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Sudden Change in Personality

By: Galadriel Billington

1:36PM Dec 2, 2012


I was asked about a problem with an ex-racer. He had started out kind, willing, and quiet. After some time with his new owner, however, he became hard to handle.

This isn't exclusively an ex-racer problem. This has happened to many, many people with many different kinds of horses. So my response is not geared toward ex-racers, but rather a horse whose personality has changed since he was purchased.

~ ~ ~

It doesn't sound like your horse is a bad horse; he started out quiet and cooperative. Something has happened that's causing him distress. The distress is making him miserable and he's acting out. So let's think about the sort of things that can really distress a horse.

  1. It may be that your temperament and this horse's temperament aren't a good fit. That happens sometimes; I, for example, get along well with quite a few horses, but I had a rescue a while ago that just wasn't suited to me. She and I liked each other, and she was willing, she just wasn't the right horse for me. We ended up winding each other up when I worked with her, and she'd get too agitated to concentrate. It was just a matter of personalities.

    Sometimes it's easier in these cases just to help the horse go to someone who gets along better with him. Since you said you treated him with "a little kindness," maybe he's the sort who would deal better with more structured handling, someone who emphasizes discipline and manners. (I don't mean someone who punishes their horses or beats them, of course; that's just cruelty. But some people are more crisp about their handling, and some horses prefer that.) Or maybe he'd prefer a man; some horses do.

    Some trainers take on horses for consignment and will board and train them until sold, for a percent of the sale price. Maybe it would help to talk to one of these types of trainers, to see if they could evaluate him and perhaps help you determine if he'd be happier with a different handling style.

  2. There may be something that is hurting your horse that hasn't been detected. Horses are often much too tolerant for their own good; they don't *know* that what we want them to do isn't supposed to hurt, so they don't object when they experience pain. Then it just keeps getting worse and worse, until they are no longer able to patiently bear with it.

    Many times a pain issue gradually gets worse until it's unbearable. A horse will deal with it silently for some time--really, they are too tolerant for their own good--and then suddenly can't stand it anymore. The horse will go from being cooperative to being grumpy, tense, agitated, or even aggressive. Some of the types of pain that aren't immediately obvious can be caused by stifle/hock/fetlock problems, dental problems, spine issues like kissing spine, or saddle fit problems.

    A really good equine veterinary chiropractor, or an equine massage therapist, can often find the location of a pain issue. Then you just have to track down the cause. I would never use an equine chiropractor who isn't also a licensed veterinarian, but the chiropractors and massage therapists have some specialized education that allows them to find subtle pain issues.

  3. Perhaps it's a hormonal issue. Sometimes a gelding isn't completely castrated, and you can't tell without some fairly extensive tests; this would require consultation with your veterinarian, and possibly a referral to an equine hospital. Even a small amount of testicular tissue left by accident can cause stallion-like behavior. "Proud cut" geldings can act even worse than an intact stallion, since the small amount of tissue is producing uneven amounts of male hormones, and it makes the horse really unpredictable. "Proud cut" geldings can be really confused and distracted by their hormone rushes, and it can make them distressed or aggressive.

    The original asker had a gelding. However, mares can have hormone problems too. These often show in a cycle--but sometimes they don't. If a horse's behavior seems really unpredictable, it may be there's something hormonal going on. I'd be particularly worried if the horse's behavior seems to vary from day to day, and his/her responses don't seem to have a lot to do with what's going on around him. If one day she's beautiful and kind, and the next day she kicks you in the chest with no provocation, well, she might have something serious going on internally. Mares can have ovarian cysts, or a twisted uterus, or malformed reproductive organs, or uterine infections, or all kinds of other physical issues relating to hormonal production. This is definitely a case for a veterinary consultation.

  4. Sometimes a horse just needs a different training approach to straighten out misunderstandings. It sounds like he's managed to intimidate you a little, too. Since you and he are not communicating clearly at this point--he's not responding to you like you want him to--perhaps it would help to involve a trainer. If you could have someone come watch you work with him and coach you in some different methods, it might help you move in the direction you want to go. Remember, even the Olympic riders have coaching; having someone else to watch what's going on and offer experienced advice can help so much.

    It might even help to hire a trainer/instructor who can start by working with him for a few sessions. Then they can move on to working with the both of you once the trainer knows him and has worked through some of issues.

    In cases like this, where a horse's behavior is beyond your experience--he's doing things you haven't encountered before, and you don't have experience working through them--especially if he has frightened you, I strongly recommend involving a trainer/instructor to help the two of you get back on the right track. It's much safer to have an experienced professional involved.

  5. I did not include this in my response to the asker, because the time frame didn't sound right. But there is another consideration when a new horse's personality changes significantly after purchase. His physical condition may contribute to his behavior.
    • If it happens very soon after purchase, the horse may have been drugged by the seller. This is a good reason to ALWAYS have a pre-purchase exam and have blood tests done. This is never a good situation to be in; you don't know why the horse was drugged, or what was hiding under the drugs. The horse may have hormone problems, chronic pain, serious previous training issues, may have been abused...you just don't know.
    • If the horse was thin, out of shape, or unhealthy when he was purchased, there's another possibility. If his personality becomes more energetic as he puts on weight and muscle, this can affect him a lot. He might have been quiet at first just because he didn't feel well. He might not have been trained--he may not really know *how* to respond well to handling, but was so unhealthy that he didn't have the energy to be uncooperative. So it might be necessary to go back and fill in gaps in his training--or even start all over, as if he knows nothing.

      Alternatively, he might have an uncooperative personality, that he was simply too sick to show. I do feel quite strongly that there are no "bad" horses--but some have had such bad experiences that they don't like to be handled. A trainer may help you overcome a problem like this, or he may be sour for life.

      Too much energy can make a horse agitated and aggressive; he doesn't know what to do with the energy and he's a little out of his mind. It's like the opposite of being sedated; the horse is on an energy high all of the time. Sometimes a horse like this needs careful attention paid to his feed and forage (including whatever he eats while on pasture). This is definitely a time to consult a vet or even an equine nutritionist.
~ ~ ~

Now, having said all of that, I will mention this. In so, so many cases, where a horse starts out cooperative and then becomes very poorly behaved, the saddle is a major problem. Remember, you can't actually *see* between the horse and the saddle (unless something is VERY wrong!), and there are so many problems that aren't visible once the horse is tacked up. Only the horse can really "tell" you when the saddle is right--horses can have problems under saddles that should fit fine.

If the saddle is poking or grinding or digging into the horse's back, it can cause physical problems that last for days, weeks, months after a single riding session. The pressure while riding is only part of it; the way the horse tenses up his back to cope with the pain is another, and the damage to the muscles from both the pressure and the constant tensing is yet more. The way he moves to with his back tensed up is another problem; he hurts his back and the joints in his legs too. Then, every time the horse is ridden in the problematic saddle, the issues get worse. I've seen more cases than I can count of a horse who was purchased and was fine for 4-6 months, then became impossible to handle...and it was the saddle. Or, alternatively, the owner bought a new saddle for a wonderful horse they'd had for years, and 4-6 months later the horse suddenly became a monster to handle...and it was the new saddle.

In cases like this, you first have to let the back recover. Sometimes you even have to do some physical rehabilitation of the back muscles and spine. Here's where a really good equine massage therapist or chiropractor can help you a lot. They can evaluate the horse's back, treat him, and also give you instructions for exercises that you can do yourself. If you're lucky, you can find a saddle fitter who is also a massage therapist or chiropractor, who can take care of everything at once.

Then, even when his back is better, and even when you find a saddle that is more comfortable for the horse, there's still a problem. The horse was ridden for so long in a saddle that hurt him that he thinks all saddles hurt. He doesn't trust the new saddle; he's a horse, he has no idea that a new saddle will be different. So it takes some time for him to become calm again. He's convinced being handled will hurt, so he refuses to cooperate. He has to be carefully shown that the pain is gone and won't be coming back.

So the saddle is always, always the first thing I would check, but even changing to a saddle that fits is not an instant solution. It still requires time and work, to get past the horse's belief that saddles and riding are painful.

But even if you find a saddle problem, I still encourage you to work with a professional trainer/instructor, for all the reasons I outlined above. As much as we love them, we can't ever lose sight of the fact that horses are big, strong animals, who don't speak our language, and can be dangerous. They can hurt us by accident or on purpose. When there's a behavior problem--whatever the cause--it's much more likely that they can injure us. So please, be careful, and find a good coach who can help you.
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2012 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.