Stroppy gelding 2

For some reason I have been reluctant to write about what happened at a riding lesson a few weeks before Christmas. I’m not sure why.  Maybe I don’t want to think about this too much.

After that lesson where Ben bucked and hoisted when two horses ran loose into the yard, he arrived for following lessons calm and curious. He seemed keen to go into the yard, interested in the other horses but attentive to my daughter. He still did not like to ride with the other horses in the lesson so my daughter rode him on a separate track. He was very neat over jumps and as my daughter said “this is fun”.

Then, one Saturday, as I watched the lesson, across the road from the arena I could see a lone horse galloping wildly in a field. Then, as my daughter said, she and Ben spotted that horse at the same time. She turned Ben away but he bucked and bucked and she shot off and he ran loose around the arena. There were about five other girls on ponies in the class. I ran into the arena. Thankfully my daughter was on her feet and seemed a bit shocked but unhurt so I could turn my attention to Ben.

He was running blindly, it seemed. He careered into some ponies who started to kick. I called to him and reached towards him and he veered away. Another pony’s back legs shot up in a kick. I had a vision of children flying off ponies in every direction. Then I called “stand”. This was the command I had taught Ben two winters ago during a hard freeze. With not much else to do I taught him to stand at liberty in the yard while I walked to a treat in a bucket that was behind the fence. I have reinforced that command at different times since.

Anyway I said “stand” and – he stood; rigid, head up, rooted to the spot by the fence. I walked slowly towards him, repeating the word. He still stood. I came up to him, took each rein and asked him to lower his head using very light downward pressure. I did not want to provoke a resistance to pressure, but we have been doing some basic in-hand work which I am sure paid off here. Ben lowered his head immediately and as he did so he relaxed. Much of the tension left his body and his face lost that wild look.

Leading him I went up to my daughter. When we reached her, Ben stretched out his head and touched her lightly on the arm. “He’s saying sorry”, I said. (I have been reading a (very good) book which gives stern warnings about anthropomorphism, but really, what else were we both to think? He was certainly making some connection with her. And it helped her, she reached out to him and has not held the bucking against him since.)

The instructor, who was reduced to being a helpless spectator for all of this, remarked that Ben was very stressed during this episode – he did not look like a horse who was just overexcited and wanting to be with his mates. I said that he had hunted a lot in the past and that I thought he did not like hunting. As I said this, Ben turned his head towards me and touched me on the arm. The instructor commented that if he was hunted he had not been hunted well, possibly by a beginner who could not give him any leadership but let him career around without control. And, of course, he was first bought for a nine year old girl to start hunting.

It was then suggested that I ride Ben. So I did, cramming my head into daughter’s helmet. We did the exercise: trot, canter and trot over poles, and then some jumps. (To daughter’s delight, the instructor’s comment was that “Mum can do dressage and you can jump.” My jumping position was not the best!) But, while he did what I asked, he still felt tense. I focused on my breath and my core, centering myself as I rode, which always used to help Mali when she was tense. But it did not help Ben. If time had permitted I would have taken him out the road to relax and then back into the arena. But we had to go.

Back home, the state of the horsebox testified to Ben’s stress. As I led him up to the paddock, his head went down to eat grass. And while he is a great eater of grass, there was something in the quality of how he ate – somehow I could nearly taste the sweetness of the grass coming up through the leadrope – and I could feel the tension oozing out of his body and I recognised this as trauma. In my day job I work with traumatised children and the quality of Ben’s reaction here was no different to theirs. It all made sense – the trigger of the galloping horse, the blind action that was not a discharge of tension, and the final relaxation from eating the grass afterwards.

I thought of all I knew about trauma, of what researchers have learnt about animals and trauma; normally they can run and discharge the trauma but if they are restrained they don’t – they run blindly with no discharge. What a responsibility we have when we ride horses – we put them under restraint and if we cannot provide good direction, what do we do to their minds?

At home, Ben stayed with me, sniffing my hair and being unusually anxious for contact. I thought of the times I have labelled him “stroppy”, of behaviour I would have called dominant (for he is a dominant horse) which was no such thing.

Ben has two, what you might call “right-brained” states, when I am with him. One is what I call his “stallion mode” and that excitement is now relatively straightforward for me to deal with. The other is a different state and while, thankfully, I have rarely encountered it when riding, when I have it is as if he has forgotten I exist. He certainly looked as if he had forgotten my daughter existed – she was just a hindrance that he needed to be rid of.

Since then, with a busy run-up to Christmas, lessons could not happen and I have decided to put them off until Ben and Rosie are back at home with us in March.  Ben will need to get fit again and I also need to think of what will be the best approach for him regarding these group lessons.



Filed under ground work, riding

30 responses to “Stroppy gelding 2

  1. Poor Ben. He does sound like he had something traumatic in his past that triggers this particular reaction of his. I’m sure after lots of relaxing work and time he will be able to work through this.

    We have a horse Donnie who sounds like Ben. He was traumatized in his past and did buck my daughter off a few times years ago. Seems whenever his girth tightened he lost his mind. We’ve worked with him with clicker and lungeing and changed his diet. He’s doing much better now. We hope to start riding him again this year.

    • Arlene, it might be interesting to try clicker work with Ben in relation to this. My problem will lie in recreating the stressful situation. I need to find some groups of horses running around or some other memory of hunting.

  2. Although of course it isn’t a pleasant subject to deal with and write about, somehow I loved to read this story. I guess it was because of your empathetic (is that English?) talent with which you read Ben. It’s obvious there are things that worry him a lot and he has no control over (yet).
    Are you familiar with the work of the Australian Jenny Pearce and the ‘comfort zone model’ she uses? She specializes in fear in humans and horses. I’m currently attending her new online course ‘From the Horse’s Heart’ because I want to learn all about how to coach my horses and myself in dealing with fear and ‘Not Quite Right’ feelings. The principles Jenny uses are very simple but very effective.

  3. Wow. I think it is fantastic that “stand” worked,and even better that although Ben was very much in “flight mode”, he came back to you as best he could for the rest of the lesson.
    It’s really hard when you are not fully in control of the lesson environment, but the more uneventful outings he has, the better he will handle it when something exciting does happen. It also seems to me that he needs to learn that working in a group is ok and not scary… it all takes time!
    I’m sure he’s already on a low sugar diet (because of being barefoot) but it’s worth checking, as Arlene mentioned! I fed all our horses beet pulp for years, but Flurry cannot take it, he gets incredibly anxious on it!

    • Martine I was fascinated that this command worked. I said it without thinking and it has really brought home to me the importance of training. I plan now to teach it from the saddle. He does need more exposure to groups and I need to think through how to do it.

      Although my daughter is a very nice rider she does get nervous and she agreed with me when I said that I thought she probably ‘disappeared’ once she spotted that horse galloping. I can imagine (because I have done so myself) that she had an intake of breath and probably was no longer present to Ben.

      As regards his diet, he is on about as low sugar as he could be. Even before he went barefoot, I matched his diet to Rosie’s and hers has always been low sugar.

      P.S. Afterwards, I heard an 11 year old girl hiss to my daughter “your Mum is cool!”. I am not the cool type so, while I would like to be above such feelings, I have to confess I felt quite chuffed!

  4. This reminds me of a story that I haven’t yet written on the blog about a day when I was lunging the pony and Redford Donkey came into the arena, got in a position where I worried he would tangle in the lunge line, and when I dropped the line to get him out of the way, both he AND the pony went on a wild and fast galloping/bucking spree around the arena. The lunge line was between the pony’s legs and attached to the bit and I was terrified. We had to get very calm and very still and centered and once daughter and I both did that, they stopped.

    The fascinating bit about this was that I felt I needed to put the pony back on a circle and at least end with a little bit of “regular” and safe lunge work so we ended on that note.

    I did, and the moment I sent him forward into the walk he began to canter and canter – not wild or out of control, but a very fast, steady canter. I stood holding the line and watched him go around and around and it became very clear he was discharging his energy and I think the trauma of having the lunge line flapping and dragging as he and Redford ran wildly a few minutes before. He did this intense cantering in both directions with me and when he was done, he relaxed and licked and chewed again. It made me think, as you thought with Ben, what we do to these animals when we exert pressure that ends up being traumatic in some way, and then often we insist on them being calm and controlled so that they don’t get the chance to rid themselves of the chemicals and the energy that has pent up as a result.

    It makes me wonder if a good hand-gallop during stressful times might in fact work wonders.

  5. Christine

    Maybe Ben thought your daughter was safer off of his back, for whatever reason, that the humans did not, or could not know. His method obviously was not the best, but otherwise, I suppose she would have stay seated and “he” did not think that was best. But how can they tell us, or how can we know? Thankfully your daughter was not harmed.

  6. Very well written – Ben sounds like an amazing horse, and it sort of gave me goose bumps when I read the part where you told him to “stand” in the field. Sounds like you and Ben have an amazing relationship – and now I’m nearly feeling some tears pressing on as this reminds me of the relationship I had with especially two of my old ponies (once I was still riding pony).
    I’ll definitely keep on following your posts, and I’m looking forward to reading what will happen next when you put Ben back to work.

    • Hi Caroline, welcome to this blog. Ben is a great horse, sometimes I have to remind myself just how sensitive a stocky little cob can be. Our relationship has been quite a journey for me. Developing this relationship is one of the joys of being able to have him at home.

      I see that you event, which is on a different level altogether to what I do here. But I am determined to focus on Ben’s fitness and bring him back into work in a systematic manner come March.

  7. Billie, that is an interesting story. My daughter’s instructor, when Ben started to buck with her, shouted to leave Ben’s head alone and ask him to go faster, but of course that was counter-intuitive for my daughter. She was using one rein to turn him in a circle to try to get some control. But I think you’re right, a hand-gallop might have been just the thing.

    As regards you and your daughter becoming very still and centered, I am reminded of an incident, back in the days when I had Mali in a livery yard. One winter the horses were given no turn-out (this finished that yard for me) and I and a friend used to take it in turns to turn our two mares out in the sand arena. Well this day I put Mali in the arena first and went for my friend’s mare. She was wound up and snatched the lead rope out of my hand and charged around the arena with Mali, rope dangling. I went in, terrified of an accident and neither of them would let them come near me. This was when my youngest daughter was a baby and she was in the car, so I was feeling some time pressure. I had to leave the arena, walk around the yard, deliberately calming myself down and, once I was genuinely calm and centered, I could walk into the mares and calmly unclip that rope. Horses really do teach you self-regulation!

  8. tegan

    How hard horses try to communicate with us!
    Lately I’ve done almost nothing but feed my horses — because I have a baby and two young kids…Luckily my horses are on a large acreage now and very happy.
    I was out with them today in the sunshine brushing them while they ate, my baby on my back, and sensing how much I love just being with them, letting them be horses.
    Reading your description of the lesson brought back memories of when I was involved with horses in a much different way (competing, jumping, etc), and it seems to me, from this distanced vantage-point, amazing that horses will put up with what they do, We ask so much of them that just makes no sense, from their perspective. I am not trying to judge, but to understand the various ways we interact.
    I wonder what it takes for a horse to allow herself to be made to go around and around an arena. I have one mare who loves going for rides, and will leave her companion willingly, but has never wanted to go at all in an arena. just becomes really lazy and tense. I know if she was made to every day, she would resign herself to it, but I don’t know how I feel about asking that of her. She will be going on a lease soon with a 13 yr. old, who wants to ride both in and out of the arena.
    I wonder how you are doing with fitting a saddle to Ben? I was watching the DVD called Path of the Horse, and learning about the research done that shows the pressure and damage that bits, saddles, and riding for longer that 20 minutes or so, can cause. Have you seen this documentary? It has some great footage of KFH, Carolyn Resnick and others.
    I am curious to know how other people here feel about this question. Are we hurting our horses when we ride them?

    • Tegan, it is great when you get a chance to spend totally undemanding time with horses. It sounds like you are having a very relaxing time.

      My point about Ben and his trauma reaction was that in between the two lessons I wrote about, he seemed alert, interested and calm going to those lessons. He did not want ponies in a line in front and behind him, so we made sure he did not have that. But his reaction to the galloping horses was something very different.

      As regards the saddle, I have posted (somewhere back in the blog!) how I found a good saddle and it certainly seems to suit him. I have watched the DVD you mention. I cannot comment on that research as I am not familiar with it. I prefer not to talk about issues in the abstract but to listen to the horse in front of me and try to figure out what he is telling me in that particular moment. That probably sums up much of my fascination with horses actually. Ben has sucked the bit into his mouth, or stuck his nose into a bitless bridle (and I never ‘trained’ him to do this), if tacked up at liberty, he has marched up to the back gate when I was still faffing about in the yard. Hard to tell, but I think he likes being ridden.

      As regards training, what the incident in this lesson made so clear to me is the importance of training as a safety issue; how, if done in the right way (positive reinforcement in this case) it can override that flight instinct.

  9. The one thing I will say about riding horses, at least my horses, is that if you live with them and listen to them, treat them with respect and give them the care they need, they do seem to want to be ridden. Mine will come to the gate and wait for me to get them to tack up and ride, and if I’m in the arena on one, the others often come bang on the gate because they want to come in too. The donkeys try to put the bits hanging on bridles in their mouths as they see them as something positive.

    I’m careful with the horses’ tack, check it every ride, listen if they tell me they don’t want it, if anything seems to be wrong as I tack up or mount I don’t get on, and we have regular saddle fitting, massage, chiropractic care, etc. They know they will not be asked to carry a rider if something is uncomfortable.

    When Salina, my older mare (29 this year), started fussing at being saddled and bridled I knew it was time to retire her and we did so. That’s when the little donkeys came to live with us, so she had a new and full-time job that uses her energy but doesn’t stress her body.

    I do think many horses get hurt by being ridden, but that’s mostly because the humans riding them are oblivious to the needs of the horses, physically and emotionally.

    • Billie, I just love that image of the donkeys trying to put the bits in their mouths! You have expressed really well what I feel and what has been my experience, albeit with fewer equines than you have.

      I like how Salina now has a new job – it is something I am very aware of needing to find for Rosie. When she first came to us and was being ridden by my daughter and her friends, my non-horsey husband watched from the kitchen and commented that Rosie looked ‘proud’. Now of course my older daughter is far too big for her and my youngest really just wants a small ride around. And this last year, when her feet were sore, we couldn’t even do that.

      So I am going to try clicker training with Rosie – she has already grasped the principles – maybe a few tricks, or possibly horse agility would restore a sense of purpose.

  10. Christine

    My goodness the post has generated alot of feeling. Further to anthropomorphism – never mind – YOU were right – Ben felt bad and he was telling your daughter in his language because of his affection for her – we have words – they have gestures – so the saying goes “actions speak louder than words”.

    Thank you for sharing these stories – they are warm and real and they help teach us all about being with these beautiful spirits!

    • Christine, indeed it has!

      If you ever come across that book I linked to, or his website ( have a read. He has very stern warnings regarding anthropomorphism. However, I do agree, that Ben was telling my daughter in his language of his affection for her. I found it quite moving, particularly has he is a horse who does not have a lot of time for children. He has chased daughter’s friends (from his point of view they were trying to talk to his mare, Rosie) and he kicked my daughter when he first came to us. So my daughter has earned his trust and that is wonderful to see.

  11. Christine

    Hmmm – ouch – he kicked her did he …

    Thank you Maire, I will find “Hidden Horses”. This information, all of it, is very important to me. And surely I am being given this advice for a reason I will soon know 🙂

    I’m in Ontario, Canada hopefully I can find that here – I will endeavor.

    Best, Christine

    • Christine, when Ben came to us he was quite sour. He was sold as being great with children, but I felt that he had been pestered by them. I learned very quickly not to allow children up in the paddock without my supervision. I think he was sour because he had been used without consideration for his wishes. Why else would he have been so hard to catch. He is such a different horse now. But I would always be careful with children. My daughter has earned his trust which is wonderful for her.

  12. I should probably add that it’s pretty clear to me that Keil Bay, my main riding horse, has been treated like a king and was trained w/o stress or trauma. He has an inherent sense of trust that I think wouldn’t be there if he had had negative experiences.

    Cody the QH clearly had some trauma even though he came to us at age TWO – he was taught the Western Pleasure way of going and had a fair amount of anxiety under saddle that he would “do things wrong.” We have spent the 6 years since trying our best to show him that we want him to use his body in a healthy way (not the tiny mincing steps he was taught) and that if anything hurts we stop. He is relaxed and happy under saddle now, and he is one of the main gate banging equines here – he always wants to come in and join the riding going on.

    I’m not sure what Salina’s training was like except that I know it was in Germany and that she was trained through 4th level dressage. She clearly had trauma with her babies being taken to inspections as she goes ballistic when the donkeys get into our horse trailer.

    Under saddle she was the most sensitive, telepathic horse I have ever ridden. The ride was not in any way say/do but was a back and forth conversation between Salina and the rider. She would do this incredible thing when I rode her where I would ask her for something but my asking would either be inept or accidental – and she would do the thing I actually asked for (most of which were upper level movements I had never even ridden!) – and then the thing she thought I meant – and the implication, which was very real in the moment was her saying – you asked for THIS, but I think you meant THIS. I’ve never experienced that level of response from a horse, but I did over and over with her, and watched her do it with my son, my daughter, and the two riders I allowed to come back to riding on her. My only regret wrt Salina is that I never got to ride her when she was young and completely sound.

    • That is a fascinating account of Salina. How I would love to have experienced that! What generous creatures horses are.

      I always thought that Mali had never experienced bad handling either. She was the most polite and courteous mare. And of course she brought out the best in whoever handled her – they loved taking her in and out of the field, so her good manners became self-perpetuating. She was a wonderful first horse for me – very motherly. I remember, when I used to do some Parelli, how she patiently taught Sandra’s daughter the seven games. If she were human she would have smiled, as Sandra’s daughter, aged about twelve, with very hesitant body language asked her to move around. The only thing she would not do is to back (not that I ever did the yoyo game as taught in the programme, I just did not like it). But I felt that backing away would have been beneath her – as she was quite clearly in charge.

  13. This is such a terrific conversation I keep coming back for more. 🙂
    I had the occasion awhile back to talk with the owner and trainer of Salina’s last daughter, who was exactly like Salina in terms of her behavior and personality. The trainer said she worried about selling her b/c she knew a lot of riders would not “get” her conversation-style responses. As it turned out, the woman who bought her ended up being afraid to ride her after two episodes of being bucked off while mounting. She contacted me to see if we would take her – and I wanted too so badly but the price was really high and I couldn’t do it. I told her if she could lower the price we would give the mare a forever home and I had all confidence we could figure out what the mounting issue was about. Knowing Salina, I felt sure something was hurting the mare and that was the only way she had to tell the rider, who wasn’t “listening.”

    Anyway, I don’t know where she ended up. I wish I had a ‘horse’ fund for situations just like that. (though husband would say it would be depleted instantaneously and I suppose he would be right!)

    • Oh I do hope that mare ended up in a sensitive home. Who knows also what messages she was trying to give before she bucked the rider off? Maybe whilst being saddled, bridled, even groomed. It must have been so hard to know you could not buy her. Sandra is in a similar situation at the moment.

      I’m sure your husband is right about the horse fund – there are all too many situations where it could be used!

  14. June

    Haven’t read that book – but so far I’ve found that anthropomorphism serves me much better than rejecting anthropomorphism. Or perhaps anthropomorphism is bad because it ascribes to horses qualities which people ascribe to their children and other humans – e.g. laziness, egotism, pride, desire to seize control, just-being-difficultness, manipulativeness, etc. Certainly, if that’s what anthropomorphism means, then one should reject it in favor of a much more positive view of the horse. But then one should also do the same in regard to one’s children and other people. So maybe we need to learn how to practice hippomorphism when we consider our fellow humans.

    Mitzvah No. 177 in the Sefer Hamitzvot says: “[E]very individual is commanded to give his fellow the benefit of the doubt, and, when circumstances allow, to interpret his fellow’s actions or words in a favorable light.”

    • That’s a good quote June. I think most people could do with interpreting their horses’ actions in a favourable light. I think much of anthropomorphism (what a word to type!) is quite harmless, even fun. I do it all the time. But I think it can be dangerous at worst and certainly selfish. As you say, when people say things like ‘that pony is naughty’. But also when it can be used to justify how they keep their horses. ‘My horse wants to come in when it rains’ (they may want to come in for a feed but I bet if the stable doors were left open they would wander out again), or ‘if I were a horse I would like to be kept by me’ (as I heard an international rider describe his ‘pampered’ (booted, rugged, stabled) horses.

      PS I have no idea what mitzvah in sefer hamitzvot is but I do like the words!

  15. June

    The Sefer Hamitzvot is the compilation of all the 613 “mitzvot” or commandments in the Torah. It was written by Maimonides, a 12th Century Jewish scholar. And you can find out all about it, and other fascinating things, on my favorite of all websites, Even more favorite than!

    I agree about not projecting our ideas of a good life onto our horses. However, sometimes when people say you shouldn’t be anthropomorphic, they’re meaning something like, “It’s only a horse, and you shouldn’t read too much into what it does.” A bit like when people used to say it was gas when babies smiled.

    • Yes I know what you mean. They said that of my babies too – and how wrong they were! I will check out that website. It would want to be good to supersede Imke’s.

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