When your equine partner starts acting out, is it pain or a training problem? Follow one horse’s journey from being labeled as aggressive to revealing his discomfort and showing his guardians what he needed to thrive.
I first noticed his unusual facial swirls as he walked down the aisle and into what would be his new stall for the upcoming week. They had me intrigued, since the meaning behind equine facial markings has been an ongoing study of mine. Titan’s suggested an intelligent horse.
His guardian followed us closely. This vivacious blond woman with a body brace was trying to ascertain whether her precious horse was more than she could handle.
Labeled as aggressive, Titan, a rather large five-year-old Paint, had just been accepted into my Holistic Horse Course at Ray of Light Farms in Connecticut. He had been assessed by a reputable trainer who reported he had reared, bucked and kicked towards her. He displayed aggressive behavior and an unwillingness to cooperate. In fact, it appeared he lacked any motivation or enthusiasm to work or engage at all.
What I initially saw was a bright, outgoing individual, very well nourished, full of energy and rather pushy. I did not see aggression in his eye or feel a threatening approach. But there certainly was no ignoring Titan – he made his presence known. He offered my students a perfect opportunity to witness a full equine assessment.
I was told Titan had cleared a small jump, only to buck right afterwards and throw his rider, landing her in the hospital. Many were intimidated by his size and demeanor, and Titan was led with a chain or pressure halter. He lived alone without equine companions, but turnout was provided.
I began my process – first gain Titan’s trust, earn leadership, understand his story, assess his health, determine his character and speak to him in a language he could understand. I could do all this by “Reaching Out” to him in a round pen environment where he would be at liberty. It remains the best method I have found, and gives me a true read of my equine student. Reaching Out involves communicating through body language, energy and interspecies communication. (For more information about the value of the round pen, watch Volume 3 of the six-volume DVD series “Demystifying the round pen”.)
Aware of Titan’s history, I placed a reliable instructor student at the gate. In the event I needed immediate assistance, she would be able to open the door and distract Titan from any threatening actions. The only tools I took with me were a pressure halter (Dually) and a long-line. This was my time to prove my abilities as a true leader, not to intimidate or dominate.
Using his language, Titan showed me he was willing to respond to subtle cues as he moved smoothly and rhythmically through gaits. His power was evident as he kicked up his heels, increasing his body length to almost double. Occasionally he would kick out towards me, but the size of the 50-foot round pen ensured I was safe. His behavior was more a factor of exuberance and energy than angst.
Titan also bucked when asked to canter. Through this action and an ongoing visual scan, it was clear to me that he was not moving naturally, but instead was indicating pain in his hind end. He was asked to perform speed and direction changes and transitions. We interacted through visual gestures, visualization and energetic exchanges. He responded to all my cues. At no time did Titan rear, charge or challenge. He didn’t hide his past – he showed exactly who he was and what needed to be heard.
I gave him a voice, and what appeared was an uneducated, creative, willing individual who required an experienced handler. Variety, along with interesting and challenging exercises, would keep him on the desired learning curve.
Titan’s facial swirls proved to align with what I imagined him to be on our first encounter. He was one smart individual.
Addressing his Discomfort
1. Adjusting saddlefit
We verified my visual assessment of Titan’s hind end through hand palpations and muscle testing, both of which backed up our initial suspicions that he was experiencing pain in that area.
I asked my client to bring her saddle to check the fit ting. Although we are not licensed master saddle fitters, we would at least be able to give our professional opinions. Just seeing the saddle helped us quickly identify problems. The saddle would only properly fit a teenage rider and not an adult. It was simply too small for my client’s butt. This meant her weight was not distributed evenly across Titan’s back and was causing additional pressure points. Additionally, the saddle was too narrow for Titan’s shoulders – he needed something larger and wider. Basically, the saddle didn’t fit either the horse or his rider.
2. Bridle fitting
Another reason for Titan’s behavior was revealed when his bridle was placed on his head. We immediately noticed that it pinched his ears around the browband. The bit was placed quite high in his mouth, while the rings pinched the sides of his mouth. Comfort was out of the question, and we immediately made changes. We removed excess leather with only the throat latch remaining, and lowered the bit, releasing pressure. It was a short term solution, but we were definitely making progress.
3. Under saddle
With our initial fixes in place, Titan rode around the indoor arena like a pro. He willingly accepted my instructor student, who is an amazing rider. I even heard a spectator say, “I wish I could read a horse that well with my butt.” The student remained at a walk throughout and identified Titan’s soreness through his stride, movement, moments of tension and neck brace. Titan showed us what he needed in a rider – clarity and confidence. He could not handle a tight frame, for his knowledge was lacking and his topline was not built for such requests at this time.
4. Ground manners
Now that we had a thorough understanding of Titan’s needs, he entered the remainder of our program. Due to his suspected pain issues, we kept him off riding. Throughout his stay, Titan was exposed to the round pen, ground driving, spook-busting, trust-based leadership, compassionate communication (TLC), motivational exercises and trailer loading. He displayed extremely “green” behavior, and needed to learn manners and protocol.
The following was our assessment of Titan, and what we recommended the client do:
1. Veterinary consultation (pain related issues)
2. Chiropractic adjustment
3. Bridle fitting
4. Saddle fitting
5. Socialization (turnout with horses required)
6. Diet review (for weight and energy management – Titan is an easy keeper)
7. Training program to include groundwork
8. Rider support (green and green makes black and blue)
Many things came together to ensure Titan’s success. His guardian consulted a natural horsewoman, his trainer was open to additional support and the farm made more space for him. Also instrumental were the timing of the course and the Reaching Out To Horses staff, as well as a whole community of health practitioners. Not every horse is this lucky.
Remember that pain is by far the highest cause of behavioral problems. Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t take things personally! Our horses communicate through their language – body language. Their intentions are not to hurt you, but to try and tell you they need to be heard. They begin in whispers that are often missed, and that eventually escalate to screams. Remember to give your horse a voice and a chance to be pain free. If you don’t know how, seek the help you need. Horses are the most forgiving creatures. For everything they give us, the least we can do is ensure they are comfortable.
Anna Twinney is an internationally recognized Equine Specialist, Natural Horsemanship Clinician, Animal Communicator and Reiki Master. She is also the founder of th Reach Out to Horses® program, focusing on gentle communication techniques (reachouttohorses.com). Anna travels the world teaching people how to work in the horse’s language and create a trustbased partnership with their horses. She can be heard each week on her own podcast show, Reaching Out wi h Anna Twinney, where she interviews partners, peers and pioneers in equine behavior and training, animal communication, alternative healing modalities and more.