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Your experiences with the horse-shy horse?

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  • Your experiences with the horse-shy horse?

    Last year was a re-schooling year for my new mare. Now, she is quite rideable and we've started showing more frequently. She's going to be 10 years old, she is a warmblood, and the people who bred her sold her to me with the information that "she hates other horses." It's not like she's green and young, but she has always been shown in the jumpers, hence, no hack class with other horses

    At home, she gets turned out with a very submissive gelding, who she tolerates. I can ride her in group lessons in our large outdoor, and she is fine.

    However, at shows, she gets tense in schooling areas and even at home in the indoor ring when there's a lot of traffic. There have been a couple of horse shows when she would tense up and run at the schooling fence, so I have to go right to the show ring after attempting 2-3 schooling fences. She's perfectly happy hacking and jumping in an empty schooling ring. In the show ring when she's alone she's fantastic, relaxed, quiet, happy.

    If you have ever been to Culpeper, she HATES the jumper schooling area. She will leap, squeal, and crowhop whenever someone else is schooling over fences near her.

    The question is: does anyone have similar experiences and, hopefully, has your horse improved?

    My trainer just started her on ReguMate, but it does not seem to make a difference.

    I'm to the point of considering a red ribbon in her tail so people *might* give her more room.

    Thanks in advance!
    Ride on!

  • #2
    My OTTB was like that for many years at horseshows. Perfectly happy when he was on his own (e.g. in the show ring), but a miserable, spooky, bolting horse when other horses were schooling around him. And if another horse knocked down a fence while we were riding by.....oh boy, it turned into a rodeo!

    So I stopped schooling. I would take him out for a lo-ong walk before our class began (30-40 minutes of walking around the showgrounds) and then walk straight into the class. I've always felt like schooling is mostly for the rider anyway, and my guy did SO much better without that anxiety and stress right before walking into the ring. So rather than taking a few fences to level out and remember that it was no big deal, he'd walk in relaxed and ready to go.

    I followed this routine for 5 or so years (through our first 1.50m year). It might have taken less time, but I had a secondary issue with his inability to deal with a change in footing, and so the staying-away-from-other-horses issue dovetailed in with the warming-up-on-the-grass-above-the-ring issue, and I didn't try to sort out the crowded schooling ring issue until our main venue changed the footing in the schooling ring to one my horse could manage.

    And then as he matured with age and the shows piled up under his belt, schooling with other horses became less of an issue. And I'm relieved, because it was TERRIFYING to walk into a 1.40m+ class with zero warmup fences. Now as a soon-to-be-15yo, he is finally as close to "normal" as I think he'll ever be. Still not a fan of horses galloping up behind him or passing too close going the other way, but it doesn't send him into a blind panic any longer either. I think I started schooling again when he was 11/12 ish, and we started with just the flatwork in the ring and walking straight into classes with no warmup jumps. And then later that season we started doing one jump (at height) before heading into the ring at the end of the flatwork. And from there we went to schooling like normal.

    A red ribbon might help - it would at least (hopefully) keep people from crowding your horse. But if she's anything like my guy was, it doesn't actually matter if they're *that* close. I never found anything to help my guy aside from maturity and experience.
    Flying F Sport Horses
    Horses in the NW


    • #3
      I don't know if my experience is completely comparable. But I also have a boss mare who can be very reactive to other horses in the ring. This depends on if she has agreed to listen to the rider that particular day. I call this process "getting to yes." If we "get to yes," she is soft, forward, happy, and will run circles and patterns around other horses. She is listening to me and not to everything else going on around her.

      If we haven't got to yes, she is balky, ducks in off the rail, pins her ears, bucks, and if there are other horses around, will pin her ears, or use them as an excuse to suck back or balk.

      We have been working on getting to yes more and more quickly, and at this point it only takes a minute or two at the start of the ride.

      For this mare, it's really clear that her attention to other horses is part of her not accepting that the rider is in control, and is going to make good decisions. She really really hates to be ridden in such a way that she thinks we are going to violate horsey protocol, and it took her a while to accept "thread the needle" in our drill team practice, where it looks like the horses are on a collision course with each other.

      I suppose the question is: do you have a boss mare, or do you have a really submissive mare?

      I am suspecting a boss mare, who doesn't "hate other horses" so much as she is hard-wired to be watching them and telling them what to do *all the time,* and backing that up with force if necessary. The force is the part that looks like "hate" to humans, but really it is just her being emphatic, and if she were in a herd situation, she wouldn't need to keep biting and kicking, because everyone would learn to stay out of her way.

      She is going to get upset in a new, crowded arena, because this is a new temporary herd, and she has the need to figure out who everyone is, and dominate this party right away.

      I think the only solution really is making sure she accepts your leadership in the saddle all the time. Somehow get to a point where, if there is a choice between listening to the rider and listening to her own instincts, she goes with the rider.


      • Original Poster

        PNW and Scribbler - thanks for the replies!
        PNW - I'm glad to hear someone else has had to walk into the ring without a warm-up jump. It's awe-inspiring that you did that at 1.4-1.5m! Although I would appreciate a warm-up, I could probably get by at my current level (1.1-1.15m) without a traditional warm-up.

        Scribbler - I think you hit the nail on the head. I have a feeling she would try to be an alpha, because she and another known "alpha" mare always give each other the evil eye. Separately, these are the two sweetest mares. Under saddle at home, she is always alert to where everyone else is, even if there are horses in the woods/fields/trails outside the ring. As I mentioned, she has become much more rideable, but I can tell she's distracted. Any suggestions (short of a drill team) on how to help "get her to yes"?
        Ride on!


        • #5
          it may be she had a crash in the past, those can make them very apprehensive.

          there is no magical fix besides "suck it up buttercup" and place her in a busy ring. that's why it's called schooling. get her out more with other horses flanking her.
          AETERNUM VALE, INVICTUS - 7/10/2012


          • #6
            A magical fix: can you put a small pen up in your arena, and have her hang out while horses ride around her? Give her hay to much. Ideally in the middle of the ring, but if not, on the edge.
            Freeing worms from cans everywhere!


            • #7
              Originally posted by veritas View Post
              PNW and Scribbler - thanks for the replies!
              PNW - I'm glad to hear someone else has had to walk into the ring without a warm-up jump. It's awe-inspiring that you did that at 1.4-1.5m! Although I would appreciate a warm-up, I could probably get by at my current level (1.1-1.15m) without a traditional warm-up.

              Scribbler - I think you hit the nail on the head. I have a feeling she would try to be an alpha, because she and another known "alpha" mare always give each other the evil eye. Separately, these are the two sweetest mares. Under saddle at home, she is always alert to where everyone else is, even if there are horses in the woods/fields/trails outside the ring. As I mentioned, she has become much more rideable, but I can tell she's distracted. Any suggestions (short of a drill team) on how to help "get her to yes"?
              I think it has to involve asking her to keep her attention on you at all times. If she gets looky or distracted, do a little leg yield or transition or something so that her attention comes back to you. Try not to ever ride on autopilot, textmessage on the buckle, etc. I don't mean you should be riding on tight contact all the time, but just never "check out" while you are on her, because then she will think "I have to watch out for us, no one else is, certainly not this silly human." You need to be as alert as she is. Otherwise she will think you are missing everything that's going on, and she needs to be in charge, because no one else is.

              I would also work on this on the ground. Make sure you can lead her without her attention being distracted, that she is looking to you for direction. You can do all kinds of walk/trot transition in hand, lead her back and forth over poles, etc., just something with enough change up that she is looking to you.

              It sounds like she isn't giving you any disobedience when you are alone in the ring. So she is mostly there for you, which is great.

              The alpha mare thing is not all bad. It makes for an alert, confident trail horse that sees the falling branches before you do, and gets you both out of the way. And it makes them brave across country and to jumps.


              • #8
                Originally posted by beowulf View Post
                there is no magical fix besides "suck it up buttercup" and place her in a busy ring. that's why it's called schooling. get her out more with other horses flanking her.
                This. Whether she "hates" other horses or not, she has to learn to get over it and do her job. My old gelding always preferred the company of humans to that of horses. To this day, he's only happy with my mare as a pasture companion because she is extremely submissive and won't bother him. We DID have a horrible wreck in a schooling ring once, when another rider jerked her horse out into the corner where we were flatting, resulting in Montana being kicked in the shoulder. He (and I) never liked schooling rings after that. But it's just part of the deal for a show horse, so he had to learn to get over it. I tried to minimize our schooling time as best I could, and I would try to avoid the busiest times in the ring when possible, but he had to learn that my word was the final one, regardless of his opinion about the environment. He could "not like" the crowd all he wanted, but he had to trust that I would keep him out of trouble, to the best of my abilities, every time out.


                • #9
                  Have had a few OTTBs that reacted like PNWJumper describes, claustrophobic and panicky. In that case, "suck it up" is completely counter-productive. You just turn the whole thing into an ordeal while doing little to reassure the horse that there's nothing to be concerned about.

                  If they're genuinely concerned, figure out what triggers their reaction, and enlist some friends to work them through it in a structured way at home. E.g. If they hate another horse passing them too close, get a friend to pass them on the inside at a walk til they're fine with it, work up to trot and then canter. If they hate having a horse land from a jump near them, same thing. Start far away and slowly get closer. Same principle with any desensitizing, work up to it slowly, rest and reward for a good reaction.

                  I could be wrong but it seems like a lot of the OTTBs I've met who were successful racehorses were pretty unfussed about being bumped and running close to other horses. But a lot of the 2-starts-sorry-too-slow guys were really claustrophic, and hated other horses either coming up behind them, or passing them too close. Maybe you have to be a bit of a bruiser to be a good racehorse.

                  I have also known a couple (always mares!) who would just squeal in indignation if anyone dared to invade their personal space, which consisted of about 60 feet in any direction. They weren't worried so much as territorial. But the approach might be the similar: work theough it at home, squealing/bucking reaction met with a reprimand (bend around inside leg etc), no reaction gets a walk break.

                  Some just don't seem to like the schooling ring, it's a pretty high pressure environment. I could never just wing it without a warm-up fence (too chicken), but a short, effective warm-up then right into the ring can be doable. My old OTTB would get all worked up even at the walk, best was to tack him up, jump on, trot, canter, few jumps, in you go.


                  • #10
                    Yes, I've had a couple over the years who have had this problem. A mare, raised in a herd of horses as a youngster, who WOULD NOT tolerate other horses being ridden near her when under saddle. Especially passing head to head. To the extent that she would slam the brakes on, spin and bolt to escape rather than pass head on with another horse. Also, being pinned against the ring fence was a problem. So riding her with other horses was always a problem. She was OK with just a few other horses in the ring with her, in a lesson or clinic, if I was careful about where I kept her in relation to where they were. She never did flat classes, only over fences classes.

                    Same as above, she did not do warm ups at shows. At least not in the warm up ring. I'd find a parking lot somewhere, and trot/canter around for a while, then go straight into the show ring to jump a course. She was good with that.

                    Socially, this mare was (and still is) the boss mare. She is now 19 years old. She has absolute control over every other horse in the bunch. She never has to actually DO anything to get this level of control, she just has to LOOK at them. And they all fall into line behind her. She controls EVERYTHING. I am so jealous of her level of being able to influence other horses, so easily. She is a master. A queen among horses. She thinks so too.

                    When being ridden, she feels "inhibited". She is not free to exert her regular powers over other horses. She does not understand that the other horses are similarly inhibited by their riders, so she feels vulnerable. If I was not there, she could arrange their lives and exert her control in an unfettered manner. But since she can't do this, she feels powerless, and at risk. So she removes herself from this situation by wheeling and bolting. This is not something that you can ask her to "suck it up", or "train it out of her", or "punish her" for "bad" behaviour. It is a part of her character which is not accessible to me. It is part of her inner personality.

                    I appreciate her for her strengths. And overlook things I can't change. She jumps very well, and produces great offspring, who also jump very well. The offspring are mostly also dominant horses socially (not all, but most of them). But they don't have the wheel and bolt problems in company.


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Gumby80 View Post
                      Have had a few OTTBs that reacted like PNWJumper describes, claustrophobic and panicky. In that case, "suck it up" is completely counter-productive. You just turn the whole thing into an ordeal while doing little to reassure the horse that there's nothing to be concerned about.
                      really? "suck it up" makes it NBD. all of our horses are OTTBs - we retrain/repurpose them for sport. every single one of them has been claustrophobic and panicky like OP and PNWJ describe.. but the thing is, THEY have all been near/around other horses.. they're ponied on the track.. it's not like they've never worked near a horse before. it just takes time and a no-nonsense attitude. i usually walk them around on the buckle the first few times, stand in the middle of the ring while others work, keep to the inside, work on figures and patterns to keep their attention on me -- small circles, figure eights. do that a few times and take them out on trails following other horses, and it will go away.
                      AETERNUM VALE, INVICTUS - 7/10/2012


                      • #12
                        My horse is horse shy. Understandable. He was a bull horse and a head horse for a while. I would get pretty watchy if I was a bull horse, too. If a horse is cantering behind him or towards him, he tends to jump sideways or dart off the other way.

                        My fix? Leg, leg, leg. I talk to him. I've also been more adamant about group lessons. I really don't feel like there is any way for him to get over it other than just getting used to it. I sit deep and put on leg when another horse is coming. He is getting better slowly, but it is something I just have to deal with.


                        • Original Poster

                          Thanks for the replies! I'm glad to hear some horses work through this. Like Scribbler and NancyM have described, part of her behavior is being "alpha". She's gotten pretty good at the trot, but still gets frazzled at the canter. I'll keep trying to desensitize. It's a good thing I don't mind going first in the jumper classes so I can try to avoid the busiest times in the schooling ring.
                          Ride on!