Using Kindness To Retrain The Vicious Horse
Posted by Rahmar Oberholtzer on 1st Mar 2023
Using kindness as a training method seems obvious, but it is not always to many people, and a vicious horse is not always spoiled, in fact, they are usually the result of abusive handling or training.
I am an educated Master Trainer that was taught that professional trainers should give to back the industry they love and support. Let me introduce you to Orion, my third pro-bono case, 1985.
Dragonfire Orion came to me pulled from another trainer by desperate owners looking to salvage a beautiful 3-year-old colt. I was informed of his behavior but took him on as a training horse. After about a month he settled in and his personality blossomed into reality, he was vicious! He would attack with no apparent reason. If you stood in front of him for no reason or putting on his halter, he would grab your collar bone. If you walked in front of him while leading, he would lunge and grab your back. A quick defensive smack as a natural response to deflect his action usually stimulated him, but not always. Most of the time he would act like nothing happened at all and motor along like a normal well-adjusted horse. But his unpredictability was dangerous, to say the least.
The goal was to ride and drive Orion competitively, and as time went by, I noticed a pattern. When he was in any training session, he was tense when a whip was in view, he wouldn’t lash out unless you threatened him, even slightly. If you said “whoa” loud and sharp, he would attach himself to you. Since whoa is important for safety when teaching a horse to drive I said it a lot. He was a small colt and was young but customarily we used these early years mastering the long lines, the beginnings of correct collection, for riding or driving but driving first in his case. And as the buildup to his first hook to the cart he needed to trust that sometimes we need to whoa, and it is ok to whoa and be patient in the event of an emergency. This is when the anxiety took him over.
I could no longer use the tactic of overlooking his faults hoping they would dissolve. The short version is he got worse. He was so bad at one point he would attack when you entered his stall. After discussing this with the owners they were not surprised and very despondent. We decided to take him out of training to relax and normalize him. He got an irrigated, deep grass pasture with a walk-in shed, apple trees and lots of positive attention. After six months, no change in his predictability. Never hard to catch, sometimes when I entered his pasture he would walk right up to me, I would pet him and he would grab my arm, just like that, not a bite but a grab and lunge over the top of me, trying to get me down on the ground.
That was it for me. No more sedation for the farrier, no more me being the only one to touch him, brush him or anything else. I needed to get to the bottom of his psyche problems. It was impossible for anyone to deal with him like this, and it wasn’t fair to Orion to live like this. This is when I promised the owners pro-bono training. This was for me as much as for the poor horse. I wanted to learn how this could happen, I wanted to be better.
I talked with my mentors and researched as much as I could only to find out most cases are euthanized for safety. The challenge was on!
I had a reputation for taking on tough horses because where I came from the tough horses were the world-class competitors, the most driven and passionate horses are hard to beat. I wish I could say I was as sure then as I am now, but I wasn’t, Orion was dangerously ferocious.
He was smart, once I put a length of PVC pipe cut in half along my forearm under my jacket to protect my arm from his bite. As soon as he grabbed and felt that pipe on my arm he let go and went for my chest. Another time after I put his halter on, he decided to try and rear up and come down onto me teeth first. I held onto his halter strait armed and grabbed both his front legs and bent them underneath himself, when he came down onto his knees, I pushed his head and rolled him over to his side and held him there quietly not saying a word to him. He was perplexed, furious and never reared up again.
I learned so much from this little horse. I knew he was especially sensitive, and previously abused turned to vicious for self-preservation, this was the challenge to overcome.
One of my clients at the time fashioned me a breast and shoulder plate from medical use plastic sheets that you can form with the use of warm water, it was thin and stiff but flexible enough and lightweight. With Velcro attachments, I wore this every time I entered his stall, always under my clothes, out of his sight. I started him onto a regular training path with altered communication. I never yelled or reprimanded him. Always used a calm voice and avoided getting myself in a vulnerable position. Sometimes Orion would grab me the moment I walked into the stall, I would step into the doorway arm first so if he attacked, it would be my arm. I just let him grab and calmly said good boy while placing on the halter and petting him on the neck. I brushed him and he would grab at my side or chest only to get my shirt torn but painless to me. Always ignoring the foul behavior. It took about 1 year to fully develop his trust that he would not be harmed and allow me to make mistakes. I could see he questioned my mistakes instead of reacting to them. That in itself enforced positive behavior, I never let him down. I never babied or abused him. I simply treated him with a lot of respect, I became his guidance because he trusted me. I never let him down. He liked peppermints, but I never gave him treats for doing something I just stopped by his stall sometimes and gave him one for no reason. His behavior was deeply rooted in self-preservation because of abuse. I completely dissolved his complex problem by introducing a better life that was previously unimaginable to him.
I slowly incorporated my wife into his trust field, because she needed to ground handle him for driving and I at 6’2, am too big to ride him. This field expanded to our other employees that needed work with and around him. Including outside servicers like the farrier and vet.
Now I could accomplish it in less than half the time and have done so many times, but back then it took almost two years for him to able to show. My wife showed him a few times doing very well at smaller shows but as beautiful as he was, he was not talented enough for advanced competitions. He won a bunch at local schooling shows by an amateur and an 11-year-old riding student. The breeders were very grateful and generous, when it came time for him to go home, they gifted Orion to us because they couldn’t fathom Orion leaving our care. So, we used him for a lesson horse that occasionally showed. He paid his way as a favorite horse to the young girls learning to ride because of his extreme good looks. One client that fell in love with him over the years insisted that she could continue carrot-ing him well after she stopped riding him, ended up buying him. She knew his history and didn’t care; she loved that horse!
This is a very shortened biography of a vicious case. But Orion ended up with a wonderful life because kindness overcame his trama and I was that much better of a trainer. I owe him a lot for that, and so do the other cases of dangerous horses I worked with or retrained over the years as a professional and at the University.