Earning Back Trust

Q: I have a 15-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Simon, that I have owned for five years. I need some real advice because I am very concerned about him. Up until recently I have never had any behavioral issues with him. I have always worked very hard on making sure his manners on the ground and when riding were impeccable. He has always been respectful. In August 2007 my farrier decided that he had too many horses and stopped coming to our barn. I got a new farrier, who attempted to hot shoe my horse on the cross ties the first time he shod him. Simon flipped out, reared, and struck at the farrier. I was away at school at the time, so I came back for the next shoeing. Simon was scared, but as soon as I was around, he calmed down. After four times of working with him, he was back to normal and able to be shod on the cross ties without me.

I moved Simon to a new barn in September, and my previous farrier is now shoeing him again. The first time he tried to shoe him, he was able to trim him, but as soon as he tried to put the shoes on, Simon flipped out, reared, struck at him, and ran to his pasture. The barn owner longed him and brought him back. He then reared and stuck his legs through the bars in the stall where they were trying to take out the one nail they got in. I rested him for a week and tried again today. He was horrible for me as well, and I ended up having to call the veterinarian to have Simon sedated. I am truly at a loss. My horse is amazing and has never done anything like this, and I am not sure where to even begin to fix this.        via e-mail

A: I would start again with Simon just as we recommend with a young horse having his feet lifted and manipulated for the first time. Proceed gradually as you would with a youngster, staying below the threshold of his fear and at a level where you can be confident and relaxed. Once he will let you lift each foot, bring in some tools and actions to simulate the sounds of the farrier. You could lightly file and tap on the feet, and also hold the foot up for longer and longer periods. Stop frequently and give a palatable treat, something like a few pieces of Equine Senior, to reinforce Simon's patience and distract him a bit from the annoyances that might set him off.


Sometimes it is a bit more difficult to restore trust after a fear-inducing bad experience than it is to start with a blank slate, so be patient. I would work in a different area and not on cross-ties to avoid stirring up bad memories. Work in an open area, so that if panic should arise, he won't run into anything that makes it an even scarier event. Have the person on his head ready to release pressure and not fight or discipline any fear moves.

After he is comfortable with you, have friends and others do the same so the trust generalizes to people in general. Until you are confident he'll be okay with the farrier, I would continue tranquilization so as not to risk another big event to set him back. Be sure to have a farrier who understands your situation and has the patience and time to go slowly.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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