Horse Detective Work

One thing that happens when your circle contains a lot of former horse trainers is you get a lot of advice when you’re having horse troubles. I am fortunate to have not only Sara’s wise counsel, but also nephew Chris and my friend Mandi to help me think about what could be going on with Apache’s recent behavior.

I know there has to be something going on in his head that would make him completely freak out and refuse to walk down a trail he has gone down over and over again for years.

I’m acting freaky, but my tail sure is pretty.

Chris offered many ideas, and later, when I talked to Mandi, she had many of the same ideas. First, each of them asked what had changed recently. That was pretty easy:

  • New gelding arrived
  • Started training with a bridle and bit
  • Been ridden a lot more by Sara

They offered some other ideas, too, some based on what has changed.

  • He could be in pain from something. Saddle? Feet? Bit?
  • Something he is eating could be affecting his mood (Chris is not fond of supplements and thought they could be “hot”).
  • He doesn’t want to leave Spice alone with “the new guy.”
  • The differences between how Sara rides and how I ride confuse him.
  • He’s gone back to testing me.

So, yesterday, Mandi came by to do some observation and maybe eliminate some of the possibilities. It was fascinating to watch her work. I swear she changes into a different person when she is working with horses.

First, she looked at his food and supplements. She checked the protein content and other ingredients. His plain beet pulp (no molasses) was deemed benign, which I knew. Then she looked over the SmartPack supplements he gets, which are for calmness, digestive health, and hoof health. None of them are “hot” supplements and are things that he needs. So, that ruled that out. Chris later said that was a wild guess, anyway, because he’s been on the same ones for years and had a great attitude.

Then, while he was quietly grazing, she brought his halter over to him and just held it next to his head. After she put it back she said he tensed up, stopped chewing, and froze up. I had noticed that, but thought he was being willing to put on his bridle. Aha. She also noticed a lot of teeth marks on the bit.

Next, Mandi looked at his teeth. It was funny, because that made Vlassic bark. I think he thought she was hurting Apache. She said he has two very sharp teeth next to where the bit goes. Aha. Even on Sunday, when I’d ridden him with the halter, Sara had wanted the bridle on so she could ride him.

After that, we went for a walk (and dammit, my watch had run out of juice, so I lost ALL those steps). Of course, it’s always a parade around here, with Fiona and Vlassic both joining us. Apache was better walking than he was riding, but he kept turning back toward where he came from. I would lead him into a circle and walk forward more. He was also rushing, not walking with me.

We made it all the way to the end of the race, though. At one point, he really wanted to go back and Mandi said, sternly, “No, you walk.” He walked. Aha.

We chatted about what she’d observed and her ideas for improvement. She told me Apache seems to think he’s getting his way when I let him turn all the way around. He’s thinking he got to head home. So, I need to do something else other than the circles I’d been doing.

Then, after some nice shade and grass, we headed back. Mandi was on the alert for him to rush toward the other horses or otherwise act up. Nope. The dang horse walked beside me like the well-trained horse he can be. Only a little nudging into my space happened. He was a totally different horse. That ended the day on a good note, so we were all happy.

Other testing also went on yesterday. Vlassic tested how close he could get to Fiona before she warned him to get back.

We will try more today. At least I can be happy that Mandi said Apache obviously loves and trusts me, judging from how we interact. That made me feel good, too.

A Plan

So, from what we’d learned and all the advice I’ve received (with gratitude), I have come up with a plan.

We are getting his teeth floated. That will help with the sharp tooth issue. That was already on the agenda.

I’m not going to ride him with the bit for a while. He does fine with me using a halter, and maybe I’ll get a hackamore. We have time to try it again later, after his teeth are happy.

I’m going to ask Sara not to ride him for a while, unless absolutely necessary. That’s not because she isn’t good, but so that Apache and I can concentrate on our relationship and getting it on track.

Rather than circle him when he doesn’t do what I want him to, I’m going to try two things. First I’m just going to stop him, pointed in the right direction. We will both breathe, then move forward. Over and over and over. Mandi had suggested I make him go fast every time he starts to go back, but I worry he’ll run back. I’ll try that if the first idea doesn’t work. It was MY idea, but it’s something we did when we were in training.

I’m going to walk around with him a lot with neither Lakota nor Spice around. I have been meaning to do it, but putting it off. I need to invest the time. I’m hoping that will help our relationship and develop more trust in me. Of course, Fiona will come along. She doesn’t seem to be a problem. She’s stopped running around or interfering, now that she knows she gets to come every time we go somewhere.

Goal: back to our beautiful trail rides in the pastures! Photo by @ivanatilosanec via Twenty20.

I know few of you readers are horse people. But, if any of you are, your input is welcome.

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