Q&A: After an accident

A mishap on the trail leaves a once-stalwart horse skittish and fearful. What can be done to restore his confidence?
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A mishap on the trail leaves a once-stalwart horse skittish and fearful. What can be done to restore his confidence?
grumpy face

Question: I purchased a 5-year-old gelding last year, and he was doing great as a trail horse until about two weeks ago. I was riding with friends, and the horse behind us tripped and fell into the back of my horse. He was caught totally off guard, but did not kick or react. About 10 minutes later this same horse came around my horse, at which time my horse kicked out to the side and hit him in the leg. Everyone was OK, but now my horse gets nervous when any other horse comes up behind us. He almost struck out at a different horse in the same group, but I pulled him over before he could.

My horse’s body language indicates he is nervous having horses behind him now. He is constantly trying to find out what is going on behind him. This makes me sad because he was so awesome before this happened. I had absolutely no problems with his position or horses passing him prior to this accident. I don’t want to be the last horse on every ride because of this. Do you have any ideas on ways to restore his confidence on the trail and steps to take? My biggest concern is that he will hurt someone as they pass him, and I want to continue riding with my friends.

Lois Van Englehoven
Magnolia, Texas

A:

You are right to want to restore your horse’s confidence in being around other horses. This is absolutely essential if you want to have a useful riding horse, especially for trails.

You can’t avoid this issue by simply keeping your horse away from others or by always riding in the back. Doing so will likely just cause the problem to escalate or to become entrenched to the point where it may be impossible to fix. What your gelding thinks he learned that day is that he might be attacked from behind if he lets another horse come near him; he doesn’t think it was an accident. It is important that you replace this bad experience with confidence-building ones quickly. If you “just keep him away from other horses,” you are confirming to him that he is right to be worried about them. You need to remind him of what he used to know---that nearby horses typically won’t crash into him.

Desensitizing your horse to this fear won’t be easy---and it will require a careful balancing act. In order to teach your gelding that he need not fear other horses getting close, you will have to actually bring another horse near him. And you have also seen that letting other horses come too close puts them, and their riders, in danger of being kicked.

I once had a similar thing happen to a young mare I was riding, and she responded in the same way---by threatening any horse who came close. I started out by ponying her stablemate---a horse that she knew well and trusted---to let her relearn that she could let a horse get near her. Once she was comfortable with this, I advanced to ponying a different horse behind her, one who I knew was quick and nimble enough to dodge out of the way were she to kick out (although she never did). All of this was done in an enclosed space so I could let go of the ponied horse if I had to without risking him running loose.

Only after I felt confident that she wasn’t going to kick out at a horse just because it was close did I advance to having a person she knew and trusted ride with her on the stablemate whom she also trusted. I took it in small steps, starting with the other rider remaining fairly far away, then gradually drawing closer. Each exercise built her confidence, and I never asked more of her than she was willing to tolerate.

This is how I fixed the problem with THAT horse. But this method makes several assumptions---that you know how to pony another horse, that your horse has a trusted stablemate available to you to use, and that you also have access to a nimble horse. (I used my own horses.) It also requires that you risk injuring the trusted stablemate and the nimble horse. This mare never hurt them, but there was that chance.

However much traditional desensitization you do with having other riders coming ever closer to your horse’s hindquarters under saddle, at some point you would have to put somebody at risk by letting them enter kicking range. But this is a risk you are going to have to take, because if you don’t fix this problem, you will endanger everyone your horse encounters, including strangers, on public trails. So it has to be done.

Unless you have access to other horses that your gelding trusts as well as people who are willing to take the risks necessary to helping you get your horse’s confidence back, I suggest that you seek professional help. This retraining can be done, but it has to be done carefully. If it is done badly or not at all, you stand a good chance of making the problem much worse. However, this help needs to be from somebody your horse trusts, and you should participate in the retraining as much as you can---“professional help” means somebody to help you, not somebody to do it for you.

The good news is that if you address this behavior quickly and effectively with positive experiences, it is unlikely to come back. Normal horses do not run into each other, especially since most riders don’t let them. Your horse used to know that. With care, there is no reason he can’t go back to knowing that.

Also, it is worthwhile to note that this problem was caused when another horse stumbled into yours from behind. The incident didn’t have to be intentional to have created this behavioral issue. As trail riders, we should remember that. This situation should serve as a reminder to all of us that it is important not to ride too closely behind another horse. Doing so can cause far-reaching problems---problems that could have been avoided entirely just by leaving an extra foot or two between you and the horse ahead of you.

Kat Swigart
Bar H Ranch
Ontario, California

This month's expert:Kat Swigart is a horse trainer in Southern California who specializes in teaching horses new things—and teaching owners how to do these new things with their horses. In addition to saddle breaking horses of all ages, these new things have been as diverse as long distance trail riding at different speeds over varied terrain; jumping, dressage and eventing; team penning and cattle work; and carriage driving. She even has some horses that do all of these things.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #467, August 2016.