The Onion Horse

Why is the perfectly safe horse I bought suddenly displaying dangerous behaviors?

It’s a common frustration…someone purchased or came to own a horse who seemed quiet and was getting along well. Then, little behaviors here and there creep in, and soon you have a full blown problem.

Were you mislead? The horse drugged?
Maybe, but maybe not.

There are a lot of factors that go into horse behavior. Horses are not static beings, who, once trained, remain displaying those behaviors forever. A lot can affect behavior, but a horse changing homes goes through some major changes:
-turnout situation and herd structure
-style of handling

Some horses do very well in their previous home, especially if they were in training, because their feed is being matched to their energy output, they are being ridden frequently by a professional or someone who knows the horse well, and the horse is in a consistent program.

When a horse goes to a new home, their entire world changes. Some concern or frustration on the horse’s part is entirely normal and to be expected – and I think it’s only fair to give them an adjustment period. However, with inconsistent (meaning the rules are inconsistent) handling or poor handling, their frustration and confusion can grow into a full blown problem.

Another situation that can arise is the horse was not in fact calm before purchase, but was sort of “shell shocked.” If the training was dominating, involving flooding methods or excess pressure, horses can go easily into learned helplessness or withdraw entirely. This gives the illusion of a quiet, well trained horse.

This horse, once brought into a safe environment where those methods are not used, does not go through the Disney princess spin and – poof – becomes happy and gentle. The process is messy, with many layers of the garbage onion exposed over time, or all at once. They may go from withdrawal to explosion and back, they may become very aggressive or extremely fearful. They can often go through health issues with no explanation or lameness issues that travel through the horse’s body. What you’re seeing is the horse “waking up.”

If you’re in this situation, you’re in for the long haul. There’s no quick fix here- you just need to hang on with compassion for what your poor horse is going through. It can take months but more likely years.

You might need to give them time off. You might need to give them a healthy herd dynamic. You might need to get some professional help. One thing is for sure, this horse is not going back to the “calm, bombproof” horse you thought you had. They are waking up, and the world is a dark and unpredictable place for them.

What can you do? If this isn’t the horse for you, consider pasture retirement, unless you’re lucky enough to find someone skilled enough and compassionate enough to help this horse through their struggles. If this is the horse for you, give it time, be consistent, don’t take any of it personally, be willing to experiment and keep an open mind, and if you’re in over your head, get some good help – from someone experienced with traumatized horses, not the barn busybody who watched a YouTube video once 😉

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