Sooner or later most horse folks meet or hear about a horse that is dangerous or unstable. People who own such horses seldom wish to keep them but have no idea how to get them off of the feed bill honorably. Every horse person has an opinion about every horse question. This problem is no different, but here’s the unvarnished truth.
Some horses, like some people, are mentally or emotionally unbalanced. Some are born that way but most are made that way by experience with the wrong people. After working with hundreds of horses during my equine career I’ve met this problem numerous times. Three of the six horses I live with in my barn today are unbalanced. Two from experience and one by genetics.
Most horses, like most people, can be brought to some level of balance. Bringing a horse into balance requires a gut check of two things: (1) ability and (2) willingness to make the necessary commitment. You must have the skills to work with an unbalanced horse and be willing to maintain that balance every single day. Every single day. Every single day.
Special-Needs Horses Require Special Trainers
The level of utility it is possible to create varies with each horse. Some will ride, some won’t. Some can compete, some can’t. Some are safe around other horses and people, some are not. Whatever level of balance you establish, failure to maintain it perfectly opens the door to trouble.
Absolutely exclude all physical factors. The first thing to determine is whether the horse is unable or unwilling to give the response you ask. This includes physical as well as emotional or training factors.
Some people believe most horses can be fixed with some new remedy for ulcers, temporal mandibular adjustment, chiropractic, or the clinician of the week. Some can, but most cannot. Responsible owners always eliminate physical reasons for problem behavior. Some mares are dangerous when they cycle. Some horses have trigger spots that spasm or zap with a particular movement. Some horses are so horribly out of balance physically that they are afraid they can’t manage their own balance much less the complication or shifting weight in a saddle.
All Horses Buck, Rear, and Kick
It takes a special trainer to determine why a horse is dangerous or inconsistent. Unless the adjustment is simple and permanent, it takes a dedicated and experienced trainer to find the level of balance possible and achieve it. All horses buck, rear, and kick. What matters is WHY a particular horse bucks, rears, or kicks.
Horses buck, rear, kick, strike, and bite at play, but also when they are afraid, in pain, or mad.
Even when the problem is resolved by ulcer medication, hormone assistance, TMJ treatment, chiropractic, or proper training, the new normal must be maintained or the problem will soon return.
Every time a horse goes from fixed to broken it becomes more difficult to fix him the next time. Eventually no fix will work.
Two Horses Unbalanced by Experience
One of my horses, Ace, “checks out” when he registers stress. That means I sit on a 1150 pound moving object with no communication whatsoever. There is truly no one home. My goal is to challenge him up to a certain point so we move forward, but no further. We’re making progress slowly, but I am VIGILANT and would never put him – or another rider – in a situation where he is stressed or the person in danger.
Shiner returned home with panic attacks. A horse having a panic attack under saddle is not a good thing. It took 2 years for him to lope confidently at liberty in a round pen. Another 2 years to get him to lope on a longe line. In the last year I have gotten to where he is confidant out on my obstacle course.
Shiner is still working on being confident enough under saddle to lope. We do it, but only when he is totally prepared. Unfortunately, although he is extremely talented and royally bred, he is also slowly losing his sight. I will keep him balanced at whatever level is possible for the rest of his life.
A Horse Unbalanced by Nature
Swizzle, one of the amazing grays, is unbalanced by genetics. To different degress her mother was, her sister was, and some of her relatives were/are. What I thought was a simple quirk or result of experience in Swizzle’s dam I later learned was not. Many were major performance champions. Even in their success folks wondered how the trainers ever got the crazy ones shown. 90% of the time she’s fine. I’ve ridden Swizzle for 6 years. But – when her switch goes she goes with it and she is dangerous.
I thought I had it beat. I prepare Swizzle every time we work. If she’s not ready I don’t ride her. After 3 years of no excitement her switch went off in the middle of a ride recently for no reason whatsoever – just the way it always has. I’ve already been fixed by ortho docs several times. I’m evaluating just how much I’ll ride her in the future. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to untrip the switch…
What’s Your Commitment?
The deciding factor of what option the owner of a dangerous or problem horse chooses boils down to one thing – commitment. What is he or she willing to do? How much time, energy, and cash is available to balance the horse and maintain that balance? How much time, energy , and cash does the owner WANT to invest in the horse?
If a particular trainer can “fix” the horse is the owner able and willing to maintain the fix?
Bottom line with my special-needs horses:
- I will never sell any of them or break the promise I made to each one.
- I would never breed the crazy bloodline no matter how well it catalogs.
- My commitment is 100%.
Unless an owner is both able and committed to balance and maintain the horse – let the horse go.
Someone has to make a responsible decision for unbalanced, dangerous, or problem horses. If you own one it’s either going to be you or you’re going to have to find someone who thinks he or she is capable and committed to bringing the horse into balance. Honorable owners must be forthcoming with everyone they speak to about the horse. Passing off your problem horse to someone else puts them in danger and always ends badly for the poor horse.
Good stewardship requires owners to only make promises they are both able and willing to keep. Good stewardship means making hard decisions when they need to be made. Sadly, sometimes the answer you want just isn’t on the table.
If you must get a dangerous or problem horse off the feed bill be sure you provide full disclosure if you try to sell it. If you cannot sell it, the only other options are rescue, auction, or euthanasia.
The methods used to balance horses are the same used to balance people. Some are troubled because they came that way and others because of bad experiences. Gospel principles apply equally to both. For more on that subject, check out Discipleship with Horses – Journey of Joy.