Monday, March 1, 2010

Bad apples, bad breeding, bad experiences or lack of communication.

By Terri Rocovich

I got back yesterday from a show, (got rained for 3 days oh joy!) and I was so impressed by the number of comments to Laura’s last post that I decided that it merited further attention. Laura and several of you that commented to her post chronicled some troubling stories of very bad experiences with some very bad horses.

Most of you know that I am a full time professional trainer who also happens to have a journalism background and am currently working on my first fiction piece. Any trainer would be lying if they told you they have never come across horses like those that Laura and the rest of you described. I have luckily only run across a few in my career and only 2 who just could not be figured out and as a result, could not be saved. As was pointed out, horses can suffer from psychiatric issues just like people. They actually now have anti-psychotics and mood elevators (like Prozac) available for both horses and dogs. I think the biggest challenge for horse owners and trainers is how to figure out the pieces of the puzzle and how to get closure as to when it is time to call it quits.

It would be so much easier if horses could talk our language, (I do believe they try to talk with us) since the biggest issue is that we understand their language in very limited ways. I have learned over the years that bad behavior is often only a symptom of a greater underlying cause. For example, many performance horses today are plagued by acidy stomachs, stomach ulcers, intestinal ulcers and bacterial imbalance in the hind gut. All of these medical issues can be difficult to diagnose and frequently manifest themselves in disobedient or destructive behavior by the horse. Horses with ulcers often buck or rear for no apparent reason and/or refuse to work or move forward. Over the years I have had several horses come into my barn, including the horse I currently compete on, who have exhibited cranky attitudes and training problems that could easily be misconstrued as poor work ethics, aggressiveness and overall unwillingness. Several of these horses have been dramatically turned around by a course of gastro guard (not a cheap endeavor) on by adding Ranitidine (generic Zantac) to their daily feed.

About ten years ago I was asked to work with a mare that had a kicking and bucking problem. Every time you would tighten up her cinch (she was a western horse) she would either try to bite or kick you and when that did not work, she would explode bucking taking out whatever she was tied to and whatever or whoever happened to be in her way. I tried every type of discipline and training trick that I knew of to no avail and was about to write her off as a “bad seed” when I observed her just standing in her corral kicking. I watched her over the next week or so and discovered that at random times she would kick at the air, the rails, her feeder, her water tub, anything whether there was another horse near by or not. I was baffled and was about to tell her owners that she simply had a screw lose when she colicked. Turns out that the mare had an intestinal stone that had been developing for years and it would cause her periodic pain when just standing and consistent pain when being ridden. This was a really nice reining prospect so the owners paid for surgery and after recovery and rehab the bad behavior never returned.

I have also seen lots of horses refuse to jump, or bolt or rear or buck or all of the above due to back pain and/or chiropractic misalignment. My niece bought an event horse several years ago who was initially a fabulous jumper and enjoyed great competitive success and then slowly over time they started to have problems. The horse at first started to stop and big solid fences on cross country but was still very reliable in the stadium ring. Then he started to get very strong and hard to control on cross country, almost on the verge of running away with her, and later also started to stop at fences in stadium.

After months of problems and consultations with various trainers, including me, and various vets, it was suggested that they get a nuclear cyntigraphy, commonly know as a nuke scan, done on the horse. The results showed that the horse had a problem known as “kissing spine” which is caused by an unstable vertebra that in turns causes them to pinch or kiss at various times of physical stress like using his back when jumping. There was no surgical solution for this issue so they retired him from jumping and he is now happy, healthy and easy to handle as a dressage schoolmaster.

Now I am not saying that all bad horse behavior can be explained by medical causes or even bad treatment or bad training. Just like we find in the human realm there are simply some bad horses out there. But I do think that when afforded a little more investigation, time and patience a lot of behavioral issues can be resolved to a positive result.

When raising foals, amateur owners, (not an experienced horseman like Laura’s uncle) can often spoil their beloved babies into very aggressive and potentially dangerous conduct. I had a young warmblood come in for training a few years ago who had been hand raised by doting loving owners who could not understand why their now nearly five year old 17.2 hand baby had been dubbed untrainable by 2 other trainers that I knew and respected. I explained to them the best I could about herd dynamics and that their horse thought that he was alpha which is, of course a problem, when you are attempting to climb on their back. I told them that I would take the horse on only if they would leave the horse and not come back to see him until I said they could and that this would probably be 3 or 4 months. Otherwise the horse was their problem.

I told them that I was going to have to get fairly rough with him because he needed to learn that he was several pegs down on the herd hierarchy and there was, to my knowledge, no other way. ( I was not looking forward to this because being rough with a horse is not in my nature but some times tough love is they only way).

The first time I worked him in my round pen he pinned his ears, bared his teeth and charged to which I responded by hitting him as hard as I could between the eyes with the hard handle of my longe whip. He staggered back, ran away, tried again to the same hard whack on the head and then decided it was in his best interest to keep his distance. This was not the simple fix, we had several altercations over the next few months but when he gave in, he gave in and accepted be under saddle with no drama. He still challenges his rider from time to time (but mild by comparison) and needs a little “aunt Terri” talk. All and all he has turned into a nice horse but if his owners had witnessed a few of our sessions in the beginning, they would have had a heart attack.

Working with horses is truly a journey filled with many adventures and many personalities – both human and equine. As much as we all love and adore horses, we all know that some of them are more bright than others; (I have a few in my barn that we refer to as special needs children) some have hearts of gold, some are perpetual delinquents and some are simply bad apples. What are some of your experiences? Have any of you been able to resolve a behavior problem through a medical solution? I would love to have your input. I do think that we owe it to ourselves and our horse to try to piece together the puzzle and look at the physical picture whenever negative behavior occurs.

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