Case Study - The Horse Who Wouldn't Tie
Updated: Sep 13
I was asked to work with the very handsome spotted Appaloosa gelding. The owner's main goal was to resolve his issue with being tied. He had a really intense and severe reaction to having his head confined - pulling back in a blind panic. He also had trouble loading and was generally anxious. She knew he was unhappy but didn't know how to help him. So, she brought him to the farm to stay so I could help him resolve his emotional issues, teach him some new ways to respond to his world and his horse-mom, and teach her how to communicate with him in a more positive and effective way.
When she arrived and unloaded him, I noticed he quickly began diving for grass - not in the usual, "Oooo look yummy grass!" way but in a hyper-intense way that included dragging his owner all over the place. He was completely unresponsive to her attempts to get his head up or motivate him to go anywhere with her. Later I realized that was a high level displacement behavior, his attempt to soothe himself, distract himself from the anxiety he felt about being led, and relive some of his stress.
Once he was settled in, I got to observe his behavior while he was in his paddock. He seemed nervous at first, which is generally the norm when a horse is brought to a new environment, but within a day or two he seemed relatively comfortable with his living arrangements.
Then when I initiated and interaction with him, I noticed several signs that revealed a deep level of anxiety. When I was near him his ears went straight back and he moved toward me with a defensive posture - head extended and slightly elevated. He also wanted to get really close to the point of bumping into me. He was clearly very unsure of how to behave when I was near him.
So, I chose to not ask anything of him at first. That made him even more nervous. A horse that can't be calm around people and is behaving defensively, as though they want the person to go away, usually comes from lack of experience around people or having unpleasant experiences that makes them worried about what a human might do to them.
If I tried to move away from him, he came after me with his ears back and a lot of tension in his face, likely because he had been taught that moving away from me would result in punishment for him, probably in the form of being struck or chased. As a result, he became hyper focused on staying close to me but he did so with a lot of internal conflict about it.
The general tension and anxiety he felt showed in his movement too. His frame was hollow frame and he did a lot running without any prompting from me, and there was quite a bit of bucking and high headedness. And, of course those ears were back as ever present reminders of the stress he was living with.
I realized pretty quickly that this horses problem wasn't that he couldn't tie, load, or be led. It was that he was really anxious and distressed. Those particular behavior issues were symptoms of his underlying emotional state.
Since it was very difficult to get him to and from his paddock because of the grass diving, and he was dealing with a significant level of anxiety, I worked with him in his paddock for a couple of weeks. That helped reduce the chance of him being overstimulated by being taking into a different environment and eliminated the need for me to halter him. My first goal was to help him relax and feel safe. I didn't need a halter to do that, nor did I want to do anything with him that he already found stressful.
I worked with him at liberty so he always had the choice of opting out of the interaction with me if he wanted to. I focused on helping him develop healthier emotional responses to me by being as neutral an influence as possible at all times. I put no demands on him. I didn't touch him. I did nothing to him if he pinned his ears or walked away. I wanted him to know there were no negative consequences to his actions.
That was really hard for him to accept initially. He had no reason to trust me, so he didn't. That is the wise response. It was much safer for him to be on the ready to defend or protect himself by assuming that something bad was going to happen like it had in the past.
To further build trust, confidence, and help his brain see humans in a new light, I introduced him to clicker training and food rewards. He did not trust the process at first. In fact it was very upsetting for him to have someone do something predictable and pleasant. That simply made no sense to him. However over time and after many repetitions, he very slowly began to let go of the fear he'd held for so long. It was a great moment to see his pinned ears flick forward, and his eyes soften for the first time. When he showed curiously and deliberate interest in the training for the first time, I nearly jumped for joy.
We continued to build from there, including making changes to his posture when he was in motion to restore healthy movement and increase relaxation. We also worked on the specific issues he has with trailer loading, tying, and leading, but as his anxiety decreased so did the struggles he had with those activities.
Physical and Emotional Distress
This horse and so many others like him, was living in a chronic highly agitated state that would have persisted had his owner not sought help. In addition to being super uncomfortable for the horse and reducing their low quality of life, long-term stress . and an unhealthy physiologic impact that results from prolonged stress. Additionally it was very difficult, potentially dangerous, and unpleasant experience for his owner. She was stressed about it as well and felt hopeless that she'd ever be able to get along with or enjoy her boy.
The Bottom Line
The behaviors this horse was exhibiting were not normal. They were signs that he was in distress. Horses aren't born being this reactive or upset. Living with stress, being fearful, and experiencing chronic anxiety is unnatural and unhealthy for any creature. The awesome news is that it doesn't have to be that way for our horses. We have the power to help them be the relaxed, inquisitive, engaged beings they were born to be.
Let's Do Better
Our horse's welfare is our responsibility. We need to be well-educated and skilled owners so we can communicate with them compassionately in a way that respects their gentle nature and extreme intelligence. We can nurture their joy, sense of self, or interest in the world around them. Horses deserve to have happy, comfortable, and enjoy fulfilling life experiences. We deserve to have fun with our horses too! And, we can when we are judicious with our choices, reasonable with our expectations, and diligent with our care.
Nowadays I hear glowing reports at how fun this sweet boy and his owner are having together. He's a dream to handle. She can lead him and loosely tie him without worry. She's meeting up friends for trail rides. The grass diving issue is a thing of the past. In fact, she regularly hand grazes him and he has a signal for lifting his head that he responds to brilliantly. I recently ran into them at an equestrian trail. With a point of her finger and "load up," I watched him step up into the trailer like a champ.
Even when the story has a rough start, happy endings are possible.