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New Horse Woes: Personality Changes

By: Galadriel Billington

9:04PM Oct 8, 2004


When a horse goes to a new home, and is fine for a while, but then starts to resist, I think of 3 things right off the bat:

  1. Feeding appropriate to exercise
  2. New tack/tack changes
  3. Rider confidence


  1. Feeding appropriate to exercise:
    A horse in a new home may get more or less exercise than he had before. There's not necessarily anything wrong with changing the amount of the horse's exercise. However, his diet should reflect his current amount of exercise: if he is getting less work, he should need less grain.

    A retired school horse, particularly, often is worked much less in his new home. At a riding school a horse probably gets a lot of exercise, uses a lot of calories, and is fed accordingly. When that same horse goes to one rider, the horse may seem to have WAY too much energy. Too much energy can be exhibited as:
    • aggression on the ground or under saddle,
    • spooking,
    • bolting,
    • spinning,
    • resistance or evasion under saddle; this may be displayed as:
      • refusing to move forward,
      • going backwards,
      • evading the bit,
      • going hollow,
      • shaking the head,
      • going sideways,
      • bucking,
      • rearing,
      • spinning,
      • (and many more).
    Feeding a horse such that he has way too much energy is bad for your confidence, bad for him emotionally, and bad for him physically. It's much kinder and more sensible to make sure that your horse is getting an appropriate amount of feed. Ideally, his diet should consist mostly of hay or grass, with only as much grain as he needs--which may be none.

    Any time a horse changes hands, his diet should be examined to make sure that it's suitable for his new exercise regimen.

  2. New tack/tack changes
    A poorly fitting saddle can also quickly lead to resistance under saddle. When a horse goes to a new home and gets a new saddle, sometimes the saddle is uncomfortable but not terrible. Over time, though, with repeated use, the horse ends up with progressively worse discomfort due to deeper & deeper bruising.

    The discomfort can get to a point where being ridden is extremely uncomfortable, and makes the horse anxious. The horse also wants riding to STOP, because it hurts. Such resistance and discomfort may be displayed in:
    • spooking,
    • bolting,
    • spinning,
    • resistance or evasion under saddle; this may be displayed as:
      • refusing to move forward,
      • going backwards,
      • evading the bit,
      • going hollow,
      • shaking the head,
      • going sideways,
      • bucking,
      • rearing,
      • spinning,
      • (and many more).

    (does the list look familiar?)

    A horse who just starts ...slowing down... or a horse who develops a resistance in one direction, or a horse who suddenly has a tantrum out of the blue, is a horse that I would immediately examine for saddle fit and back problems.

    (Click here for more about saddle fitting, and here for more about muscle issues.)

    The saddle, of course, is not the only piece of tack which can cause discomfort. The bit, the size and type of bridle, the noseband, even the browband and the girth can influence a horse's comfort. Chafing or constriction somewhere can make a horse very unhappy, and make him feel that riding is quite unpleasant.

  3. Rider confidence
    Sometimes the horse's behavior changes in response to the rider's behavior. A horse is quite sensitive; a horse can feel when you are tense. Also, when you are tense, you may ride in a position that greatly reduces your security AND suggests to the horse that he should spook or take off, or otherwise be jumpy & anxious.

    When a rider is tense, she may begin to grip with the knees. That brings the feet forwards, and so to maintain a feeling of stability the rider hunches forward a bit--to stay over the feet. Unfortunately, this actually makes the rider MUCH less secure, and also stiffens the rider's back (makes it harder to ride out any unexpected movement from the horse).

    Leaning forward and gripping due to rider tension can signal to the horse that he should go faster, or that there is something around to be anxious about. The horse may start rushing, the horse may get jumpy.

    So the rider needs to stay secure, to stay relaxed through the back, and needs to communicate relaxation (instead of tension) to the horse. This is accomplished by:
    • sitting upright,
    • keeping a good head-hip-heel line,
    • opening the ribcage (put your shoulders back, don't hunch),
    • and relaxing the back.


    The relaxing part may be the most difficult for a nervous rider. Breathe. Many people tend to unconsciously hold their breaths while tense, and that contributes to the overall tension. Breathing deliberately, deep breathing exercises, or simply counting breaths can help you remember to keep inhaling and exhaling.

    Some people find it helps to sing; you can't hold your breath and sing! Singing also gives you a small distraction from your tension, and can help you to relax overall.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.