Updated: Oct 15, 2020
I was asked to work with the very handsome spotted Appaloosa gelding. The owner's main concerns were his issues with being tied and loading into a trailer. She explained that he had an intense and severe reaction to having his head confined - pulling back in a blind panic. She knew he had had a less than pleasant history and wanted to help him feel better about life, but didn't know what to do.
So, she brought him to Lyric Valley Ranch so I could help him relax, build his confidence, and and teach him behaviors that would benefit him and his relationship with his horse-parent. While he was learning, I was teaching his owner new ways to communicate with her boy and how to interpret his behavior.
When they first arrived and she unloaded him, I noticed he was very tense. His head was held high and his eye was very worried. Almost immediately he 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. This is a high level displacement behavior - a strategy this this horse used to soothe or distract himself from a world he saw as scary or unmanageable. That kind of behavior gives us important insight into the emotional state of the horse, but from a practical point of view it can be really frustrating to handle a horse that's that agitated and there's potential for getting hurt too.
I already knew this boy was living with significant anxiety based on what I learned about him from his horse-mom and what I saw when he first arrived. I gave him a couple days to settle into his new environment and routine before interacting with him. This gave me a chance to see how he handled being in a new place. Did he explore? Did he call out to the other horses? Would he eat and drink? Was he able to rest comfortably? I also conducted a cursory functional evaluation at this time to see if there were any physical signs of pain or imbalance.
When I entered the paddock with this horse the first time, he exhibited an obvious stress response - pinning his ears straight back. He also repetitively moved toward me with a lot of tension in his body with head extended and slightly elevated. He was anxious if I moved away from him and actively moved toward me, preferring to be really close but clearly not happy about it. That may seem strange for a horse to move toward you when he doesn't seem to enjoy doing so, but that's an unfortunate and pretty common response to experiencing intimidating and fear-based training methods. The horse is taught there are unpleasant consequences whenever he behaves independently and is conditioned to "seek out" the handler. This horse appeared to have had that experience because he showed an extreme need to stay near me while at the same being totally conflicted and upset about it.
The Treatment Plan
My first priority was to help this horse relax. This is not something you can make a horse do but it will happen when a horse feels safe. The first step is to avoid doing anything that might feel like pressure to him. I wanted to give him a chance to associate with me and my actions as a neutral experience. Eventually we would work toward having interactions that were actually pleasant and enjoyable to him, but that would take awhile.
To get the ball rolling, I gave him lots of food by hand or if that was too exciting for him I put it in a dish. This is a straightforward and highly effective way of helping a horse feel safe. It's also a great way to give a horse a better opinion of human beings. At the same time, I introduced him to the clicker and started reinforcing him for being "polite" around food and resisting the urge to come toward me to get it. This was also his first lesson in "impulse control," making a choice that goes against his natural instincts or motivations.
Since it was very difficult to get him to and from his paddock because of the grass diving, and leading added to his anxiety, I continued to work with him in his paddock for the next couple of weeks. This gave me the freedom to work with him at liberty so he felt less pressured and would have the opportunity to move away from me once he was confident enough to do so.
I also introduced him to the target, which was initially really stressful for him. Once he figured out touching the target meant he was going to get a treat, he pinned his ears even harder. I read that as him having a tough time trusting something that good. He was waiting for something bad to happen, but after many repetitions, he eventually let those ears come forward and enjoyed the experience.
Weeks of predictable and comfortable interactions gave this handsome boy the safety and stability he needed to very slowly let go of the heavy burden of fear he'd carried for so long. When he chose to engage and showed deliberate interest in the training for the first time, I nearly jumped for joy. It was hard to control that impulse, but I had to so I didn't scare him!!
As time went by, I introduced him to behaviors that helped him feel more relaxed and confident. He was still hesitant at times, especially when we worked on something new, but he also started learning faster and easier than ever before. He even started to show enthusiasm about particular activities like pushing the ball or standing on a mat.
Moving forward, I incorporated those issues his owner initially had trouble with, specifically trailer loading, tying, and leading, but as his anxiety decreased so did the struggles he had with those activities.
The Bottom Line
It's important to understand the behaviors this horse was exhibiting were not normal. They were signs that he was experiencing significant emotional distress. An emotionally healthy horse isn't this reactive or upset. Living with chronic stress, fear, and anxiety is an unnatural state for any creature to be in and causes serious problems for them and for us. The awesome news is horses like this boy recover, but wouldn't it be great if we could prevent them from ever having awful experiences?
Nowadays I hear glowing reports about how well this sweet boy and his owner are doing together. She can lead him and loosely tie him without worry. She's meeting with friends and going on trail rides. His grass diving issue is a thing of the past. He loads in the trailer with a finger point and a verbal "load up" cue. More importantly, he's relaxed, inquisitive, and eager to spend time with his horse-mom. They are learning tons of new behaviors and having fun together. His ears are forward all the time too! I am so proud of what they have accomplished and couldn't be more thrilled that they got the happy ending they deserved.