Training The Rescued Horse
By Raye Lochert
When training horses that have been rescued from abuse or neglect my methods are the same as working with any horse. While abuse or neglect is a horrible thing, if I treat this horse differently it will only limit the horse. A horse needs a leader - someone they can trust and respect.
All rescued horses that come through my barn go through the same program as soon as they are physically healthy. Abused horses tend to be more reactionary to pressure. Therefore, my safety can be more at risk. I always start with the basics of groundwork and continue forward. My goal is (as with any horse) to build the horse’s confidence through consistency and reward.
Let’s say I get a horse in for training that has been whipped every day. The abusive handler whipped him no matter if the horse was doing the right thing or the wrong thing. The horse will surely be terrified of the whip or anything that looks like a whip. Even though I know all about the horse’s history with whips I still need to ask the horse to go forward on the ground when cued using a dressage whip or stick. The first time I ask, the horse will probably explode either towards me or away from me. All I need to do is be ready and keep myself safe - just as I would with any horse. The key is that any time the horse moves forward, no matter how small, I release the pressure.
Most rescue horses that have been abused physically are either very sensitive or very desensitized. You can see how this would be. They have either escaped the pressure by moving away very quickly or they have been trapped and have become dull to it. Some have even become mean. But they will all respond to the same technique of using pressure. You need to start out using as little pressure as you can and building to using as much as you need. Using this method consistently each time you ask the horse to do something will make the horse lighter and more responsive.
An example would be asking a horse to back up off the noseband of the halter or the bit of the bridle. When asking I use as little pressure as I can in my hands and quickly build to more pressure until the horse takes a step back. Even better, I may release when I feel the horse rock back. Once the horse understands to back off the pressure of the headgear then I can progress to using my seat and then picking up the reins. A horse that is overly sensitive may need a little extra desensitizing.
Many times I have heard that a horse doesn’t like men or western hats. My response is always the same. Don’t tell the horse I’m a man and that my hat is western. If you allow negative history to dictate your expectations of your horse, your horse will never have a chance to really perform. For me the result is always the same - I walk up to the horse and do the same thing I do with every other horse and get the same result. Not all horses are the same. Some learn faster while others are more reactionary. In the end they all come around and relax when they understand what I’m asking for and find that I’m consistent about it. Through consistency they learn to trust.
Horses thrive through routine. This can be a good or a bad thing. When the routine is upset then the horse’s performance goes down. To work through this I train in different locations but always the same way. This means that one day I may ride in the arena and the next it might be in the pasture. My saddling and warm-up is always the same. This gives the horse the same routine in a different environment. The environment adds distractions by being different which causes the horse’s emotions to rise allowing me to train at a higher emotional level. In turn, this increases the horse’s performance.
An abused horse will rise to the level of any other horse through consistency of fairness and respect. With these two things your rescued horse will thrive. Enjoy your horse.