Training

Retraining the Rescue Horse

Josh Nichol shares advice on dealing with trust issues and overcoming other common challenges faced when dealing with a rescue horse.

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By: Chantal Marleau |

The moment you saw the desperation in his eyes, you knew that unwanted horse was coming home with you. It didn’t matter that he was underweight, neglected or forgotten; all that mattered was that he now had a home and you had found a new friend. Now that you’ve taken on the challenges of a rescue horse, how do you begin forming a partnership and proving that humans can be trusted after all?

Renowned horseman, Josh Nichol, explains the challenges most commonly faced when adopting a rescue horse and offers training suggestions to get your journey off to a promising start. These exercises can, in fact, be beneficial when working with any horse who is fearful or aggressive, rescue or not. The first step, of course, is to consult a veterinarian before beginning any work with your new partner.

Getting Started

“To avoid becoming overwhelmed, it’s important to first take a moment to decide whether or not this type of project is for you,” said Nichol. “An experienced trainer with patience and compassion can be an invaluable asset to help you deal with the heightened unpredictability of a rescue horse.”

There are also a few tools Nichol recommends. First, a round pen with soft footing provides the ideal training area. If unavailable, create a defined area no larger than 60′ in diameter and block any corners where your horse might feel trapped. A flag is also useful. Make one by attaching a plastic bag to the end of a lightweight stick – a long crop works well – then slice into one-inch strips.

“Other than these accessories, the most necessary tool is feel,” stressed Nichol. “Specifically, I mean the patience, timing and determination to help rebuild a horse who probably has not yet experienced sound leadership.

“The key will be to reward every small effort, praise wholeheartedly and refrain from placing timelines. Retraining a rescue could take weeks, months or years.”

Speaking the Same Language With a Rescue Horse

The key to success is to address your horse in terms he understands: the language of mind, space and pressure. “As herd animals, horses come from a world of strict hierarchy,” explained Nichol. “The lead mare controls the group and each horse has its own ranking down to the most timid member of the herd.” To communicate with one another, horses use their intention, personal space, pressure and then release. “It’s a constant game of who can move whom,” he added.

“To better understand, think of your own personal bubble. It’s what triggers your internal alarm when someone stands too close and makes you feel uncomfortable. Now, consider that your horse interprets the world through his own bubble.”

To help you grasp this concept, first intend something – like asking your horse to yield and move back – then visualize your bubble pressing towards your horse. To help him yield out of your space, shake your flag gently as a form of pressure, but be mindful to use as little pressure possible and as much as necessary. If done convincingly, your horse should move out of your space.

These principles are easiest to grasp with a horse that has not had to endure traumatic periods. “Timing and sensitivity to pressure mean everything when retraining the rescue horse,” said Nichol. “The language of space and the fair use of pressure will likely have been overlooked in the past.

“The line between too little pressure and too much is also extremely fine when dealing with rescue horses,” stressed Nichol. “It’s important to invest time bonding with your horse and observing him carefully.

“What is he like when most relaxed? What makes him worry? Horses offer consistent signs of relaxation: licking and chewing, lowering their head, yawning and cocking a hind leg, for example. Understand what brings your horse comfort and consider this his neutral state.

“To help a horse learn, you must then push him outside the limits of his neutral state and engage his thoughts. You do so by creating a bit of pressure and then releasing every time he makes an effort to find the right answer.

“If you apply too much pressure, the horse will quickly enter a state of self-preservation and will fear for his life. When pushed this far, horses can neither think nor learn. With rescue horses in particular, this state can come about quickly and will often spell disaster.

“Do not fear pressure, but be very mindful of the amount you are creating. You want to encourage your horse to learn while avoiding this mode of self-preservation.

“While retraining, I recommend breaking down your approach to best suit the type of horse you are dealing with: fearful, aggressive or swallowed [shutdown].”

The Fearful Rescue Horse

We know that as prey animals, horses are programmed to flee. “Past experiences heighten the fearfulness of most rescued horses,” explained Nichol. “The first priority is to address the anxiety in the mind and develop the ability to think under pressure.

“Since this type of horse needs to learn that spending time with humans can bring comfort rather than stress, I like to work at liberty in a round pen,” said Nichol. “Let your horse experience being with you without any ropes or tack.

“Stand in the middle of the area, holding your flag with one hand. Your horse will likely look out and trot along the rail.

“Gently shake your flag to create slight pressure until your horse thinks about turning his attention to you. His first try might be as slight as slowing his feet or looking at you from the corner of one eye. At first, that is enough to immediately stop shaking your flag, providing the release he is searching for.

“Within moments, your horse will probably trot away again. Gently shake your flag again with the intention that he should again turn in and face you. Should he begin to race around the pen, step in towards the fence and stop him. If you allow his desire to flee to escalate, you will push him closer towards panic and self-preservation.

“Start again and be mindful that your presence in the round pen might be sufficient pressure for now.”

Training sessions should be kept short in the early stages as a further form of reward. For the purposes of this article, however, we will outline the progression of this exercise keeping in mind that the following might occur over weeks or even months.

As a horse begins to learn to think through pressure, it’s also important to address his understanding of space.

“Often, the natural tendency is to treat fearful horses as though they were made of glass,” said Nichol. “Consider that a lead mare is never cautious around weaker horses, nor does she sneak around; that’s what predators do.

“Always approach your horse with confidence, but do consider his state of uncertainty.

“Once you’re able to have your horse commit to you in the liberty exercise, you will progress to having him choose to be comfortable with you next to him.

“Approach your horse without any expectations. As you step towards him, be mindful of any signs of resistance. The moment your horse raises his head or prepares to flee, hold your position until he begins to soften.

“Once he begins to relax, turn and walk away. Start again and challenge him to let you approach slightly closer and then walk away again. Continue until you are able to stand within arm’s reach. Stay there and relax with him.

“Now, begin asking your horse for his permission to reach through his bubble and touch him.

“If you are standing shoulder to shoulder, slowly raise your inside hand and hold it against your horse’s invisible bubble. His head will likely rise instantly. Do not move your hand until your horse softens, then slowly lower it. Repeat until you are able to gently reach into his space and scratch his shoulder.

“This is how I would approach grooming the fearful horse. It’s important to realize that every brush stroke means repeatedly reaching through your horse’s bubble. Even if your intentions are genuine, grooming can feel like a tremendous violation to a horse that does not yet trust you.”

Apply this second exercise to all grooming sessions and gently brush your horse until he relaxes.

The Aggressive Rescue Horse

Generally speaking, aggressive horses are man-made. “Usually, these were once fearful horses who decided fleeing was futile,” explained Nichol. “They learned to protect their space by using their bodies – teeth, hooves, hindquarters – against anyone who would threaten them.”

The secret to rehabilitating the aggressive horse is to grant him many small victories.

“This type of horse is expecting you to treat him unfairly,” said Nichol. “Prove him wrong. Start by asking small questions, set him up for success and then lavish him with praise. These horses are desperate to know they’ve done something right.

‘Holding the lead rope in one hand and your flag in the other, begin by asking your horse to soften to both the pressure of your presence and that of the halter.

“Squeeze the lead rope as you gently pull it down and slightly forward; your horse will likely brace against your hand by raising his head and tightening his body. As soon as you feel resistance, maintain your hold while very gently shaking your flag. Hang in there and wait for the release. The instant you feel the tension lessen, stop the movement in your flag. Repeat several times on both sides.

“Once you’re both comfortable with this basic pressure and release exercise, slowly begin redefining the language of space.

“These horses have become experts at controlling their space and are accustomed to being defensive. Work should be slow with an understanding that any training represents significant pressure in itself. I definitely recommend spending a lot of time just hanging out and building the trust of an aggressive horse. The long-term gain will be well worth the effort.”

To start redefining space, ask your horse to yield by taking a step towards him, fully intending that he will move. ‘If he hesitates or starts to lean in towards you, shake your flag very slightly at first and slowly build as needed to reinforce your intention,’ said Nichol. ‘Think of it as a lead mare pinning her ears for clarity.

“The instant he shifts back and thinks about stepping out of your space, quiet your body and your flag and praise him.

“Let your horse soak in his success and then ask again, remembering to keep these sessions short at first.”

The Swallowed Rescue Horse

The swallowed rescue horse is the polar opposite of his aggressive counterpart.”‘This type of horse has withdrawn into himself,” explained Nichol. “He will have an unmistakably glazed look in his eye and is perpetually terrified.

“These horses need to rediscover ways to express themselves. I recommend working at liberty in the round pen, without any equipment.

“At first, this type of horse will likely struggle to step out. Once he does start to engage in any type of movement, praise him generously for it.”

This is your opportunity to be creative. See if your horse will gallop, push a large ball, step through tires or engage in whatever gentle challenge you are able to create. Encourage him to interact with you by using any means at your disposal.

“A swallowed horse is very good at compartmentalizing his brain while his body mechanically takes care of requests being placed upon him,” said Nichol. “Therefore, lunging a swallowed horse in a predictable walk, trot and canter pattern will only encourage him to withdraw further into himself.

“That’s why it’s so important to prove that you have no expectations and that your intention is to simply allow your horse to get in touch with his inner colt.”

Unquestionably, the challenges associated with retraining a rescue horse are significant, but so too are the rewards. “Time spent rebuilding the trust of a discarded horse will offer countless opportunities for growth,” said Nichol. “More than lessons to be learned in healthcare and training, you are also likely to discover new strengths in both yourself and the special horse you’ve chosen.”