This Month’s Expert Chance O’Neal
As head trainer for the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, Chance O’Neal starts colts and trains the ranch’s top prospects for competition. He also shows Four Sixes horses in cow horse and ranch versatility events.
Q: I have a 4-year-old gelding that has started ducking away from the bridle. I catch him and wrap the reins around his neck, but once I put the snaffle bit to his lips, he turns away from it. I’ve always worked to gently set the bit in my horses’ mouths, and I have two other horses that take the bit happily. I don’t know what Skeeter’s problem is. Any ideas?
A: The first thing I would do is I would have his teeth checked. If the horse’s teeth have not been floated in the last year, then he could have some sharp edges on his teeth that are aggravating the inside of his mouth. He also could have, for various reasons, sores inside his mouth that are irritating. So when you do put the bit in his mouth it just adds irritation, and he might be relating the bit to causing the irritation. That’s one reason why a horse may shy away from you when you approach and go to put the bridle on.
If everything is fine there, sometimes really smart horses figure out how to turn and face away from you. Each time you go to bridle them, they just get a little worse and a little worse because they know they can get away from it. In that situation, here at the ranch, we do two things. You can put them in a stanchion so they can’t move their feet and move their body away from you. And when they turn their head away from you, you can still approach them with the bridle.
If you don’t have that, you may be familiar with hobbling a horse’s feet. Basically what that does is keep their feet from moving and they can turn their head away from you, but they can’t move their body away from you. And after a few times they’ll learn that they can’t get away with that. Then the next thing you know, they’ll start just standing still and letting you bridle them. A lot of times it’s behavioral because a horse is smart.
Q: My mare gets cranky around feeding time. She pins her ears, chases off the other horses, and sometimes acts like she’s about to kick. I like to spread hay to my four horses in the pasture and don’t have individual stalls. I don’t think she would ever attack me, but she stirs up so much trouble and drama. I’d hate to accidentally get kicked or run over. Is there anything I can do, other than separating them?
A: Unfortunately, horses have a pecking order. It sounds to me like the mare is at the top of the list, so she’s making sure the other horses know who is the boss. [Horses] learn their place and they can take care of themselves. As far as her starting to be ill toward you, you may have to discipline the horse in some way or another, because there is a line that the horse is starting to cross.We see a lot [of herd hierarchy] out at the ranch because we have a lot of horses that run together, and if you remove that horse, then the next horse in line will step up and be the next [leader]. It’s just an ongoing cycle. So a lot of that is just the horse teaching the other horses, “Okay, this is where you stand in line.” And if you watch the behavior of horses among each other, you’ll see the kingpin horse, basically, then you’ll see the next one underneath, and the line goes down.But where you are getting nervous is when the horse turns her butt towards you during feeding time, then you may have to step up in some fashion and discipline that horse to say, “Hey, I know you have a pecking order and this is the way it is between horses. But when I’m in the pen, I’m the boss of everybody.” And then you’ll have that horse’s respect.
Q: I have an old mare that is safe and trustworthy. I’ve ridden her everywhere for many years. She’s smart and responsive to everything I ask for. My 10-year-old daughter is riding her now. After a few months, my mare has figured out that my daughter isn’t going to enforce things as well as I do. She will walk, but barely trots and won’t lope anymore. I can get on her and make her do those things, but as soon as my daughter gets back on, it’s back to “stubborn mule mode.” Can you think of any methods to make her more responsive to my daughter?
A: This sounds like you have a very good older mare. It doesn’t sound like the mare is the problem. The mare is smart enough to know how aggressive your daughter is going to ride. And so, really, the answer to this question is not necessarily the horse as much as working with your daughter to let her gain some confidence. It may take your daughter a little longer to get the confidence up and the riding, and as she progresses in her confidence, then the horse will go ahead and ride the same as what she does with you.If you can get on the horse and the horse rides fine, or if the horse is not moving out well with your daughter, and you get on and the horse moves out, it’s not the horse. Now the horse may be smart enough to realize that she doesn’t have to do as much. But it’s your daughter that’s going to have to get more confident in her riding abilities and be more confident with the horse, to let the horse know, “Hey, I’m the one that’s riding. I’m the one in charge. So we’re going to go at this speed.”My first instinct would be that your daughter is probably a little more nervous when she gets on the horse, so she probably doesn’t ride as aggressively. Therefore, the horse almost knows she has the advantage. So until your daughter decides that she’s going to be more in charge to let the horse know, then the horse is probably going to stay where she’s at. All the things that you are doing, the horse knows.I would tend to say the answer would be a little bit different if it was a young child, like 4 or 5. A lot of times the child can be up there just kicking and kicking and kicking. And the horse can feel them kicking but he’s thinking, “If that’s all you got, I’m not giving another inch.”When my daughter first started riding, the horse was 20, and my daughter would sit up there and kick all day long and he was just going to go as fast as he wanted to go. My daughter is now 11, and I know how aggressively she rides, and so I would say that with your 10-year-old daughter it’s probably just a matter of confidence. And that may take time. I wouldn’t tell your daughter to just rear back and kick the horse right now. I’d work with your daughter a little bit more to develop her confidence in riding.