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Balking in hand, shying under saddle

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  • Balking in hand, shying under saddle

    Need some ideas –
    Horse: Cookie – 11 yr. old Appaloosa mare, 90 days WTC under saddle as a three year old, then used as a broodmare, then brought back under saddle last December. Pasture boarded at busy hunter/jumper training center. She’s ridden 2 to 4 times a week, for anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour, walking and trotting by her over 50 re-rider owner (that’s me). I have some health issues, so number and length of rides are dependent on my energy level on any given day. I like frequent changes of scenery so I split time between the indoor, the large outdoor, the dressage ring, pastures and trails around perimeter of farm.

    Emerging Behaviors –
    On the ground - It’s about a quarter mile walk between Cookie’s pasture and the barn. Over the past 8 months she’s become very easy to catch, over last month even walks up to meet me half way when called. Excellent ground manners, respects my space, leads well. But – over last month started periodically to hesitate, then balk. Infrequently at first – coming through a gate, in/out of barn, wash stall, riding ring, over shallow ditch. Most often a voice command (“Walk on”) will move her, sometimes moving her head to one side or the other will “unstick” her. Over the past week and a half, the balks have been coming more frequently, both coming and going from her pasture. I tried the quick end of the whip, giving her several whacks with increasing intensity. The most she did was flinch, but her feet were as though set in concrete. Right now, the only way I can get her moving is to turn her around and back her through the gate, doorway, etc, which she does calmly, and once through is willing to come around and be led – until the next balk.

    Under saddle – Normally a pleasure – no issues going out on trail or in pasture alone, good in company whether in the ring or on trail, lead or follow. Attitude normally alert and interested in surroundings, but relaxed. Excellent trail gaits – she likes to travel. We’d have an occasional reaction to something new or moved, but spooking and shying were never an issue until about a week and a half ago. She started flinching away from things, especially on the left – cones, jump standards, Dressage letters, things familiar, and new things like a pile of gravel or light poles recently brought onto the farm. Monday she started randomly shying away from things as I rode in the ring. We’d pass by a jump standard a couple of times, and then the next time she’d scoot sideways to avoid coming near it. Same thing with the telephone pole, a person standing at the gate, a cone. . .

    Wednesday, had the vet out for fall shots. Did a fecal (came back good), a blood profile (had a slightly elevated liver enzyme), checked teeth (good), had an eye exam (everything clear, no evidence of trauma past or present, no swelling or discharge.)

    Come now to today – brought her up to the barn from the pasture. Balked at going into crosstie stall, but backed in easily. Groom and saddle – balked at leading out of crosstie stall. Stood quietly (as usual) for mounting. Started in indoor, walking for about 10 minutes. She wasn’t exactly spooking, but everything we passed, she acted as though she was suddenly seeing it for the first time once we get close, and wanting to veer away or avoid it. Had a difficult time keeping her on the rail, and every cone, standard or rail got the same reaction. Walked her up the lane, but had difficulty keeping her straight, she kept wanting to veer away from the side her shadow was on. Shyed at the hose on the ground, logs, rocks and divets. I then rode her into the outdoor ring. I asked her to walk over a ground pole, and she tripped over it, nearly falling on her face. I asked two more times, and both times she tripped, and stepped on the ground pole. So that was enough ride for today.

    So – even though her behavior under saddle and on the ground are different, I’m thinking that they’re related. She’s not reacting dangerously (so far), but more in a way that would lead me to believe that she’s become extremely near-sighted and needs to be fitted for glasses. Any ideas? My sense is telling me that these behaviors are indicative of some problem with her eyes, but her eye exam didn’t reveal any obvious issues.

  • #2
    Fwiw, my guys have been pretty rowdy this week too (similar to what you're describing).

    Every year right around this time, I get a few weeks of balky/spooky/whatnot behavior of varying degrees from pretty much every horse on the property. So this may be normal for your girl.

    As a suggestion, try blanketing her overnight for a couple of days (if that's feasible for you) and see if it gets better. I have one who goes from snotty to angelic with just a little insulation at night this time of year.

    If that doesn't work (and given that you've ruled out the obvious physical stuff), maybe just grit your teeth and give it a few weeks. Once their systems settle into fall/winter mode, she will likely smooth back out if it's just the fall sillies at work.


    • #3
      1) I hope the vet was thorough with her eye exam because that is still my first thought - the eyes.

      2) Maybe hormones are way out of balance; I dunno as I haven't had mares for 17 years.

      3) I wonder if anyone is handling her behind your back and doing something to her??

      4) Is it possible (and PLEASE don't take offense) that the relationship between the two of you isn't on solid ground and she is continually testing you. That may also be hormone related for all I know

      Not much to offer because I am still back on having someone else check her eyes


      • #4
        My first thought was also her eyes, particularly given that she is an appy. I would get those checked by a vet asap. If you catch night blindness early enough you can slow/halt its progression.
        Freeing worms from cans everywhere!


        • #5
          Definitely check her eyes! Appaloosas are prone to recurrent uveitis, and the sudden change in behavior is a big red flag.


          • #6
            It brings Water Zettl's quote to mind: "A sore horse is a worried horse." Investigate whether you are taking her too far too fast, resulting in muscular soreness, whether you are overwhelming her mentally or whether there are any issues with saddle fit or such, resulting in soreness of the back.

            Also: Whipping a scared horse will not make a scared horse less scared, but just maybe scared of something else.

            Stay calm and let the horse take her clues from you, the calm and unworried human, don't add to her worry by wipping her. That's my 2 cents
            "If we consider ourselves to have the moral right to use a horse for our own purposes, we ought also to accept the obligation to help him carry them out.”
            Hans von Blixen-Finecke
            Bodywork for Horses


            • #7
              Has she had any eye symptoms at all? A slight discharge or not having the eyes completely opened (lids just a bit lower than normal)? The symptoms of ERU can be very subtle and sometimes a "regular" horse vet can miss them. You might want to get referred to an equine ophthalmology specialist. I did not recognize (nor did my vet) early bouts of ERU in my gelding (who is 1/2 App) till he had a full blown obvious episode (eye fully closed, cloudy, weeping). Your mare's shying sounds like a vision problem. The balking could be related to that or could be that she is testing you - most horses would just as soon not leave the herd/pasture to go to the barn to get ready to work! For teaching the horse to always go forward, the best book I have ever read is Tom Roberts "Horse Control and the Young Horse". It is out of print but you may be able to find it used on Amazon or ebay. It explains step by step how to teach a horse the "go forward" lesson which would be very useful for your mare's balking problem. Hope this helps.