If you spend any time on horse message boards or social media, you’ve read stories about horses that were sold to someone as “beginner safe” and then, within a few months, started offloading their riders regularly, became hard to handle, stopped doing things they used to do peacefully, etc. Frequently the new owner posts to complain that the previous owner must have drugged the horse, because they don’t understand any other way that the calm, mellow “packer” they tried out has now turned into a nightmare.
I’m not going to say that the drugging of sale horses doesn’t go on, but it is more rare than all the stories would have you believe. (Here’s a link about how to tell if a horse is drugged). But, generally, this is what happens when a very mellow calm polo pony (or any other kind of horse!) is sold to a beginner home and things don’t go well — and the only drugs involved are the painkillers the New Owner ends up needing to take!
1. New Owner changes the horse’s entire lifestyle. He was living in a pasture in Wyoming, and now he’s living in a box stall in Los Angeles. He goes from eating unlimited quantities of grass and plentiful hay to the typical boarding barn’s 2 or 3 flakes a day. Then, when he starts to lose weight, New Owner compensates for the lack of hay by adding more and more grain. Doesn’t really matter what kind – oats, corn, sweet feed, even senior feed can and will crank up a horse’s energy level. Also, lots of grain and not enough quality forage combined with stall life can cause ulcers to flare up.
2. Old Owner had horse on a serious exercise regimen. The horse got ridden most days, hard enough to work up a sweat. As a result, anyone could hop on him with a lead rope and pony four more without issue. New Owner doesn’t really want to pay for a groom or exercise rider and thinks he can just ride the horse himself, but he misses Wednesday because of Lisa’s birthday party and Thursday because he has to work late, and Sunday because his buddy comes to town unexpectedly. And so on… Because the horse is boarded, the horse stands in a 12 x 12 box getting progressively more irritated.
3. New Owner comes out to ride. The horse doesn’t want to pick up his foot, so after a struggle, New Owner decides that hoof does not really need to be picked. The horse starts to get pushy to lead, because he’s been in the stall for 2 days and he’s eager to move. New Owner permits the pushiness; the horse stops leading nicely and starts circling around New Owner or dragging him around like a kite. New Owner goes to tack up the horse and cranks up the girth tight all at once, something Old Owner, who was more experienced, knew better than to do. Horse flies backwards and breaks the cross ties. Now New Owner starts to become fearful of the horse. New Owner goes to get him out of the stall and the horse swings his butt to New Owner and threatens him. New Owner gives up and leaves and the horse sits in the stall yet another day.
4. When New Owner finally does manage to get the horse out for a ride, New Owner doesn’t understand why the horse has become pushy and resistant. New Owner doesn’t start by turning the horse out or longeing; he just hops right on. Maybe he pokes the horse in the side good and hard with his toe as he mounts, or kicks him in the butt accidentally with his right leg, either of which can lead to a wreck before the ride has even begun. If he gets on successfully, the horse is a whooooole lot more horse under saddle than he was when he tried him out, due to the confinement and diet changes. New Owner doesn’t call Old Owner yet. Nor does New Owner consult with a competent trainer in his discipline. New Owner allows himself to get advice from everyone he doesn’t have to pay, including the boarding barn’s official busybody who likes to give everybody unsolicited training advice, a couple of Natural Horsemanship followers who think all of these issues can be solved by playing games and, of course, everybody on his Facebook. The end result is that New Owner buys a $150 bit and $300 worth of training videos.
5. But none of that helps. In fact, the $150 bit leads to a new behavior – rearing! Now New Owner is good and scared but not willing to quit just yet. He is going to ride that horse. The horse, on his part, can sense New Owner’s fear which of course scares him (Horses are not capable of perceiving that they are what’s scaring you. Horses feel your fear and perceive that perhaps there is a mountain lion nearby which you have seen and they have not – so it might be a good idea to freak out and/or run like hell to get away from it). The behavior gets worse and worse until New Owner, quite predictably, gets dumped and gets injured – possibly seriously.
6. New Owner, from his hospital bed, writes vitriolic posts all over Facebook about the sleazy folks who sold him a horse that was not beginner safe and lied about it and probably drugged it. Old Owner fights back, pointing out that his 6 year old kid showed the horse and was fine. Everybody else makes popcorn and watches the drama unfold. Bonus points if everybody lawyers up. Meanwhile, the poor horse gets sent to slaughter by New Owner’s angry spouse.
I’m not even making any of that up, although I did combine elements of different situations to protect the guilty. It’s a scenario that gets played out time and time again. So now, let’s look at a constructive direction to go with this:
How do I keep my beginner safe horse beginner safe?
Here’s your answer:
1. The vast majority of calories should come from forage (grass, hay or hay pellets)
2. Never ever let him sit in a stall for 24 hours. Think about it – would you like to be locked in your bathroom for 24 hours? It’s just not fair. If you can’t get the barn you’re at to turn your horse out, you need to make arrangements to have him ridden or ponied daily. Yes, you may have to pay for that. The ideal is pasture life but I know it’s just not an option everywhere. Just do the best you can and be fair to the horse.
3. Beginner horses should be “tuned up” by a competent, experienced rider at least twice a month, if not more often. Lesson barns know that they have to have their advanced students, or the trainer, ride the school horses periodically in order to fix beginner-created habits like stopping at the gate, refusing to take a canter lead, and cutting the corners of the arenas. Learn from this.
4. A bigger bit in beginner hands solves nothing and creates a variety of dangerous behaviors. Avoid any solution that involves a thinner bit, a bit with a twisted mouth, or one with longer shanks/more leverage.
5. Learn the difference between abuse and discipline. None of us wants to be the idiot beating his horse – but that doesn’t mean discipline is always wrong. If your horse’s ground manners are melting down and he does not do things he used to do (like picking up feet, getting into the horse trailer, bridling) or has started doing things he didn’t used to do (like kicking at you, biting, trying to smush you against the wall in the stall), please get help from a competent trainer. It may be that your body language is all wrong, but it also may be that you’ve established yourself as, well, a doormat and need to learn when it is appropriate to re-establish yourself as the boss. This involves a lot of timing, correct body language and feel – none of which you can learn from your friends on Facebook or a training video. You need an actual trainer or other very experienced horseperson to work with you, hands-on and in-person.
6. TAKE LESSONS.
The better you ride, the better horses will behave for you.
7. Call the vet and make sure the horse is not simply trying to tell you he has a pain issue. Horses can’t exactly text you and say “hey, dude, my back hurts.” They will simply resort to things like biting you when you tighten the girth or bucking when asked to canter in a desperate attempt to convey the message.
8. If you’ve changed a lot about the horse’s lifestyle, try to change it back and see if that fixes the problem. Find a barn where the horse can be pasture boarded, for example, instead of stall kept. If you started feeding a lot of grain, replace it with hay pellets.
9. Don’t keep a horse you are terrified of. If the behaviors are truly scary or you’re hitting the dirt regularly – the horse is just not for you. You’re not in the running for the PRCA bronc riding and no one cares if you look cool or not. It’s probably more important to remain uninjured and able to, like, work and pay your mortgage, right? Turn the horse that is way too much for you over to a competent trainer to sell. Yes, this may cost you some money up front but it’s the right thing to do and once he’s sold, you are free to buy a more appropriate horse.
10. Increase your odds of not having these problems in the first place by (a) buying a horse who is regularly ridden by beginners, like a lesson horse; and (b) buying a horse that is a lot older than the one you think you need (we play polo on plenty of horses in their early 20’s, so don’t think a horse of that age can’t possibly hold up for your easy trail rides and beginner lessons), and bear in mind that appearance should be your LAST concern when shopping for a beginner horse.