I have a dressage horse who shows signs of being hit and whipped; she gets scared if you move quickly or if you move your hand toward her head. When other people come near her, she runs or hides behind me. She is becoming more comfortable with me the more I’m with her, but I’m afraid to ride her. I have a professional trainer riding her now, but she tolerates this only for a short period before she gets grouchy and begins stopping and rearing.
Because she and I are forming a connection, is it possible that she might be a different horse with me on her back? And do you think this is a case of past abuse, or is she just shy?
Thank you for your question, Amy. I do not think we have enough evidence to conclude that your horse was abused. An undersocialized horse is quite likely to behave as you describe. Horses, being prey animals, will respond in a fearful manner to anything they perceive as a potential predator. In an evolutionary sense, a horse is likely to live longer if he is fearful of new things and animals, as all could be potential predators.
It will be your job to teach her that humans are not predators, and that things that move quickly can feel good. A positive reinforcement-based training program will help her immensely. I suggest first teaching her to touch a target stick for a food reward. I have used targets to teach horses, tortoises, Komodo dragons, and even lions to become more comfortable around people.
Begin by first teaching your horse that a particular sound or word means that food is about to come. I like to use a short whistle sound that I can make with my mouth. Make the sound (let’s call it a “tweet”), then give her a small tasty treat. Once she begins to anticipate the treat when she hears the sound, she is ready to learn!
Use a short stick with a small ball on the end for your target. In a quiet place, calmly present the target right in front of her nose. When she reaches toward it, tweet and treat! Your goal is to have her put her nose on the target. As your horse masters this task, begin to target her in different situationsaround new people, while someone is holding a “scary” object, etc. This simple tool will help her relax and focus. The more you can teach her by using positive reinforcement, the better. For another game to play, see my response to Laurel’s question of how to teach a horse to pick up his feet.
Good luck, Amybe patient and kind with her, and you will do well.