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October 03, 2023
Why is it that, sometimes, your older horse is still acting like he or she is just three years old?
We can all imagine a three-year-old horse bouncing about the field using up his growth hormone energy, but it's often hard to imagine a thirteen-year-old, or twenty-three-year-old horse bouncing about in the same manner. Especially, when we are riding, and they are "supposed" to be calm and willing.
So, what gives? What's the deal?
Don't kick me out of the house for saying it, but here's the cold, hard facts. "A horse is a horse, of course of course!"
Who taught us that a horse will ever grow out of kicking up their heels or spooking at an object on the trail? I don't teach that to my students, but I was taught that by my trainers when I was young. But it's folly. Horses will always act like horses until they are trained to act like partners.
It's probably obvious to you that, mathematically, your older horse is doing less of the rambunctious behavior than when he was young. Regardless, it's still there, and that behavior comes out at inopportune times. So, what do you do about it?
First things first... stop believing it should be different because of age. Age does not determine a horse's skill and concentration as a partner. Many behavioral scientists agree that a horse never matures their concentration levels past that of a four-year-old human child. I tend to agree myself. Regardless of the amount of training I put in, my horse is still a horse. He becomes easier to manage. He focuses for longer periods of time, but he is still spookable and easy enough to rouse. Just watch him as he gets turned out in a new pasture. Watch him kick up his heels and buck. It's natural.
The frustration we face with older horses, is a two part frustration. First, we believe they shouldn't act that way anymore. It's cute when they are little but not when they are supposed to be rideable. That's a massive assumption we need to fix. The second part is, we believe they are "trained," and shouldn't act that way anymore. Here's where it gets sticky. "Trained," means something different to everyone. You might call your horse trained because you spend three thousand dollars with a trainer when he was five. But I wouldn't call that trained. I would call that the beginning of training, and from experience, it won't last as long as you hope. So, to avoid the frustrations, we have to manage our expectations.
The cold hard fact is that if your horse is acting up at inopportune times it's because he doesn't have the knowledge or desire to behave according to your plans. Makes sense right?
So, what do you do about it? Drugs? Isolation? Stop riding? Give up? Hire a trainer to fix him? Or... learn what it takes to be a leader and train him yourself?
I always recommend that last one because, honestly, the time you spend with a horse with your own education is gold. Give that horse to a trainer and let him do the hard work and discover, you may have a nicer trail ride but you missed out on the special bond between leader, partner, and friend.
Time isn't a factor for me. I'm often asked how long it takes to "train" a horse. You can probably guess my answer. It depends on what "train" means. Who's doing the training, and what type of horse it is. What kind of learning ability or disability does that horse have? What kind of knowledge and confidence does the trainer have? But usually... when I'm asked that question. I respond with, "Are you in a hurry?"
There's no need to rush the beautiful journey of humans and horses growing together. Invest in your education, invest in yourself, and by default, invest in your horse. Without any doubt, you will be giving yourself and your horse a boost toward a wonderful, safe, partnership full of awesome, controlled, and confident experiences.
If you have a horse that's 13 going on 3, just remember two things. One, you're not alone, most of us have that same horse. And two, you're capable of guiding your horse to become the partner you hope to have on the trail.
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