Fear is the enemy in all dealings with the horse. There can be no meaningful communication with a horse that is afraid. If the fear increases, the horse simply explodes. Horses have no cerebral spheres to process reason.
Jackie L. Smith of Westlake, California, writes: “I have a rescue horse that is wonderful to be around – except if I try and put on a saddle. Then he starts to tremble, and looks very worried. I am afraid to ride him until I figure out what is going on. Any ideas?”
Yes, Jackie, the horse is afraid, and before you proceed, you must start from the beginning. He has had a bad experience somewhere along the line. If you are lucky, you might be able to give him something positive to think about. It will require patience. I will answer your question by explaining what I did with such a horse.
A friend last year gave me a thoroughbred/appy mare, seven years old, about 15.2 hands, a beautiful moving horse, all black with one blue eye and one brown eye. The owner was going to put the mare down because she had already sent two trainers to hospital.
I gave her a dollar, signed a bill of sale, along with an extensive legal release not to hold her responsible, and hauled the horse home. I called her Breeze. She had no papers.
Breeze was a nervous wreck when I unloaded her. I calmly led her to a stall I had prepared, showed her hay in the corner, grain in the feed bin and water in another corner. Then I went to my tack room, found my trusty sleeping bag, and set it down in the corner of the stall with Breeze. I clipped on a reading light, slid into the sleeping bag, plugged in my computer and prepared to do emails. It could be a long night.
I have done this before with fearful horses, so I knew what to expect. They all react the same, when you are in their space and laying down on the floor. They are so curious it absolutely consumes them.
As I expected, Breeze was only half interested in her food. She was, however, fascinated by me. I ignored her and tapped away on my laptop. For two hours she nibbled on her food, then looked down at me, then went back to her food. I did not look at her, knowing she was looking at me.
At 10pm, I pushed my laptop outside the stall, went back to my bed roll, pulled up the covers and closed my eyes. It was a warm California night. Sleep came quickly, as I listened to Breeze munching her food.
Some time later, I became aware of Breeze breathing on my face. I opened my eyes, but stayed very still. This was the moment I had been waiting for. “Good girl,” I whispered to her. She lifted her head, startled at my response, then moved back.
I remained motionless. Within minutes she was back again, breathing on my face. “Good girl,” I repeated, in a soothing voice. She lifted her head, but this time she didn’t move back. Slowly I raised my hand and touched her whiskers. She pulled up her head, but again did not move away. I was making progress.
For ten minutes I talked with her, knowing she was being calmed by my voice.
Then, she gave that wonderful breathing out sound horses give when they are completely relaxed, a soft deep throated rumble. Bingo, I thought to myself! There it is, the signal all is well.
Slowly, I moved my hand up to her forehead, and gently rubbed. Quickly she lifted her head, stepped back, and I waited, with my hand still raised. Within minutes she was back, nudging my still-raised hand with her head. She wanted more rubbing. I obliged.
And so it continued, in one form or another, for the next two hours. Then I prepared to sleep, happy and relaxed that I had made the connection. I heard Breeze walk over to the water, then I heard her eating the hay, then the rattle of pellets, then her hooves coming toward me. I felt sleep coming over me, a thick heavy dark blanket, comforting and warm.
Several times I woke briefly during the night, but I did not get up.
Sometime before dawn, I woke and saw Breeze laying down, her feet forward the stall door. I sat up, slowly, talking calmly as I did so. Breeze did not get to her feet. I liked this. She was not intimidated by me standing. She just turned and looked at me, and I continued talking with her.
Slowly I walked over. She climbed to her feet. I stopped and waited for her to look at me. I kept talking. Then she walked toward my slightly raised hand. Again, I rubbed her forehead.
I went to the house, had breakfast, then returned, put on a halter, led her out of the stall, tied her to the rail, calmly put on a saddle, then when she turned her head to me I rubbed her forehead again, and talked with her. She gave that murmuring happy sound again. I took off the saddle, then put feed in her stall. Four times over the next two days I repeated this, but saw no need to spend the night again. That trust had been established.
On the fourth day, I saddled her again, climbed up on her back and sat there for ten minutes, then we walked around. There was no bucking. She was very happy. Took her out of the corral, walked a nearby trail, then returned, pulled off the saddle.
The next day, I took her for a long ride through the Malibu Hills, then opened her out in a flat gallop, and on the way home jumped a couple of picnic tables in a park from which I have been banned – for doing just that. Oh, well!
Breeze has never bucked once with me, and is now doing 4-ft jumps, and galloping beautifully down hills. She is fast becoming one of the best horses I have ever owned.
All I did was get rid of the fear.
NOTE: For most of my life I have been a student of one of the greatest trainers of all time, Neil Davies of Australia. Little known, unfortunately, but massively talented, which means it will be only a matter of time before his original knowledge is recognized and followed. His book, Fear-Free Horse Training, Every Step Of the Way, should be studied by anybody who owns a horse.
For questions or comments, email Colin on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 818 8896988.
Colin Dangaard is founder and President of the Australian Stock Saddle Company, launched with his wife Linda Fox in 1979. They were the first to bring the Australian stock saddle to the USA.