A problem horse is generally defined as any horse that is difficult or dangerous to work with. More commonly any horse that doesn’t comply is labeled a problem horse. While this is a convenient way to lump a wide variety of horses together it doesn’t say anything about what is causing the problem.
Most problem horses are shut down to some extent. I could argue probably 75% of horses are shut down in some way, but that doesn’t make them all problem horses. Some of them function well enough that the shut down-ness is looked over. In fact, some people even believe a shut down horse is the epitomy of a well-broke horse. I guess they are right since these horses have been broken… maybe well.
Shut down horses are horses that ignore outside stimuli in order to protect themselves. It comes about as a coping mechanism. These horses are able to bury an extreme amount of stress and anxiety in order to pretend they are okay. Eventually they reach their capacity and explode, seemingly out of no where. These are horses typically described as dull, stubborn, dumb, mean, and unpredictable.
Which leads me to my FIRST RULE about problem horses: problem horses have all developed some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism in order to deal with trauma.
Not all of these horses are shut down. Some become violent towards stimuli or over reactive. These are the horses typically labeled as psychotic, explosive, reactive, “hot”, difficult, and dangerous. These horses are less misunderstood than shut down horses because at least everyone recognizes the pain and stress they are going through. However, their issues are typically addressed by teaching them “manners” and basically shutting them down.
Regardless of their coping mechanism, the horses have developed the coping mechanisms from being scared or hurt enough times that they learn how to shield themselves from this pain.
This trauma makes these horses suspicious of new people, pressures, and specific situations that remind them of the trauma. Nine times out of ten it is this suspicion that gets people in trouble with these horses and earns them the label of “problem horse”.
That brings my SECOND RULE about problem horses: they all have relationship and trust issues.
So if you are going to try to work with a problem horse, what is that first step going to look like? A lot of trainers will tell you the horse needs the sense beat into them. That sounds an awful lot like a repeat of the trauma that got the horse in trouble in the first place, doesn’t it?
This method works by further shutting the horse down so that his tolerance for abuse is raised. Now it will take even more pressure to get to the explosion, making it less likely to happen. The trade-off is you might have to be big and aggressive just to get through the horse’s walls so that he responds at all. This is your typical crank and spank training where you are overly big and aggressive with every aid to make sure the horse complies.
Now a few of you might be thinking you can’t possibly have this issue because you train using natural horsemanship. Let me burst your bubble right now. Natural horsemanship has this underlying value of “respect” running through it. You hear a lot of the big trainers explaining how respect is the key to getting your horse to listen and behave. Guess what? They are using the exact same methods as typical crank and spank trainers, just putting it in flowery language. They still promote using excessive pressure until the horse complies in order to earn “respect”, whatever that really means to them. Then they focus on getting the horse sensitive to light aids with the threat of the excessive pressure always hanging over them.
So how do you actually fix problem horses? You have to provide an environment where they feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves. Over time you have to gain their trust and teach them they don’t need those walls just to protect themselves.
That brings me to my THIRD RULE about problem horses: they don’t have training issues, they have mental issues. If you attempt to train the problem away you won’t be successful. Instead you have to treat their mental condition. Then the training will work itself out.
For instance, say you have a horse that is so shut down he won’t move forward off leg pressure. I can try to teach him that leg means forward until I am blue in the face, but if I don’t first teach him it is okay to make attempts, be wrong, express himself, and let go of some of his walls he will never “learn” how to go forward from my leg. Even more, if I can accomplish those above things, nine times out of ten the horse will go forward off the leg just fine even if I never retrained that skill. The problem generally isn’t that the horse doesn’t know the solution, it is that they are scared of being vulnerable enough to comply.
That brings me to my FOURTH RULE about problem horses: they view complying as vulnerability and resist that compliance in every way possible.
The same goes to reactive violent horses. Say I am working on trailer loading and the horse won’t load. When I ask the horse to load he explodes and becomes extremely violent. Trailer training isn’t the core issue here. It is that the horse reacts to fear and pressure with dangerous behavior. If I can teach him to relax and let down some of those walls by showing him it is okay to make mistakes, try, and be vulnerable then the trailer loading is easy. Of course, all of that effort is wasted if you take advantage of that vulnerability as soon as you are back at the trailer, but that is another topic entirely.
If we can work through all the mental issues that these problem horses have they can be wonderful, willing partners. However it takes a lot of time, patience, and understanding to fix this deep rooted trauma. Even when you have worked through all the issues you will still find certain triggers that bring back that coping mechanism.
That brings my to my FIFTH RULE about problem horses: as much as we want to “fix” them, the scars never quite go away.
Working with horses, especially ones with extreme mental issues, is a long process that is never quite over. It takes a true love of the horse and respect for the severity of mental illness to work through. Your horse might be fine for months and then something silly like a horse moving stalls or a change in his routine might set him back a bit. However, it is always easier to work through issues the second time and over time you can avoid most of the triggers. My original “problem horse” went on to be a pure joy to ride and a horse I could trust more than any other horse I have owned or worked with. In the end his one real trigger that remained was his reaction to people getting angry at him. It made for some interesting lessons as he was a lesson horse in his later years, but was never a problem for anyone compassionate and kind-hearted.
If you have a problem horse of your own I am giving away a video of my NUMBER ONE round pen exercise for problem horses. No matter where your horse is on the journey I promise you this exercise is a great place to start. It is not only easy enough for all skill levels, it is also powerful enough to make dramatic differences in the most mentally challenged horses. If you want to check it out just click the link below, enter your email address, and we will send you a copy of the video right away. Good luck on your journey!