How to Deal with New Colt’s Fear of Being Handled

QUESTION:

Hi Shawna,
I just had a colt born on 4/14/12. He is 9 days old now. Up to now, I have been going to the paddock area where he and his mother are and fairly easily catching him and holding him and petting him and talking to him for a few minutes twice a day. (I did imprint him about 2 hours after he was born). Today (at 9 days), I could not catch him — he is running away. My husband did catch him, and we both held him and petted him and talked to him. Should I be leaving him alone at this point and NOT chasing him? Am I reinforcing inappropriate behavior with him running away from me? Aren’t I supposed to be petting and handling him at this stage daily to get him used to it, or should I lay off? If so, for how long? For several days, we have also been putting a halter on him and then removing it, just to get him used to it. Obviously, we are new at this. What should and shouldn’t we be doing at this stage — just sitting in the paddock and watching him and letting him get used to us and see that we won’t hurt him? Help! Thanks very much!

RESPONSE:

Hi Carolyn,
I am very happy to hear of your new addition!! Okay let’s get down to business…definitely stop chasing him. He is clearly expressing how he feels about being handled. I imagine it is too much stimulus right now. It is probably overwhelming him and he is trying to avoid it. I think you have the right idea just hanging out with him and his mom in the paddock. Let him get to know you on his own terms. Since he is now a little wary of your presence it may take him a little time until he begins to relax around you. There are some things I would suggest you try. First, stop trying to pursue him but instead have good quality, relaxed time with mom. Horses, being social animals, are vicarious learners. This means they learn through observation. Your little guy will learn a lot about life (and survival) by watching and mimicking his mom. If she is calm, relaxed and interested in you, he will, more than likely, become that way too. If she approaches you and looks forward to your presence, he will learn that this is how to respond to humans. I recommend working on building that bond with her and let him observe her interest in you. I would also suggest having him watch you put the halter on and off of mom, handling her feet, touching her all over, etc. I would do these things at liberty, in the paddock, where he is free to watch and see her choice to stand quietly. This is only if she is good and relaxed with these things (I am assuming that she is) otherwise he will remember her fear and worry. If she is not comfortable with theses things, I would definitely work on it ASAP utilizing positive reinforcement and progressing in small steps to get her relaxed, but that would be an issue to be addressed in a separate post.

Also, I suggest not trying to approach him. In fact I think if he approaches you, that you should calmly retreat a bit. This will build his confidence around you. I suspect right now he is probably a little fearful of being handled and chased but when you change your demeanor and your intent he will start to build trust. When hanging out try being low to the ground. It is less intimidating to the young or worried horse. When you squat or sit down they will feel safer and become bolder. Of course you need to be sure that it is safe to do this in your environment. When he is very comfortable around you again, try scratching his withers. Most babies find this very enjoyable and will scratch each others withers. However, be aware that he may want to reciprocate by scratching you back. Quietly reposition yourself (or his head) so he can’t reach you. I know from experience that these things will help you re-establish a good relationship with your new colt. On my blog, I have suggestions for useful things to teach young horses once they are weaned, well, you may actually start before they are weaned. Use the search bar and search: Teaching a Foal: Starting Them off Right. It is an exiting time. Enjoy the journey with your new foal. Please keep me posted on your progress.

Your Horses Behavioral Changes & Physical Causes

Jane McClaren commented:

Hello, I have for the first time in my riding life (50 years) an under motivated horse. He is sweet, kind beyond imagination, but doesn’t like to be schooled/ridden. A hack is sometimes OK, but he might tend towards distraction and consequently become fixated on something else, then fear follows, and, well you know. We have found his attitude might be caused by physical discomfort, such as ulcers. In early January I put him on a months treatment of Ulcer Guard. Dramatic changes followed. He was happy and forward. Now in early April the old signs are coming back, particularly when grooming him around his gut he is agitated, and snarly. Here’s my take on all this. Shawna has the answers to motivate your horse, no doubt about it. I’ve used clicker training and it works, and now I am reminded to get it out again. It takes a lot of time and patience. Two keys to good horsemanship. But, I wonder Shawna and all your followers, are you finding ulcers more often than not? I will do the above suggestions, small steps, lots of reward, and I particularly like: doing something after that the horse clearly enjoys. Jesse and I love hanging out together. I sit in a chair and he grazes. Sometimes he comes close so I can scratch his poll, he seems to like that too. I agree with Shawna, spending time with our horses, doing something they enjoy too, something other than being on their backs and asking and asking, this is precious and award-filled time to spend.

Hi Jane,
As always, you bring up some great points!! I was responding to your comment on a previous post when I realized I should turn it into new blog post. As I followed my train of thought I realized I didn’t want people to miss your comment since you touch on some important topics. I am hoping others will chime in with their thoughts and observations.

First point, I want to to remind everyone to always check for physical causes when you are seeing a behavioral change, or any issue, with your horses. This is very important. It is always my first thought when I am trying to figure out what is going on with my horses. I will discuss the behavior with my veterinarian. It may be that the behavior change is the first alert to a physical issue. Pain is their bodies way of telling our horses to avoid certain activities so they have a chance to heal. The resulting behavior change can communicate this pain or discomfort to us if we are paying attention. As their stewards we are responsible for recognizing possible problems since they cannot verbalize what is bothering them. Also, keep in mind, for survival reasons they are hard wired to mask the pain so they would not appear vulnerable to predators, if they were living the wild. Once we have ruled out any physical discomfort, injury, illness or even nutritional needs, then I move onto dealing with it behaviorally.

However, in some cases the behavioral change starts because of pain or discomfort but the behavior may continue after the initial, physical cause has been addressed. The unpleasant association (reinforcement history) still remains. For instance, let’s say your horse has a sore back and each time you get in the saddle the pain becomes worse. This may manifest in a behavioral issue with mounting. He may not show any other overt symptoms. So, you talk to your vet and report the changes you have noticed in your horse. Together you determine there is an issue with his back, you come up with a plan for recovery and he is given time to heal. After some time your horse seems to feel better and doesn’t show any signs of soreness. However, when you try to mount, you are seeing the same unpleasant mounting issue. He remembers that the mounting process resulted in pain and he is anticipating the same old pain. Double check to be sure there isn’t another underlying issue. If all checks out it is time to address this behaviorally to rebuild a good association (reinforcement history). Mounting/sore back is an example that I see often but it can happen with a whole slew of physical ailments. The main point I want to make here is that we need to always rule out a physical cause for a change in behavior. Especially before we move onto a training plan to address a new, problematic behavior.

Now your question about ulcers…I would love to hear from others on their experience about this subject. I have only had one horse that has taken me down similar road. He came in and he was a real curmudgeon on the outside, until you got to know him. Then he was pretty sweet. He had been a high level show horse and he had some issues with jumping. The first day I groomed him I thought “How do they get him groomed everyday!?” He was fidgety, sometimes he would groan and, as you said Jane, he was snarky. But this seemed to be his behavior with a lot of things, not just grooming. He was progressing along nicely with training and his personality was getting sweeter but he still had the grumpy grooming attitude. I called the vet and we decided to give him a thorough exam including scoping his stomach. Ulcers was on our list of concerns. It turned out he had a lot of scarring from previous ulcers. It seems it had been a previous, chronic condition but he was healing. This probably explains his cranky grooming behavior and he had to relearn a new set of rules since he was getting better. He continued to jump, travel and learn but he never had ulcers again….nor stopped at a fence again!! That is my only experience with ulcers. I know there can be different causes for ulcers and I am certainly no expert. In my limited understanding stress can contribute to the condition. I find the positive reinforcement/clicker training reduces stress in training as well as with new situations. Traveling and competing can become a joy instead of a worry if we create a good association. We can also re-train a new, better association if, as you pointed out, we take the time and practice patience.

Let’s face it, as an industry, there is a great deal of focus on the horses physical well being. I mean, just look through any horse magazine or website, a large majority of the ads are addressing physical needs. It is all about the best supplements, medications, feed, tack, blankets, boots, pest control, grooming products, footing, bedding, barns, fencing, trailers, the list goes on and on. These are all important considerations. Next you see a lot of articles geared for the rider. How to get more control, how to get a better half pass, sliding stop, jumping, rider position, flying changes, shoulder in, safe stops, trailer loading, how to be more effective with your aids, this is another list that goes on and on. Again, this also important information. After all the better we are at teaching and executing these things the safer and more enjoyable our horses are to ride. However, relatively speaking, very little is aimed at the horse’s mental well-being or on what would help the horse to be happier for his sake, not ours. There is a tendency to focus on their physical well being or what we need them to do for us. Their psychological well being seems to fall by the wayside. I am a big believer in balance. All work and no play can indeed make Jack a dull boy, or a grouchy, sour boy. It is not enough to say they get turned out or live outside, or in a dry, well-bedded stall. I think it is important to spend time with our horses that they value and find enjoyable. If we are always seen as work and pressure/release training we are not exactly going to be the highlight of their day…in fact we may be their least favorite part of the day. Who wants their horse to run away from them when they go to catch them? Or one who just gives up and abides because they have no other choice? No one wants that kind of relationship with their horse. But who can blame them if all we do is take, take, take but don’t give back? If we never give our horses something that they value or find enjoyable? A reminder…this does not mean something we perceive as valuable but that our horses find enjoyable. I have found if I keep a balance between work, play, quiet time, they are much happier about all elements of their lives. I think it is important to do some of these activities together so the association becomes associated with you and enhances your bond. Turning them out is great (and necessary) but if all of the fun stuff happens when you are not around it can strengthen their desire to spent time away from you. I try to have half of our time together include something besides riding or prepping for riding. Training sessions using positive reinforcement are great since they really enjoy these for the rewards but also for the psychological stimulation. But so are some other activities like hand walks, exploring new things, and sitting quietly with your horse. This depends on what your horse seems to enjoy. If he has been subject to a lot of work and not so much quality time it may not be that fun for him to spend time with your right off the bat. As the balance shifts he will learn it is not all work and no play and begin to enjoy your time together. Anyway, some food for thought. Thank you Jane for your comments and question. Okay gang…I would love to hear what you have observed with your horse, what you do for fun or what you have experienced with ulcers…whatever is on your mind.

Motivate Your Horse to Participate in Training

QUESTION:

Hi Shawna, I was wondering what you do about a horse that isn’t willing to try. An example is – now that there is grass outside and Mr. Horse is not as hungry, his willingness has diminished. Now, I realize that I could take him off the grass and make him more hungry. But, what I am looking for is him to be more willing whether he is hungry or not. This particular horse is also one that will constantly test and see who is the “boss” that day. So, I am thinking part of it is his way to try to be in control of the situation as well. I can “make him do it” by insisting with more pressure. But, I am wondering if you have a better way of handling a horse that likes to try to control the training session with either a complete refusal, or just a lack of energy. Hope that makes enough sense. Thanks!!!

RESPONSE:

Hi Tina, The first suggestion I have is try to find a reinforcer that your horse enjoys more than grass. Does he love apples? Carrots? A certain treat or grain? By using something that he finds more valuable the more motivated he will be. You may have to experiment a bit to figure out which he seems to prefer.

You also seem to have some other issues going on here as well. It could be a number of causes and it isn’t always easy to know what is really going on inside his head. Sometimes we read one thing as the cause when it may be something different altogether. Often times when a horse is shut down it ends up looking like different things with different horses. A lack of motivation is definitely one of these symptoms. Often times people think the horse is just quiet or obedient but given a choice he would rather not participate. Since traditional training doesn’t really give them a choice we don’t see the symptoms of a horse who has shut down. The same holds true for round pen work. They don’t really have many choices without repercussions. If they respond incorrectly they are displaced, via body position and driven around the round pen. With clicker training they are given an absolute choice and sometimes we see horses who won’t respond, unless you use some sort of pressure. They have been taught “don’t do anything until I tell you” and the primary training tool has been pressure, both physical and psychological. If he is a horse who resented his training he may balk, refuse and look at training with suspicion. He may also resent that he has been forced to submit. Whatever the cause, don’t despair there is a way to overcome this disengaged attitude.

I often tell the story of Mint and when I first started working with him. He was the worst horse I have ever worked. He would not try at all, he just didn’t seem interested. For the longest time I didn’t even think he had a personality since he didn’t seem to enjoy any part of his life. He would walk away from target training and that is the easiest thing ever. Most horse can figure it out within minutes. The horse in the next paddock would reach over the fence and try to touch the target and I wasn’t even working with him!! So, I made things very, very easy for a while. I would put the target two inches in front of his nose. One touch of the target and I would dump the whole session’s food on the ground. He needed big motivation at first to get his attention. I did this 3 times a day, after about a week I move up to two target touches and then the whole amount. I gradually increased the duration and what I was asking from him once I started seeing him consistently coming over when I arrived. Today, you don’t see the quitter Mint once was, instead he is the epitome of heart and try.

Also doing his training session just before you feed his breakfast/dinner can help. So you may go to him with his food ask for a target touch and then feed him his dinner. Some horses need to learn how to learn, think and make decisions. This takes small steps since they often feel safer doing nothing until they’re told to do something. Once they get engaged in the training process, even slightly, they move right along. There are all sorts of psychological needs that are being met when we train using positive reinforcement so they learn to enjoy the process. They will then start to work anytime and anywhere. If I ever see a break down in the training process I assume the criteria is too much and I need to re-evaluate what I am doing. They are such individuals there is not set plan to follow. Sometimes I find myself doing something that has worked 1000 times before, however, it may not work with the next horse. Instead of thinking “what is wrong with this horse?” I remind myself to think “what am I doing that isn’t working?” There is a way to teach him, I just have to figure out how. I always break it down to smaller steps and increase the amount of reinforcement and that usually always works, but there are times when I need to break it down even further. I always let the horse’s progress dictate the path.

This same process for getting them engaged and enjoying their work also puts you in the driver’s seat. He will start to look forward to the training since there is something in it for him. This includes pleasing you since you bring the opportunity to play the game (called training) that they enjoy. Your presence becomes associated with the whole process. They quickly begin to look at the training as a privilege and a highlight in their day. Often times horse start nickering when they see you and some of them nicker when they see you pulling out the saddle. All signs of how much they look forward to learning. They soon realize the opportunity is there, if they are minding their manners and focusing on what is being asked of them. They are no longer trying to challenge you but instead trying to please you. You are now the leader, not by force but by election. There is no need for overt “dominance”, in fact I never think about it. It just happens.

Also, try to think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Try to think where he is most comfortable, maybe a smaller area will help, are there other horses intimidating him, so maybe he would be better without the other horses around. Maybe try him right before feeding time when he is the most food motivated, maybe he is better after he has had some work, maybe he is better before work, or a certain time of day. Also in addition to a food reinforcement do something he likes after the good (albeit brief) session. Perhaps turn him out or offer his favorite toy or scratch his favorite place, take him to a sand ring to roll or hand walk around the property…whatever your horse seems to enjoy. It is important to make certain it is something that he enjoys and not something that we humans perceive as a reward. We humans have a tendency to assign value to things that the horse may not think of as a reward. This will all be based on your individual horses preferences and it takes some observation on your part.

Once you get him over this hump he will become much more engaged in the training and learning process. He will take food more regularly and you may start to fade out some of the things you used to set him up for success in the early stages. Okay, Tina, I hope this helps give you some ideas…as always, I am here for support along your journey so if you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask. If anyone else has questions, the same goes for you. I would love to hear your thoughts, questions or ideas. Bye for now!!

Horse with a Fear of Fly Spray

QUESTION:

Hi Shawna-
I recently adopted a 5 year old Morgan who is terrified of the fly spray bottle. He tries to turn and bolt if he just hears it spray. I’ve gotten him to allow me to spray him on his left side but when I try to spray his right side he again, tries to bolt or if I’m holding him he’ll act like he wants to rear up. Any suggestions on how I can help him?

RESPONSE:

Well, it is that time of year again, well at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.   This is a common dilemma and one that is easily remedied using positive reinforcement.  Horses, often times, don’t seem to like the feel of the spray touching them.  Then they start putting together that sound (of the spray bottle) means I am about to have the feeling of being sprayed that I don’t like.  Next thing you know they start identifying the bottle that leads to the sound, which leads to the feeling they don’t like.  It is a whole process of association.  Utilizing positive reinforcement we can rebuild the association with fly spray to one that they look forward to instead of one they want to avoid.  Since food is a very strong motivator it goes a long way toward building a new reinforcement history.  Everything our horses do is because of an existing reinforcement history, either they are seeking something they want (positive reinforcement) or they are avoiding something the don’t want (negative reinforcement).   Every behavior your horse does or doesn’t do is because of this associative learning.  Okay, enough of the Psych 101 lesson…let’s get down to what can be done.

So, Brandi, I suggest starting with a spray bottle filled with water so you are not wasting fly spray during the training process.  I know the bigger problem is on his right side but I would suggest starting on the left side.  We want to go through the small steps on the left side first since we will have the most success there and this will allow us the most opportunity for reinforcement.  During this process we will be building a good association with the fly spray, so by the time we get to the more troublesome right side we have a little more…well, clout.  You may also let him smell the bottle before you get started, sometimes this helps them settle a bit.   I usually start by standing next to the horse with one hand on his shoulder or flank. Touching them usually has a calming effect but it also allows me to feel their level of anxiety.    With the other hand I reach out and spray the bottle in the opposite direction.   I try to make it as far away as I can reach at first. Since his reaction to the spraying seems to be a bit more severe, I suspect he may get a bit tense.  Keep spraying until you detect the slightest bit of relaxation.  Often times I feel it first in their bodies but it may be that you see the head lower slightly or the eyes and nostrils soften.  When you sense relaxation you want to click and reinforce.  You may use another bridge signal besides a clicker (verbal, whistle, etc) but I will refer to the bridge signal as a click for this post.  It is important to keep in mind that your horse will remember what he was doing when he earned the click so you want to click on the behavior you would like to see repeated.  In this case you want relaxation.

We are starting where he is most comfortable because it is one of the ways you can set him up for success.  If you start with the troubled side you probably wouldn’t get a chance to draw attention to the correct behavior since he is less likely to stand still.  Also try to think what other things you can do to ensure his success.  Does he have a place he is more comfortable?  Is he better after a turn out or some exercise?  You may fade these things out down the line but for now if it may help him to be more relaxed.  Another thing I would recommend is to give him a choice.  If you can work him without a halter and lead rope that would be the best way to start.  Maybe in a stall or round pen or even a paddock.  But at the very least have him in a halter with a lead rope but don’t use it to restrain him.  Keep it as slack as possible and allow him to wander to the end of the lead rope if he chooses.  He will be more relaxed and progress faster when he feels he has options.  When using positive reinforcement the horse is very interested in training since their is something in it for him so he will make good decisions as he builds a new reinforcement history.

Next,  when he is consistently standing quietly for this spraying into the air, slowly begin closing the angle getting nearer to his body.  You may also start with spraying it downward and slowly move it upward.   Never move the spray bottle closer until he is absolutely relaxed with the previous step.   Continue with this process.  When he is ready for the spray to touch him I recommend starting with the lower legs.   They are usually the least reactive to the spray touching their legs, however, they are individuals and he may respond differently.  The idea is to start where he will be the most relaxed.  By now he should have the idea that relaxation is what gets him rewarded so he will be trying to practice this new behavior.  Continue with the same slow, gradual process while spraying different areas of his body.  Reinforce for relaxation and good choices.

It is important to allow him time to process his lessons. Don’t start out with the expectation of spraying him on the first day.  All good training is a series of small, clear steps called successive approximations.  I recommend allowing him to set the pace.  It may be a few days or maybe a week.  It is better to go too slow then too fast.  I also suggest doing short sweet sessions.  Keep them around 5 minutes and lots of food reinforcement.  Since the presence of the fly spray bottle probably still brings him some anxiety at this point the short session can serve as a reinforcement in the early stages.

Okay, once he is rock solid on the left side it is time to start the process again but this time on the right side. The left side probably went pretty well since he isn’t as worried about that side. However, the time spent on the left side will serve us well on the right. We have taught him how to behave when he is being sprayed, to stand quietly and not because he has no choice but because there is something in it for him. In the process he has learned that the spray bottle is a good thing, not to be feared. However, we should not assume the same lesson will carry directly over to the right side, often times it doesn’t at first. I suspect he will progress quickly through the steps this time but, again, I let him dictate the pace. As you get him solid on both sides, I would suggest trying not to startle him by spraying him when he isn’t expecting it. Maybe give him a bit of a warning shot off to the side. This way he know what is coming next. Even the most seasoned horse can still be startled by a sudden spray. When he is calm and confident about the whole process I suggest moving to actual fly spray. Keep in mind the smell may remind him of the old association. So take a couple steps back to start. This will help remind him of the new process. Also, this is pretty much a no brainer, but I want to remind everyone to never spray fly spray around your horse’s face or eyes. Spraying a little on a washcloth and rubbing the areas will be a better solution.

I made an assumption that your horse knows about the early stages of clicker training…if not, there is a little more info on the first video in this free series: DeSpooking Your Horse 3-part video series.

Okay Brandi, I know this sounds like a lot of steps but I just wanted to cover as many steps as possible. Your horse will probably fly right through some parts and slower at others but it won’t be long until fly spray is a non-issue. As he has consistently shown he is unfazed by the whole process you may slowly start to fade how often you feed him for the correct behavior. I would still recommend feeding him now and then, as a way to say thank you but it won’t be necessary to maintain his calm attitude about fly spray. If you have more questions or need some help along the way please let me know, I am happy to help. The same goes for anyone else reading this post. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. If you know of someone who is having a similar issue, feel free to share this post with them via the Facebook, Twitter or email buttons below. Thanks guys!!

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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