The thing about horses is that it really doesn’t matter what happened to them before. All you can do is work with the horse in front of you and meet them where they are.
Some horses, even with kind and gentle handling and appropriate care their whole lives, can be reactive and fearful. Others live through horrible neglect or abuse, and end up resilient and eager to form connections with humans. Our human brains love to try and solve puzzles, but attempting to deduce their history based on their behaviour probably isn’t going to be effective, or helpful.
If a horse is afraid, we need to help them understand that humans and the things we ask of them aren’t scary – it’s that simple.
And if a horse is aggressive, that also means they’re afraid. All aggression towards humans is based in fear – they might not still be afraid, but they learned to be aggressive because they were once, so punishment isn’t a good choice. If a horse is afraid, attempts to defend themselves through showing aggressive behaviour, and then is punished using painful or frightening means, they’re just going to think they were right to be scared, and defend themselves even more aggressively next time, or maybe just start with the aggression even before they have a chance to be scared.
Human fear also has to be considered. So often the way we choose to work with a horse, especially an unpredictable or fearful horse, is rooted in our own fear. Horses are big, and even a Miniature Horse can hurt us enough to make us cautious. One of the best things we can do to mitigate both horse and human fear is to keep a barrier between us. Called “protective contact”, simply keeping a fence between you and your fearful horse during early training sessions will give your horse confidence to engage with you as they feel safe behind the fence, and ensure that your training choices aren’t driven by fear for your physical safety as you can simply step out of reach if necessary.
Horses love consistency in their lives. Sometimes, if you get a new horse, a big part of the reason they’re fearful and reactive is simply that they’re so upset by the dramatic change to their lives and routines. Especially if your horse came from an auction, but even just a move from a stable herd and home they’re familiar with is enough to cause them to be much more fearful.
Giving them time to adjust to their new home and routine is going to go far to set them up for success. No matter what the situation or your new horse’s temperament, give them some time to settle in before asking much of them. Especially if they’re fearful, knowing that feeding time is consistent, that their herd is consistent, that they are turned in and out, that the tractor goes by, whatever the daily routine is at your farm, let them adjust before you make any determinations of their temperament.
If your horse is reactive and worried, especially following any sort of a change in their living arrangements, setting up a very consistent routine and giving them time to adjust to it can make a huge difference in their confidence.
If a horse has an aversion to humans, either because they’ve had bad experiences with them, or no experience with them, the first thing to do is try to form a connection.
If the horse is really worried about the presence of humans, it’s going to be up to you to start as slowly as they need you to. Often people choose to take these very fearful “untouchable” types and put them in a stall or other isolated enclosure, and go in there with them, or even corner them and force them to accept touching and handling. But that sort of approach is just going to confirm that they were right to worry – it might “work” eventually, as the horse learns they have no choice but to put up with the human in their space, but it’s not going to build a strong connection and trusting relationship.
Instead, I suggest having a horse either in with a quiet companion, or across the fence from other horses at least, so they don’t feel isolated. Horses are hardwired to think that being on their own is dangerous, so if you’re trying to help a fearful horse, keeping them in a stall without access to other horses is already going to undermine your efforts.
To start building a connection, you’ll have to listen to what the horse tells you. It might mean that all they’re comfortable with at first is you sitting quietly on the ground outside the fence, or that they watch you groom or work quietly with another horse nearby.
One of the best ways to build connection with a horse is to make sure they know that you’ll listen to them. That means that you notice the small signs that they’re uncomfortable and back off. It means that you let them walk away if they need to. A great way to make sure they know they have a voice and a choice and control of their own feet is to start by interacting with them from the other side of a fence.
Having a clear and consistent form of communication is a great way to help build confidence in a fearful horse. One of the easiest way to set up a line of communication is through positive reinforcement, and teaching the horse that their behaviour results in a food reward. You can start this even with a horse who isn’t comfortable being handled, or even having you in their space. For example, from outside the fence, you could wait until the horse looks at you, then say GOOD and toss a treat into the pen and back off so they can take it. They’ll not only begin to understand that their behaviour resulted in the food reward, but they’ll also start to associate good things with you, and gradually become more and more likely to engage.
Regardless of the form of communication you choose to use, it needs to be kind, consistent, and work both ways – you can’t be the only one in the relationship who has a voice.
Go Slow, You’ll Get There Faster
It can be far too easy to get into a rush, thinking that you’re not making enough progress, or that nothing is ever going to change. But by going at whatever pace the horse dictates, you’ll be making an investment in your future relationship.
I also suggest that you keep track of your journey, so you have a way to look back and see where you started. It’s easy to get discouraged and think that you haven’t made any progress, and if you look back in your journal or other record you’ll find that you’ve already come much further than you think!
If you’re in the midst of a journey with a fearful, challenging horse, your horse is lucky to have you in their corner. Stick with it, you ARE making a difference!
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3 thoughts on “Working with a rescued or reactive horse”
Thanks Kendra. I needed this encouragement. Sam and I are 4 years into our relationship and he is still very fearful. He recently decided not to be haltered so I’m working at Liberty these days. Waiting on my copy of Horse Speak to learn some new tools
I love the say you write Kendra! Personally, I like the term “rehomed” just the same as “started” rather than “broke”. Stay warm. My minis are walking on ball bearings otherwise know as snow balls. Any suggestions? Eloise (Ellie)
I’m afraid I’ve never found anything that works to keep the snowballs from building up! I do notice that a fresh trim helps a bit (but not completely) – the good news is that while I’m always sure they’re going to break something as a result, I’ve never had a snowball high heel related injury in my herd!