Every few weeks I feel inspired to browse through Craigslist for horses, chickens, pigs, etc. that are for sale. I’ve been keeping my eye open for a nice Halflinger, a breed that might work very nicely as an all-around smaller draft horse on the farm. Not that I’d have any place to put one right now.
So when I ran across a horse ad a few days ago asking for advice on dealing with a mildly difficult horse I felt inspired to answer. I won’t reprint the ad here to protect the writer, but these are the general details. Apparently her mare had some sort of accident in the show ring awhile ago (not with this owner) and was now a nervous and flighty horse. The woman (I’m not sure of her age) wrote that she was trying to work with the mare in a round pen, but felt scared to take her riding out away from the pen and around the farm. She went on to describe a few more troubling things about how the horse was being a challenge and the owner wasn’t confident to handle her.
Being a horse person (currently horseless) I felt I had to answer her. I realized that I was putting myself in a position for a torrent of backlash because I was about to send off some not-so-sugar-coated words. Considering my past experience with horses I felt obliged to offer my perspective. This is my response:
Ok. I’ll make this short for now cuz I’m actually in bed right now…
I’ve owned 3 horses, done a fair amount of general equitation riding, got into Parelli Natural Horsemanship for a few years, and did a few seasons of trail riding (that was the most fun!). But I haven’t had a horse for about 8 years now because my family and job just take too much time.
In short I’ll say this: if you’re not confident in dealing with this kind of horse it’s a matter of time before you get hurt. I do mean to scare you. Horses can be dangerous animals. The average horse is 1000 pounds of fast twitch muscle that is designed to spring load into action and stampede away in the face of danger, all while kicking out with their hooves. And “danger” can be a plastic bag that blows in from nowhere! I have been stepped on (cracked the outer foot bone), bucked off, run off with, and body slammed into a wall. And now, at 46, I’m not so sure about getting back into it. Horses are an addiction though, so I might not be able to help myself someday. I guess it depends on the horse. I know for sure that I now have to be careful in everything I’d do around horses because recovering from an injury from this point in my life will not be fun. I’m a long ways from my 20’s when recovery was so easy. (I came across your ad because I couldn’t help but browse through horses for sale and daydream.)
I can guess you probably have a dear affection for this horse. I completely understand. But, horses are not big dogs. Their psychology is very different. Horses are prey animals and they will react with lightning speed to preserve themselves. Dogs are carnivorous pack animals that thrive on social bonding and pack mentality (that’s why they’re such a good fit for human companionship). You will not be able to sweet talk and cuddle this horse to help her get over whatever psychological trauma she suffered in the past. I have not met your mare, but from your description it sounds like she could use some professional handling, a very firm and confident hand. BUT, even if you could afford a pro trainer for a whole year it would likely be a matter of weeks or months after she got back home with a timid handler before her old habits would come back.
My strong suggestion is to find her a new home, and find an absolutely bomb proof horse that you can build your confidence with over the next 5-10 years. Yes, years. And the first year should be under the guidance of a trainer in a boarding facility, a place where you can likely find other horseman on the same journey.
I hate to crush your spirit and affection for this animal, but I implore you to consider your safety. I know this comes off as harsh, but if this warning keeps you from breaking your back and being in a wheelchair it will be worth it. It sounds like you’re heart is in the right place, though.
God bless you. Truly!
Of course there was a tirade of a response, that she “really knew what she was doing”, and “of course I know that horses aren’t big dogs” type stuff. I knew I was asking for it in giving my strong opinion on the matter. That’s ok really. But, I could see that any further discussion would be pointless. Ultimately, she may have to learn the lesson of how dangerous horses are the hard way. Some people just need the hard lesson in order to get the message through (like me with my ex a couple years ago — nothing could’ve stopped me from the train wreck that was about to happen — in hindsight it was exactly the 2×4 I needed to finally wake up to what my ex really is).
My follow up response to her:
Thanks for the update. Best of luck with her.
And that was it.
I’m not sure what advice to give to potential horse owners nowadays. Horses are very far from being an integral part of human life anymore (which is a good thing for horses), so being able to find avenues for learning about horsemanship are pretty few and far between. The only common denominator in getting seriously involved with horse ownership is: it’s only a matter of time before you get hurt.
I know if I acquire horses again someday it will only be a matter of time for me. Am I willing to take that risk? I’m not so sure anymore.
Update….. I had a friend respond to this post with a story about a pony they had in her family. She was not the nicest of ponies, so the family’s solution was to just let her be a “pasture pet” and not take her out riding. Everyone was perfectly happy keeping her as a pasture pet. So I thought I’d add this:
Ah, yes, I should probably add that it’s perfectly ok to keep a horse as a pasture pet! I think most horses now end up that way. It’s when you move to asking the horse for more in doing a job, whether it’s riding or pulling farm equipment, when trouble can start. If a handler isn’t confident in carrying through with asking for a job to be done then it could turn out to be unpleasant for both parties. I’m sure Misty’s ferrier was a firmly persistent person in getting her feet trimmed. A ferrier is put in one of the most dangerous positions with a horse, and asking the horse to stand in an uncomfortable way for a long time can sometimes lead to a battle. But a horse absolutely needs its feet trimmed, so a ferrier has to have superior skills with handling difficult horses.
I actually use some of my horse handling psychology in parenting: be firmly persistent in asking for a job to be done, don’t back down, carry through. And sometimes when my teenage son is very resistant to doing something I have to make a judgement if pushing back with equal force or standing back and letting him explode in his own space is appropriate. I usually go the way of letting him vent for a few minutes and just watching. When he can’t seem to get himself out of a pissy rant I start applying pressure to move him in a different direction, both psychologically and physically. Just like with an unruly horse it gets his attention away from the bad behavior and toward something more productive. Getting his feet moving is a tactic that works well with kids and horses.
I might just be in that situation myself someday of having a pasture pet. My chiropractor told me it’s really really not smart for me to be riding anymore. But I think when I get to the farm I’m just going to have to get another horse or 2! At least driving behind them, whether I’m sitting on a cart or walking, won’t be quite so bad for my back. It’s just that I cringe at the thought of feeding an animal and not having them do some work around the farm. Everything has to make a contribution and pull it’s weight on a working farm.