old horse back. For whatever reason, contact on her prior bits was too uncomfortable for her.

              Problem number two was that I wasn't riding my horse straight. It sounds so basic and obvious. I don't know why it took multiple trainers until someone pointed it out. But our lack of straightness was screwing up pretty much everything we tried to do.

              Not saying the above situations necessarily apply to you, but I would bet money there is something bothering the horse. It may be as simple as confusion or muscle fatigue.
              Don't fall for a girl who fell for a horse just to be number two in her world... ~EFO


                I’m a trainer, and I am going to be blunt.

                regardless of chronological age, your horse is a “baby”.

                whoever is telling you to see saw her head down, to ride her in draw reins, and is saying that “she’s a mare”, is unqualified to train this horse.
                STOP working with this trainer immediately. She will ruin this horse. You will make a huge mess trying to follow these very damaging directions. The horse needs basic, fundamental schooling, with simple equipment without coercion.

                Your horse does not understand what is being asked of her, and is over faced. She is reacting to conflicting aids, and is communicating that she is overwhelmed.
                Just Stop.

                Research. Find THE BEST colt starter who has the best reputation for working with warm bloods to be started with dressage as the goal. The trainer that the trainers send their young horses to. Cough up the fee for three months to get a base on this horse, then start working her with the assistance of a real dressage trainer who would NEVER say or do the things that are being said and done.


                  Originally posted by MysticOakRanch View Post
                  It could be pain, it could be that she's had 9 years to set in her ways, and now you want to change her.
                  I agree totally -- and the two are often connected.

                  Suppose I've been doing planks incorrectly my whole life. Then I move gyms and a new trainer says "no, that's wrong -- drop your butt and rock forward off your toes." This is unpleasant for me -- first, I'm confused because I'm battling years of muscle memory; second, it hurts because I'm engaging muscles I haven't worked before. If I'm a stoic, quiet type, I might just soldier on, feeling sore until my muscles get trained. If I'm a more sensitive, vocal type, I might complain; I might "cheat" by doing it the old way; I might quit early. In general, I might not be very happy because, frankly, my workout just got a lot less enjoyable. If I take my time and work up gradually, I'll learn the new way -- but I'd probably think it's unfair if someone labels me as a "behaviour problem". (I know that no one on this thread has labeled this particular mare as a behaviour problem; this is just a general pet peeve of mine. Many (not all, but many) of the so-called "behaviour problems" are some combination of a horse that is confused and/or sore, IMHO.)

                  So, OP, when I say I think she's sore, it could be something "bad" brewing, or it could just be that what you are asking her to do is physically (and mentally) hard for her -- and you need to respect that.

                  I'd dial it back and work on getting her mentally and physically fit and relaxed. If you can hack out (especially marching up and down hills), I think that would do wonders. You can do lots of suppling & lateral work outside of the ring. I'd work on long and low -- she likely doesn't have a good sense of what contact is (and probably doesn't enjoy it at all), so get her stretching into soft contact first. I'd drop the side reins for now -- if she's had her mouth see-sawed with draw reins, she's learned a false frame; until she builds the proper muscles, she'll probably keep that false frame in the side reins.

                  TL/DR -- Patience, grasshopper .

                  Good luck, OP -- the mare is lucky to have someone who is willing to do right by her.


                    IMHO most dressage instructors don't have much experience with true baby horses. Their students tend to come to them with w t c horses that need to be given a head set to go in lower level classes. The draw reins and see-sawing are terrible ideas for any horse at any level, but disastrous for a baby horse, which is what you have regardless of her age on paper.

                    Go back to basics. A colt starter who rides in a halter or bitless would probably be useful. I would also make sure the mare has a lot of runaround opportunities in turnout to get the wiggles out. Also remember that you got this horse free because the owner was not able to put really solid schooling on her. So it is possible there have been longstanding issues for this horse.

                    I would also look outside the box for pain issues. I know of a late started WB mare who came through our barn right after going to the colt starter and was a chronic tooth grinder in the bit from the start (ridden on strong contact in dressage). She was sold to an older ammie owner, and developed a spin and bolt at the canter that broke the owner's hip.

                    Mare came back to our barn for a refresher, and was sold to an eventing barn a couple of years ago. Last summer I was auditing a horse behavior seminar, and the mare turned up as a demo horse. Apparently 2 weeks before the seminar, at the age of 17, the mare had had dental surgery to remove impacted wolf teeth that no one had every suspected were there. She obviously still had a lot of issues, and was probably still sore from the surgery, and the clinician watched her and said "pain, not safe to ride quite yet" but did give advice. I have no idea whether life improved for the mare after that.

                    Anyhow, I present this as a cautionary tale that there can be a pain issue no one suspects, because mares don't always have wolf teeth.


                      Originally posted by Scribbler View Post
                      IMHO most dressage instructors don't have much experience with true baby horses. Their students tend to come to them with w t c horses that need to be given a head set to go in lower level classes.
                      I don't necessarily agree with the statement "most dressage instructions don't have much experience with true baby horses."

                      But I will agree that there a lot of dressage instructors who don't have experience with anything (horse or rider) that started without a classical dressage foundation. If the horse or rider has a different background, these types aren't always good at bridging the gap. They often just end up repeating fundamental dressage soundbites at clueless riders whose horses don't understand, either.

                      I really didn't make any progress in a lifetime of on/off dressage lessons until I found an instructor who could say, "You learned how to ask your horse this way, but that won't work for us now because of x, y, and z reasons. So I need to start doing *this* instead to retrain your horse..."
                      Don't fall for a girl who fell for a horse just to be number two in her world... ~EFO


                        Originally posted by Flew the Coop View Post
                        I have recently acquired a 9yo Oldenburg mare. She has NEVER had any formal flatwork/ Dressage training and has learned soooo many bad habits, ie, head tossing, kicking out at the leg and bucking for the first 5-10 min under saddle.


                        her entire life she has been spoiled and when she misbehaved the previous owner would get off, put her back in the field and say "I guess she does not like Dressage".
                        So she's green-ish, but has been ridden consistently for some time? Horses get trained by their riders, even if it's not through a formal training program. It's possible that she's just "spoiled" by the prior rider's accidental training ... but I can't imagine anyone developing a consistent routine where they take a horse out, let it buck for 10 minutes, get off, and put it away while dismissing the behavioral problem as the horse not liking the discipline. Most people give up and send the horse away for training or throw it in a field or give it away instead of repeating an exercise in futility. Do you know how long this was going on with the prior rider? Might be useful for figuring out how hard it is going to be to change her mentality, even if you fix whatever is at the root of the problem.

                        Originally posted by Flew the Coop View Post
                        She is in no discomfort or pain under saddle or during work.
                        Can you back up and explain how you're so confident about this? What you're describing sounds a lot like the behavior one might expect from a horse in pain, so people here might best be able to help you think through the problem and brainstorm things to rule in/out if you unpack this a bit and describe what sort of physical vetting you've done. It might not be a lameness issue per se, but what you describe is pretty classic uncomfortable horse behavior, and "vet checked" doesn't really say anything about what's been ruled out.

                        Originally posted by Flew the Coop View Post
                        I have been told that she is just a "mare"
                        Mareishness is in the eye of the beholder 99% of the time, IMO. Did you have a repro exam done? Short of an ovarian tumor, I can't imagine reproductive (dys)function being the cause of such extravagant behavior.

                        Originally posted by Flew the Coop View Post
                        she needs draw reigns to keep her head down and to "see saw" the bit to get her into contact and stop throwing her head around.
                        Well, that's not dressage, nor is it good training from any perspective. Brute force isn't going to teach your horse how to respond appropriately to your communication. See-sawing doesn't get a horse into the contact. If it's your dressage trainer who's been telling you to do this, you need a better dressage trainer.

                        I gotta say, this almost sounds made up to stir the pot between the mare thing, draw reins, and see-sawing. If it's real, it's a cartoonishly bad situation.

                        Originally posted by Flew the Coop View Post
                        I know she is 9 and should know better
                        How would she know better? You said she's had no prior training. Age has nothing to do with it.

                        I've BTDT in introducing an older, green mare to dressage, and you know what worked for me? Working with a good dressage trainer who had lots of experience with young horses. Going back to the beginning like she was a baby. And working on myself so that I was able to ride her like a baby horse without interfering with her balance, and later to ride her like a more experienced horse without sabotaging the connection or misapplying my aids. Getting good vets involved any time we encountered performance issues that might have a physical cause.

                        I'd recommend revisiting the possibility of physical discomfort with an open mind, and then identifying the trainer that you'd send an untouched baby horse to, and getting that person involved with the restarting project.


                          She is nine and has had a life time of training her rider.

                          And then you enter her life. She is dead green and probably totally unfit. The strike off from walk to trot requires organization and a wee bit of engagement. She, unfortunately for you, has not idea how to half halt from a rider's body. If ever it was in her genetic repertoire, it has been trained out of her.

                          You say you have longed her in side reins. How have the side reins been set? At her stage of the game, I would expect to find them just barely in contact, when she's standing relaxed. Longing at this point should be on a 20 m circle at a controlled trot. Sometimes getting there takes experience and patience.

                          A similar amount of weight should be in your contact when riding. You want to feel her mouth, without tension. This takes active finger and elbow use. The use of draw reins, and see-sawing demonstrates pure ignorance on whoever suggested it.
                          Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

                          Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


                            She is an older mare, probably unfit and stiff, her head forced down with side reins. is going to have discomfort. I would start her as if she was a totally green baby. Loosen her up with walking exercises and concentrate on forward never mind what her head is doing. Her head can't come down until she starts to reach under from behind. Once she has loosened up and starts to gain some fitness she may not display bad behavior.


                              Pretty much everything that has already been said I agree with. One thing about dressage is that you can't expect a horse to work on the bit in a frame if they aren't even conversational with carrying a rider. Dressage uses muscles in a horse, and especially a green one that have never been used before in this manner. You force her into a frame, you are forcing her to be uncomfortable and associate discomfort with her dressage training. Training with negativity is a dead end. So, you must stop trying to get her on the bit and into a dressage frame immediately if you ever want her to learn without resentment.

                              Next, sawing on the bit is never appropriate. Bumping her with one rein gently is how it's usually asked and then rewarded with a release of pressure to teach a horse to go on the bit. I don't know who is teaching you, but I would find another trainer immediately. Especially since I would never consider trying to get a horse that is that green on the bit immediately anyway. It's plain bad horsemanship.

                              I agree with the comments above. I think the best thing to do would be to get the assistance of a trainer who is familiar with teaching young horses the basics and groundwork and start there. Work with your girl on the ground, gain her confidence and appreciation. Then gradually move on to backing her and asking her for just the basics for a while until she appears to be comfortable. Every step you take with a horse has to be at whatever speed they feel comfortable with before you take another step. Think of it as a foundation, every lesson is a foundation for more progress. Positive experiences and rewards build her confidence in you and in herself. Negative experiences will lead to nothing but bad behavior, balking, rearing, violent means to elude work that has her in physical and mental distress that can threaten both of you with bodily injury.

                              Good luck and it's nice you came to COTH for advice rather than moving forward with training you instinctively knew was inappropriate. Kudos.