People often look at me slightly startled when I boldly announce it will take them about six months to build a relationship with their new equine partner. ‘But he’s trained to ‘x’ level’ they exclaim! Yup, and it’s going to take a while to work out those buttons. Let’s face it, we’re not all the sort of riders who can jump on a horse and have it going sweetly in five minutes. Even those riders who can, gladly admit it takes time to build a new relationship. The majority of us have a horse as a hobby, for exercise, for stress relief, for competition with a group of friends and want to enjoy ourselves!
How many of you have purchased a horse you believe to be your perfect match? He’s been lovely the few times you’ve ridden him, passed the vet check with flying colours and now he’s home and you’re in heaven! For the first week or so the fairytale continues, you just want to gaze at him for hours in the paddock and keep going up and patting him, just to make sure he’s real! Often at this point the fairytale starts to fracture somewhat….. Your new pride and joy may start to push boundaries or all of a sudden appear to have a personality change and stop doing things he’d been doing perfectly up until now. Thoughts start to run through your head like ‘what have I done?’, ‘will he hurt me?’ Confidence starts to waver. This feeling is, of course, magnified enormously if the animal has been purchased for your child!
First of all, take a deep breath! Unless something has gone terribly wrong in the sales process (see last month’s article on choosing a suitable mount) there is nothing going on here which can’t be fixed.
Horses are creatures of habit and routine. Whilst they don’t have the ability to reason as we do, they do have very long memories. How easy would it be if they really understood their last owners reasons for selling them on and know they will be safe and cared for with you? They don’t. As a result they are often, some more than others, quite upset by change. When you bring your new horse home he’s facing a change of environment, paddock mates, routine and often feed, gear and way of handling. They may have also have been transported quite a way to get to you which can also take some time to recover from.
Ensure you take the time to really discuss with the previous owner things like feed, equipment used, training regime, along with any quirks the horse may have. Often a complete turn around in feeding regime can actually make them quite ill or increase/decrease energy levels on top of all the other changes. If the current feed being fed is something you don’t normally feed or don’t like feeding for whatever reason, make an effort to change it over to your preferred feed gradually for your horses sake.
It’s important to discuss what sort of work the animal has been in with its previous owner. If you’re reasonably knowledgeable you are probably able to fairly accurately assess an animal’s fitness level, or be able to feel when he tires underneath you during work. If you are not as experienced, or are parents of a child with their first horse, you’re going to have to be careful you don’t make the horse sore with too much work too soon with not enough recovery time between rides. The flip side of this is, is the horse being fresh from not enough work? His may lead to a loss of confidence which is not a nice way to enjoy your new purchase. Either can cause an unhappy animal leading to an unhappy new owner!
Sellers will sometimes offer saddlery with the horse. This is a great opportunity to purchase something that the horse is both familiar with and has probably had fitted to him! If you don’t have this chance, check what saddle they are using and ask if they’ve had other saddles on the animal. Before you do any serious work with the horse make sure you have your saddle correctly fitted by an accredited saddle fitter! You do NOT want your relationship to commence as one involving pain for your new equine!! Remember if he’s been out of work you may need more than one saddle fitting as he changes shape. Similarly a new saddle which takes some settling time may require more than one fitting. It’s a cheaper option to select the same bit he’s been working in but do take the time to ensure it’s the correct size for his mouth.
Once you’ve ruled out gear, feed and environment it’s time to have a look at ourselves. Horses react to the messages we send to them. I’ve come across very few animals I’d call genuinely nasty. I come across many animals who suffer from what I call ‘operator error’. In most cases this is very easily fixed!
I see many new owners who are utterly in love with their purchase, and rightly so! Often our wonderful new purchase will take advantage of this ‘love’ and use it as a way to work his way up the pecking order a little. Things like being pushy on the ground, pushing past you through gates, being bossy around his feed. Sound familiar? He’s going to hit a point in those first few weeks where he pushes the boundaries to see if the same rules apply in the new home as used to apply in his old home.
How many of you have seen a really bossy old mare in a paddock and noticed how she tells the other horses off? We’ve all had a giggle at her or heard people say ‘yes we put all the weanlings in with her, she sorts them out quick smart’. Here’s the thing about horses being pushy on the ground……..YOU need to be the bossy grumpy old mare! If you’ve ever watched the grumpy old mare in the paddock she’s very particular about ‘her’ space and how, in particular, the young horses behave around her. Translate this to you. Don’t let the horse into your space to push you around or barge through the stable/gate etc in front of you. Stand your ground. Put your arms above your head, jump up and down, yell, do whatever it is you need to do to get the horse to take a step BACK from you and give you some space! You’ll find you rarely even need to touch them to make this happen. Sure they might look at you like you’re a complete lunatic but guess what? They’re noticing you! You could go off like a firecracker at any moment so they’d best be aware of you. This is what you want from them. For one week don’t let your horse into your space, they need to keep one metre away from you at all times. If you can reach an arm out and touch them, they’re too close. You, of course, can go into their space for a scratch or a pat whenever you like but they are not invited into your space. I guarantee you that you’ll see a different horse in a week. In many cases this newfound respect for your inner grumpy mare will translate under saddle also. If they don’t listen to you when you’re on the ground, what hope do you have under saddle?
Please ensure that as soon as the horse has yielded and stepped backwards out of your space that you release the pressure and let him stand. If you keep your aid (arms up, stomping feet etc) on after he’s done as you’ve asked you’re going to end up with either a horse who becomes dull to the asking aid or, worse, a horse who becomes genuinely worried, frightened and confused with what you’ve asked. You’ll find that as he tunes into your aid you’ll be able to ask in a smaller way, in the end it may be as small as lifting your hand and using ‘the finger’ or a voice command and he’ll be out of the grumpy mare’s way!
This trick will also work for those of you who may be non-horsey parents helping your child with their pony or horse. Often a cheeky pony only needs a couple of corrections from someone physically larger than their child for them to step back into line again. Make sure you treat your pony like a horse and not a cute little toy, or worse still, a pet. Ponies are smart and quick, you want to ensure the animal carrying your child is as safe as you can possibly make it.
Please ensure you work with a good instructor to assist you both on the ground and under saddle, particularly where you feel threatened or scared. As a general rule horses don’t have personality changes overnight. Sadly, we’re usually the problem and having an experienced set of eyes on the ground to assist is invaluable to your enjoyment of your new horse! It does take a while to have everything click into place but with the correct work and a preparedness to try something new and continue to learn, you should be well on the way to having a long and happy partnership with your new horse!