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OTTB/trail ride question/separation anxiety: UPDATE!

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  • OTTB/trail ride question/separation anxiety: UPDATE!

    Hi all. I got my 4 yo (born in May 2004) OTTB Angel in mid November. So technically today she turned 5. We are working on wtc in the arena, circles, serpentines, and trot poles. We also do a little jump about 12" if that. She is pretty good about voice commands on the lunge line and will stop from a canter when asked in about 15 feet. She has been really good in the arena and on some little hacks/trail rides close to her home on her own. In addition, she has also trailered to various locations to trail ride with stablemates and has been just fine.

    Yesterday, she and a stable mate went on a trail ride together and she did pretty well (fairly calm and seemed to enjoy herself). However, today I took her on the same trail ride by herself and she seemed more nervous (wanted to look around at everything). About 1/2 mile out she started whinnying plaintively (as in "where are my friends!!!!"). We kept going but at one point she let out a huge whinny and then stopped. When I asked her to go forward she had a little melt down. I wasn't sure if she was intending to buck or rear but I figured it would be best to get off-which I did. (the drama part was in the process of dismounting, she backed up quickly while I had one foot in the stirrup and I fell to the ground. I hung on to the reins and she dragged me about 10 feet or so (I kept telling her "HO" and she did stop). I had to hang on to the reins or she would have run off and she was a mile from home and would have been on running on or along a paved road to who knows where had she gotten loose and she could have been hit by a car. At any rate she did stop and then I walked her for awhile continuing to head away from home and then got back on continuing the ride. She was a bit calmer the rest of the ride. But did have a few more spooks/spaz attacks than normal. Obviously I asked more of her than she was ready to give. I had no idea she would be so wigged out about going solo on the trail ride. I would like her to become comfortable going out on her own but I know that everything is new to her. So any advice on getting her more comfortable/confident going out on her own? At this point my tentative plan is to continue doing trail rides with stablemates and also do shorter solo trail rides and hope that she adapts (longer rides as she seems ready). Any advice would be greatly appreciatedl Thanks in advance!

    For the interested reader...


    Last edited by Mukluk; Feb. 14, 2009, 10:53 AM.

  • #2
    I used to train TBs and most of them OTTBs for a living. I taught them all w-t-c, basic jumping up to 2'6" or higher if the talent was there - and always used a dressage base flat work - AND I always trail rode them. The goal was to sell or place the horses in homes where they would succeed so I wanted to introduce the horses to everything and know them well enough - some love to trail ride and some do not - some get too upset - some do great on their own and some do not.

    And things happen too - I had a TB I trail rode from the time he was 3-5 and sold him - he came back 5 years later and the woman said he was incapable of trail riding and he was dangerous. And I worked with him a year and re-placed him with a 15 year old boy who is now 19 I think and eventing him - last email was singing the "This horse is great' song - so sometimes its the chemistry I think with the rider.

    Assuming you are not making her nervous - it could be just that you have not had her very long and she needs to bond with you more... but truth is - MOST - not all - but most horses seem to prefer the group ride instead of solo. Its totally natural for them. To them, the two things that equal survival is 1. FOOD and 2. FRIENDS. If they have food and friends they are happy.

    As a trainer, rider, etc - I get a lot of free horses given to me that are so pretty but they are free for a reason - and I try to read them as why - a lot of times simply handling them and feeding them small bits often - builds a big trust with them because I represent FOOD giver. And often times I will not immediately buddy them up with my other horses - I will be the Herd Leader to them first - I will be First Contact. It usually makes things go smoother. Otherwise - they often get overly attached to the others at first because they are new - and they can be a little nervous because they are new to the pecking order - even at a show barn where horses are not turned out together. They may act fine in the barn - they know it after a few days or weeks and its home. But you take them away from it - the moment they cannot see it - they feel desperate. They are worried.

    I think it is also an age thing. I find that 3 year old horses can trail ride more relaxed than a 5-7 year old and then sometimes - usually - they settle down more after age 9 especially. Its a TB thing I think. Age 3 is still all trusting and baby like. 5-7 is like a young adult. And then 9 is really when TBs mature into adults mentally.

    And on top of it - you have a mare. So - maybe she was in season - or maybe she picked up on a smell that buggered her thyroid gland and perked up her hormones. Mares are intact - like a stallion can throw a fit in the middle of a course or a dressage test - and we all usually just say he had a stallion moment. Well, mares are the same but much lower key usually. I hate when people compare a mare to a gelding. I do love my laid back geldings but mares have their hormones aflowing unlike geldings. So they sometimes will pick up on scents and their homrones can sometimes make them act unpredictable.

    I suggest riding with a buddy - at least until she is more mature and you have had her longer.


    • #3
      Whoa... laranspeedy just tapped into my thoughts !


      Seriously, couldn't have put it better m'self!


      • #4
        Agree with "buddy rides" for now. Let her get out with a good trail partner, so she can adjust to life in the outdoors and be relaxed about it. Hacking should be enjoyable, not stressful. A laid-back friend will teach her how to have a good time outside the ring.

        That said, sooner or later she has to learn to be alone. When the time comes, I'd start with short rides-- start home before she gets overly anxious. Unless it's absolutely necessary, Do Not Get Off! I've had horses associate bad behavior with "Mommy gives up" and it only exacerbates the problem. A little loneliness, some whinnying is normal at this stage... reassure her that you're there, talk to her, rub her neck. But keep her moving forward. A horse that stops and balks, is likely to spin and bolt back to the barn. (been there, done that!) Don't keep her out if she's getting worked up, but ride through some silliness if needed; reward her for being calm by going home.
        “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
        ? Albert Einstein



        • #5
          Buddy rides will help a lot, but she also needs to get over the whole being by herself thing if she's to be an event horse. If you can take her a little ways a way and do a little flatwork, working on really basic, simple stuff she finds easy, do that, and gradually move her further away. Also, don't let her whinny and carry on. This is a BIG no-no in our barn and it is often followed with a firm swat to get their attention back on their job and off of wondering where their buddies are. Sounds mean, but you'll really be hating life when you're in the dressage ring and she's constantly calling.

          Kudos to you for continuing to walk her AWAY from home. That is very big (I used to have to do this with crazy, nappy Ralph when he'd start to nap out away from home). You can also do more of that in-hand trail ride stuff. Just take her on the trails with JUST you, but on the ground. May want a chain on her nose, just in case, and don't forget gloves.

          The biggest thing is to JUST KEEP DOING IT, even if it is baby steps (ride out by yourself 100 yards, adding more each time she is braver). The second biggest thing is you really have to suck up your nerves and force yourself to be the brave, bold one of the pair. If she feels that you are unworried about the whole ordeal, hopefully, she will feel the same way, too. If she gets unmanageable and you feel uncomfortable staying on her, do exactly what you did...get off, but keep heading away from home. But the biggest thing is repetition.


          • Original Poster

            Thanks so very much for all of your thoughtful and informative replies.

            Some additional background info.

            Other than yesterday (which really was just her being a young inexperienced and anxious girl) this mare has been so sensible and level headed. The BO and everyone who knows her are amazed at her calm temperament and sensible nature. Anyway because she had been so good on previous group rides, short rides on her own, and the same ride the prior day with a buddy, I thought it would be OK to take her on this ride. Yesterday was a good lesson for me that she is a young inexperienced horse and there are times when she is going to act that way. I am a very calm relaxed rider so I don't think that is the issue. It is true that I've only had her since mid November but I think we have a pretty good bond thus far. She is very people oriented

            More on yesterday's ride.

            I rode through the whinnys and talked to her calmly when I felt she was anxious. I think by the time she had her little melt down she had just gotten too anxious. After the big whinny and stop, I asked her to go forward and she shook her head really forcefully and she did a slight rear and was still "dancing"- I could tell she was really upset. The reason I got off was because she was "dancing" and I strongly felt she was on the verge of a bucking and/or rearing/and or general big spaz attack. I don't know what her "I'm having a fit" behavior as she has never had a fit before. I think I can stick on pretty well but had no idea what she was going to pull. I got off because I concerned that if I stayed on I might get tossed and, she would take off- and she was not in a good area to "take off" due to vehicle traffic. I sure don't want her to get into a head on with a vehicle. Had this occurred in a safer spot I might have opted to stay on. I do think it is important that the horse know my motto which is "I'm the boss and you're the horsie." At any rate I don't think it was pleasant for her to drag me and she did eventually "HO." And then we continued on the ride- I walked her until we were away from the road and then got on and stayed on for the rest of the ride. So I feel like overall I "won" the battle.

            So for now we will stick with going out with a buddy and much shorter ventures on her own.

            Again THANKS so much for your wisdom and any that is yet to come!


            • #7
              She is young and a mare - and new to you - just stick with the buddy rides - my intuition tells me in the end she will be able to go out on her own. Just do not force it. That is a big big issue with me - never make a horse go against her emotion or feelings - deal within it - like reassure her. if a hrose feels forced and thinks the rider is not respecting her feelings - the horse will feel like the rider does not respect the horse. That is NOT to say let her run over you - just I see too many people say a horse has to 'get over it' - a lot of those horses end up ruined and ended up a lot of times with me and we had to spend so much time just trust building.

              I had a horse recently that used to dump the trainer he was at at least 2x a week - or did for a while until she said she did not want him in the barn. He was very needy acting everytime I rode - and I just reassured him - supported him and rode him forward - lots and lots and lots of confidence building work and this horse - he needed to not feel PRESSURE on him - someone had rushed the training and put this horse into situations where he had too much to think about and not enough training tools.

              Thoroughbreds are best when you take things real slow and focus on the confidence and relaxation building - trust and emotional stuff - because the 'hard' stuff comes SO easy to them as they have so much heart and are so athletic. Whenever I take that approach, I see the horse move faster in the training than I would ever dream. Its like the horse then will surpass expectations. There is no pressure on the horse at all so the horse is so happy.

              So I would not force the issue and I would keep things settling and comfortable for her.

              Also, even though I agree that she will do better as an eventer probably if she can trail ride alone - I do not think it is necessary - Sometimes some horses are nervous until they are given a job to focus on - so sometimes a trail ride is not engaging enough. Or maybe you will need to canter up a lot of hills!

              Then the other thing I wanted to say and then I will shut up - is - I have known horses that are downright dangerous on the trail so I would not EVER put yourself in jeopardy for the sake of making her trail ride alone. She does not HAVE to trail ride alone - it would be great for her to. It woudl be helpful. But never never never compromise yourself. I had a TB that would seriously glaze over and rear - flip over the moment he could not see the farm and it did not matter if another horse was with him. No, he could not become an event horse. he could jump a 4 foot course of HJ fences and he was trained up to third level (his real talent) in dressage. But I sold him once because I wanted a less needy and emotional horse - and the lady tried to force small issues and in THREE days he came back to me in pieces. It cost me $2500 to rehab him so he could RETIRE. Some horses are just not safe enough to trail ride - and some horses are certainly not for the trainer without patience and understanding!

              Anyways - again - my thoughts are she is likely to do great - just be safe and take your time. Any time people go on the trail - go on it - whenever you can expose her to things - do it. Just do not be alone. EVEN on a totally dead broke horse - trail riding alone is a little dangerous - keep a cell phone on you so you can call for help if something comes up.

              I mean, not to scare you but I was in the catskills years ago when I happened on a dieign horse (I am shortening the story a little) - as a rider came up on a bear and the horse got side-swiped. The horse and rider ran off but the horse lost so much blood he pretty much dropped to the ground after a while - thank goodness the bear did not follow - I guess beacuse the horse ran into a busy camp area and for some reason the bear did not follow. Anyways - it was terrible. All I could think was - what would the rider have done if the bear DID follow?

              I also remember being on a horse that felt instinctively not to go forward - which was smart - there was a rattlesnake ahead that I heard after she and I had a forward-off-the-leg discussion. We were out by ourselves. She got upset and started to back and she backed right off a cliff. Thank goodness we fell into a rut and it gave my body a hole to fall in where I would not be crushed by her - and as she got up - I was still on her back! It was surreal. But I was thinking - wow, we are in teh middle of nowhere and no one could have gotten to me if I had broken something and she ran away. I was 20 years old then.

              All my riders that are under 18 - I do not let them ride alone unless I consider then advanced and their parents sign off on it - and they stay in the arena. I guess I am over protective.

              Incidentally - I rode EVERYWHERE alone and jumped 4-5 feet in and out of pastures - no helmet - sometimes on a bareback horse and sometimes - with a string around the horse's neck. But I just must have The Ultimate Guardian Angel!


              • #8
                Separation from her friends is something you need to work on. It sounds like she is not concerned with new things she sees along the trails, so she has a good basic start on her training, like so many OTTBs, she has seen many things already, and has a good basic self confidence. If this was NOT the case, she would require buddies to go trail riding with. As it is, buddies make the ride more fun for both of you, but are not a requirement to solve this problem for you.

                She is NOT alone when you take her out on a singular trail ride, she is with you, and YOU need to be more important to her than her equine friends are. Re-establish yourself as THE most important influence in her life, the ONE she pays attention to, and takes her instructions from. Getting off in a situation that you describe should be avoided if possible, it is more likely that she will get loose from you and be injured. She is safer with you on her back. Before she gets to the point of putting up a stand against you and trying to influence YOU with what SHE wants, you should have asked her to move on for you, probably at trot or canter. This "puts her to work for you" going forward (safe for both of you), instead of giving her time to think thoughts that you don't want her to think. If she is just having a bit of a temper tantrum, one can usually ride a horse through that effectively. If she has slipped into true "panic mode", has "signed off" and her eyes are blank, stunned, not thinking, "shut down", then it is time to get off because she will not be thinking about what she is doing next. But that is the ONLY time to get off, before she flips herself over on top of you. A bit of a buck or threatening rear is only trying to scare you, don't get sucked in to that, or you will lose out in the long run.


                • Original Poster

                  Thanks so much LaraNspeedy! I agree with you. The last thing I want to do is rush her along too fast. I want her to be confident and happy. Also, I intend to keep her forever and she is very special to me. I just love this horse.

                  Nancy M. You have some good points. I didn't feel that this was a bit of a buck or rear. My gut instinct was that she was on the verge of really blowing up- and I don't know her "blow up behavior". I think she might have gone straight up if I'd asked her to move forward again. We just weren't in a safe place for her to have a big melt down if that is what she was going to do. My gut instinct was get off!!! So I did. I recently dealt with a different horse that wanted to rear on me during a trail ride because she wanted to run up a hill after her buddies. We were in a big river bed and away from traffic. In this case, I stayed on and made her circle every time she wanted to rear. We went up the hill when I told her she could, not when she wanted to.


                  • Original Poster

                    Today we did the usual turn out and romp around in the big arena and lunging. Then we did wtc under saddle with lots of circles, serpentines, and transitions. And trot poles. We then went on a short hack around the neighboring property. She was just fine- said hello to her bison friends and circled the formerly scary playground equipment twice (both of these initially scared her but she is now pretty calm about it). I'm not planning to take her out on a longer ride unless I'm with someone else for now. Especially because if I don't get a trailer ride somewhere, we have to go about a mile down the side of a road which is not the best place to have a melt down. I think she is going to be OK and just needs time. Thanks again for all the words of wisdom! And any additional comments are certainly welcome.


                    • #11
                      I don't know....guess I don't totally agree with some of the other posts. I have a mare that is very easy if she is following other horses. Take her by herself....and she is on alert. She will 180 and run home if given the opportunity. But even following other the others....it can still create problems....if the rider lets her just think on her own, I have to spend weeks undoing it. This is a now 7 year old mare who has just moved up to Prelim. But this nappiness has caused issues at some events after I had a couple of people hack her out who didn't address the issue (i.e. let her do her own thing and be in control even when following another horse). It took me months of work to get it back instilled that she needed to go where I asked, at the speed I asked and be straight. I don't hack her out now without a dressage whip. If she hesitates off my leg at all, I tap her behind my leg with the whip and make her work....I make her focus on me. She gets anxious if she thinks you are not in control...and if you give her an "inch" she takes a mile and will keep trying to take that mile for weeks. For this mare....she is better the more I force the issue a bit and hack her out alone more often than in company. Her siblings are total opposites. They love to hack out and I can hack out for hours on the buckle by themselves.

                      So it does really depend on the individual. I agree that you don't want to overface them....but you do need to address the issue and press the issue sometimes. She is at the age that they start to challenge you a bit more. She needs to look to you and go where you tell her.....otherwise, the first time you gallop away from trailer parking at an event on xc...watch out. If it had been me, and I feel that tiny meltdown coming. I ask them to work a little....either doing circles, little leg yield what ever I think I can ask to get them focused on me and push it just a touch further and then go home. You want to stop the meltdown before it happens but you want her to do what you ask her to do. I also try very hard not to get off....I think you often have more control on them then off them....and as you found out, sometimes the getting off (and back on again) can be problematic. It can be such a hard line to see sometimes between pushing that little bit to challenge and train them....and pushing too far to overface them.

                      Good luck with her!
                      ** Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. ~Winston Churchill? **


                      • #12
                        I went through this last year with my OTTB. He had a nasty spin, prop, rear when asked to head out on his own and even with a buddy in the beginning. First off I would NEVER get off. I don't look at everything as a horse being "dirty" and necessitating that I "win" but I have only ever gotten off him when he backed into some low trees and started rearing. The biggest thing for mine was being calm and riding through his meltdowns in little, tiny increments. The second biggest thing was handwalking him. Chain over nose, pocket full of treats and good shoes on my feet. I ended up jogging with him after a couple months. I think it was as much about him learning to trust me and getting his confidence back (had a rough go with a heavy handed trainer when he was first started that would fight with him daily and he doesn't give up...ever). He expected a fight when he would act up which he had discovered would usually end up with person becoming afraid, coming off or giving up so I had to refuse to remotely go there with him. I also started hacking him with my dog which gave him a "being" on the ground and helped a great deal.
                        I am very happy to say that less than a year later he has become a fantastic hack. He is still a basket case if he is forced to be in the back in company but after racing for 5 years I can't blame him for that and it is now a rideable situation. I let him think he has "won" now and then just to keep him happy
                        "look deep into his pedigree. Look for the name of a one-of-a-kind horse who lends to his kin a fierce tenacity, a will of iron, a look of eagles. Look & know that Slew is still very much with us."


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by sisu27 View Post
                          I also started hacking him with my dog which gave him a "being" on the ground and helped a great deal.

                          Funny I tried the dog for mine but it didn't really matter with this mare...of course it did distract her a bit when she pins her ears and tries to get the dog. But that has really worked well for other horses of mine. Just to be clear in what I was describing in pushing it a little...I don't mean fight or be heavy handed....I mean get their attention, get them listening to you instead of focusing on going home or where their buddies are. For my mare, the dressage whip has just worked to remind her to listen to my leg....I don't use it any differently than if I was in the ring to just back up my leg aid. It is more about changing her focus to me and what I'm asking not forcing her to do something. While very tempted to beat her....I know that isn't the right answer! But she needs to go where I tell her and I need to be very careful never to tell her to go somewhere that could hurt her....she has to trust me but know I'm in charge. She is best if I keep a bit of contact on the reins and keep her moving forward...although I don't dictate every step. I'm just quicker to keep her a bit busy on the hack. It is just a different hack from my other horses (her siblings) who I can drop to the buckle and they will happily flat foot it on the hack.
                          Last edited by bornfreenowexpensive; Jan. 3, 2009, 09:42 PM.
                          ** Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. ~Winston Churchill? **


                          • Original Poster

                            Thanks again for all of the feedback. Today I took her the same way we went on the melt down ride (though not nearly as far). Turned around when I decided to. She was much better- no whinnying. A little spook here and there. For clarification there was no warning about her meltdown before. She made a big whinny, same as she had done a few times before on this ride but this time she stopped. When I asked to go forward she shook her head forcefully, came off the ground in front, and seemed really pissed off- it seemed to me that she was going to go ballistic. My decision to get off was because if I got tossed she would have run off and possibly been hit by a car/lost. If this event had happened away from roads, I would have felt better about staying on her. Even the best of us can get bucked off and I felt that I had to avoid that at all costs. I'm going to keep taking her a little farther each time on her own and see how it goes.


                            • #15
                              sound good...but the calling (any calling) is a warning. At least for my mare, it always preceeds the melt down. She is a bit herd bound and she is calling for her herd. I address her the first time she whinnies.....get her to focus on you not call for her buddies. I also would put a strap on her. You are right.....any one can fall off. But I think you have even less control on the ground. A horse can rip out of your hands as well or dump you as you are getting off. It is always a judgement call. For me, I try and stay on but will do things like have a neck strap or yoke on so that I have a bit more help in staying on. It sounds like you are making progress.
                              Last edited by bornfreenowexpensive; Jan. 4, 2009, 02:49 PM. Reason: typo
                              ** Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. ~Winston Churchill? **


                              • #16
                                Keep on with what you're doing.

                                I hate. to. get. off. ever. but, you obviously get the problems with getting off, made a conscious choice, and addressed as best possible by continuing away from home. As YellowBritches said, kudos to you for that.
                                The best part is, it seems to have worked, as you were able to remount and continue your ride. This tells me you should be fine if you keep up with small steps. It seems you have common sense, so you are ahead of the game in general


                                • #17
                                  This is a great thread for me. I have such a similar horse. Unfortunately, he raced until he was over six and I didn't get him until he was seven. We have the same exact same problems on trail rides and going xc. He is simply just very insecure being out on his own.

                                  I do try to gradually introduce him to trail riding every spring (the snow is too deep here to do it in the winter) and extend our ventures beyond our property further and further every time. He can get to the point where he's pretty good about it and can go several miles from home, but I do have go through the reintroduction process on some level every year. And, for a horse that is a super star jumping and schooling xc with other people and horses around, he completely looses his mind when he goes out on his own xc in a competition. I think the two situations are completely related and I hope I can figure it out some day. For me for right now, I've decided to focus on jumpers for him, because he seems to feel more secure and in his element. I'll be curious to see how this works out with you and your mare. I wish mine had been younger when I started to work on these things.


                                  • Original Poster


                                    Angel has now done this ride twice all by herself no muss no fuss!!! I am so proud of her. I think she just needed to learn that even though she is going out, she is going to be coming back!


                                    • #19

                                      This was a great thread to read. Thanks everyone for the good advice. I'm particularly interested in the developmental thoughts so am going to post a spinoff on developmental stages.