Understanding a high strung horse

My boy, Alydar

It’s been an interesting few months since I began leasing Alydar.

From 1995 to 2010, most of my riding was done on Arabians or Quarter Horses. Riding an off track Thoroughbred has been an entirely new experience.

In a way, it’s been a culture shock.

In the last two years, I’ve ridden many different breeds, along with the Arabian I was leasing. I’ve ridden a never raced Thoroughbred, a Hanoverian, a Dutch Warmblood, a Hungarian Warmblood, a QH/Appaloosa cross, and a Paint. I’m learning that in a few ways, each breed is a bit different.

But they all had been bred with the concept that humans are friends, companions, and usually, leaders. The horse, someone said, accepted US into THEIR society.  The regular riding horse is bred for docility and an acceptance of the dominant status of humans.

In my teens, I hotwalked racing Thoroughbreds, but never rode one. It’s been a very long time indeed since my teens. Riding Alydar has made me realize that Thoroughbreds are bred to RACE. The fact that a human must be on its back is only secondary. Training a Thoroughbred for the track results in a horse with an entirely different outlook on the way it relates to humans.

A few months ago, I began leasing Alydar. Unlike the other TB I rode, Alydar spent two years on the track. He ran 17 times, winning only once. Knowing that racing TB breeders make every attempt to keep their colts entires until they know whether or not the horse is going to be a winner, this means, also, that Alydar was probably gelded relatively late in life, perhaps at five.

Given that he was probably gelded late, and was on the track, Alydar has some behavioral and emotional baggage.

First off, he can be very intimidating.

Alydar is bigger than the regular Arab, and much, much hotter. When he spooks, it’s scary, because he is so much more powerful. And fast-even at the age of 20, he’s fast. He can go from one end of his big paddock to the other in a few strides, and this is in a relatively small area, unlike a racetrack. I can only imagine what it was like to be aboard him on the track, where he could truly be let out.

He has a habit of attempting to bite. What’s odd is that it only happens now and then, he never really has bitten either Kate or me, and when he does try to bite, it’s my left hand. ONLY my left hand.  When he tries it I react immediately, shouting threats at him and giving him the stink eye. He always backs off and rolls his eyes as if to say, oh, no, you must be mistaken, it wasn’t me.

When I worked at the track, I got bitten and nipped so often it became second nature for me to know when I was about to be bitten, and was able to prevent it.  Knowing the signs has helped me a lot. Biting is one way a horse tries to establish dominance. I don’t allow it. AT ALL.  Consequently, Alydar has almost quit trying to nip/bite.

Alydar will push you around if you let him. I’ve learned to handle that. He is constantly testing one. Can I forge ahead of you while I’m being led? No? Okay, can I drag you over to this spot? No?

He’s can be a brat. He’s like a toddler who just learned the word “no” and uses it as much as he can. He’s not stubborn, mind you, but he can be lazy.  He needs a good lunging to warm him up and get the bugs out of his brain. When you lunge him and he really doesn’t feel like obeying you, he will rear and tangle the lunge line around his forelegs. You must then stop, untangle the lunge line, all the time realizing your face is not that far from an iron shod foot. He snorts, bucks, and acts like a fool on the lunge line. And even after he’s stuck a tongue out to signify submission, you still can’t tell if he means it or not. I’ve learned that he doesn’t need a long session on the lunge line. I think it bores him. But I do like to lunge him until he gets the buck out. Once he does that, he’s fine.

I’ve found that he’s fairly well behaved under saddle.  All of these things are indicative of the training he received. He was expected to accept and carry a human on his back. His first job, though, was to run as fast as he can against other horses.

In other words, he was bred for competition against other HORSES. If he doesn’t have a horse to compete with, it seems, he’ll compete against you.

Sometimes Kate will get on him and get right back off. No, he is much too hot today.

She’s owned him for 12 years. I respect her for that. I wouldn’t have kept him for six months. She admits to wondering what in the hell was she thinking when she bought him, a month off the track. For years afterwards, he proved to be a bully, sometimes sending her home in tears and wondering what the hell do I do now?

After trying different training protocols, she found that Clinton Anderson’s methods worked best. That turned him around, but Alydar still is high maintenance.

The first time I mounted him without Kate being there to help handle him, I felt him coil up like a spring. He trembled like Mt. St. Helens before she erupted, and I thought for a panicked second, he’s going to blow up and throw me to the moon. I can’t get off, I WANT to ride this horse; I do not want to let him know he’s scaring me.

So I just sat there. And sat, and sat, for what seemed an hour. Eventually he relaxed underneath me and I rode him just long enough to get it through his head that he must always behave when I am on him.

Now, I do it every time I mount. When I first get on him, I just sit. We don’t move off, we don’t do anything save stand there at the mounting block. Only when I hear him sigh with what is either disgust at my seeming stupidity, or resignation that we will never do anything save stand, do I ask for a quiet walk.

Anderson’s methods have done Alydar a lot of good. Kate is a good and patient teacher. I’ve learned, now, to know when he’s about to be naughty on the lunge line. When his ears go back and he gets that evil little glint in his eye, I give him the stink eye and make him work until I see that tongue stick out.

Only now am I confident in my handling of him, but it took a hammer to get him that way.

Oh, not what you’re thinking, although there have been times in my life that I would have loved to hit the horse I was on (the ex’s Appaloosa, Smoke, for one) between the ears with a 2×4 to get his attention.

A few days ago, I lunged Alydar before noon, and then left. I met Kate coming up to the barn. She was going to ride and thanked me for taking the fizz out of him.

Apparently I didn’t do enough of a defizzing,  because Kate told me later that night that she had to work him for an hour before he calmed down enough to ride.

Then, later that evening, I rode him, too. A worn out Alydar is a very well behaved Alydar, and we had a good session. I put him up in his stall with a handful of treats and a pat on his lovely rump.

The next evening, I arrived at the barn and planned on riding-until I saw Alydar.

He was a totally different horse.

He was cowering in the far corner of his stall. He refused to meet my eyes, and when I looked in them, it was as if he’d never seen me before in his life. He refused to come to the window of his box to greet me and wouldn’t take the treats I’d brought. He snorted in fear at one corner of his stall. He turned his rump to me, put his head in the corner (opposite the boogey man’s corner) and began to weave. The blindness in his eye was frightening.

What the hell? I ran through everything we’d done yesterday evening. I couldn’t remember doing anything that would turn this normal riproarer into an emotional, quivering wreck. For a moment I feared something metabolically was wrong, specifically liver damage. But he cocked a tail and dropped a normal-if a bit sloppy-pile of dung, and his gut sounds were normal.

I called Kate.

“He’s okay. He’s just terrified of the noise of the construction. It’s got him all upset, and when he’s upset, he weaves.”

What she meant by ‘construction’ was the project that had begun this week. The owner of Bourbon Stables (where Alydar is boarded) is having one of the barns rebuilt for his show horse string. This entails ripping off the old, metal sheathing on the roof, and installing new OSB (oriented strand board) and then covering it with new metal roofing.

The guys doing the rebuilding are typical construction guys. They don’t know a thing about horses, and honestly, they’re not being paid to play with privately owned horses. They’re unable to carry on a conversation with cursing or shouting. Perhaps this is due to the generator they have running to power the air compressor that supplies the air hammer, or ‘nail gun’. They also apparently have to have music of the heavy metal type, (ironic) going at about 90 dB. The truck that brings in the roofing and wood material is loud and old, and the driver none too concerned with the noise.

The construction workers rip up the metal roofing with a metallic screech, let it slide from the roof to the ground with a crash. They yell to the grunt (the guy on the ground) to send up another ‘effing sheet of OSB’ and more ‘effing nails for the gun.’ Then they nail the wood and metal to the rafters with the nail gun. The noise it makes is exactly like a real gun. Add to that the staccato noise of the gun on metal, the crash of the falling metal, the echo of the nail gun’s shot sounding exactly like the sound of a ricocheting bullet. (Yes, having been shot at in Desert Storm, I DO know what it sounds like when a bullet is coming your way.)

Even when you know what the deal is, the noise can be unnerving-and painful. I have to plug my ears when I walk past the barn.

It must hurt Alydar’s ears. The gun shots startle him. I’d already learned that loudspeakers (as in the ones used at the recent clinic at the stable) excite him, reminding him of the track. Even after construction has ceased for the night, Alydar was still a nervous wreck from being subjected to it all day.

And finally, to really add to the mix, the management is changing the feeding schedule. The time change is coming up (gads, I hate that thing…horses do NOT understand bi-annual changing the clocks) and Alydar must wait another hour for his hay.

He’s so sensitive and high strung that all of the noise (the cause of which he couldn’t see)  had him completely undone.

I talked to some others in the barn. Some of them said their horses were upset, too. Some said their horse couldn’t have cared less. Denali, for instance, acted as if he’d been foaled on a construction site.

I immediately decided I wasn’t going to get on Alydar’s back, not in his present state of mind.

Instead, I got my grooming box and groomed him.

I never shut the door of a stall when I am in it with a horse. I never want to block my only way out. So I usually I have to wedge the box in the door, as otherwise, the bad boy will attempt to rifle it, looking for treats, or just turn it over. He thinks its grand fun.

This time, though, it made no difference to him. He ignored the temptation of the grooming kit. He kept weaving and snorting at the boogey man in the corner.

After cleaning him up, I began to massage him. Not my usual, therapeutic, deep muscle massage, but just soft, comforting sweeps on his hide. Normally ticklish, he didn’t object. I scratched his favorite spot, the tail head.

It’s a wonderful feeling, to run your hands over the warm hide of a horse. I always loved massaging a horse, as I am able to listen to him on a level that goes far deeper than sound.

This time, though, I began to sing. I will admit that I’ll never be complimented for my singing abilities. I’m not a singer, and never claimed to be one. My song was just a monotonous little tune, with the words “you’re the best pony in the whole, wide world”. Sung softly, over and over and over, while I massaged him.

I could feel him beginning to relax. The tension began to leave his muscles. He stopped weaving. He turned to look at me with a new look in his eye. I could tell he appreciated being comforted.

When he began to nose around my jacket for the apples I had stored in it, I knew he was going to be okay-this night.

The next night, he was the same-upset. Again, it was after the construction guys had quit work for the day. He was a complete wreck, weaving and unhappy. I changed tactics.

I haltered him and led him to the arena. He stopped, flinching, looking at the work area, which of course, was now quiet and unmanned. We continued into the arena, Alydar’s eyes bugged out and nostrils flared.

Molly was riding her Percheron/QH cross, Sassy, and Jackie was riding AJ, a bald faced overo gelding. He knows these horses; Sassy is his next door neighbor. Those horses were acting as if nothing whatsoever was wrong.

I asked Molly and Jackie if they’d mind we just walk? No problem, they both said.

I began with doing some ground work with him, making him turn on his hind feet and then his forefeet. This was to get his attention and to allow him to earn a few “good boys!” We did a couple halfpasses on the wall. Then I took him for walkies around the arena.

He threw his head up when we headed for the far end of the arena.

I don’t know why, but there is something about the far end that spooks a lot of the horses. I think there’s a Horse Eating Monster there, and while WE can’t see it, the horses can.

Every horse I’ve ridden in that arena (save Denali Who Fears Nothing) has reacted with a spook or a shy at least once per session to that corner.

I saw that look in his eye, the one that tells me he was going to bolt.

I took a firm hold on his lead rope and said, “Let’s go see what is going ON in that corner”.



Both of us?

“OF COURSE. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. Let’s GO.”

So I marched, shoulders squared, straight to the corner. I was determined to kill that HEM. Alydar, normally the horse who you have to keep from pulling ahead of you, stayed well behind me. I felt him beginning to lag, and gave him a quick little tug on the slack lead rope, and walked faster towards the corner. I walked right to the wall, where he looked over it, trembling, but still…he was there.

I stood and dared the HEM to come out and kick my ass. Come on, HEM, show your ugly warty snout.

The HEM stayed hidden. The coward decided the two of us were too mean for it.

Alydar relaxed. There was nothing to fear, at least not with ME there. The fright left his eyes, and he licked his lips. We stood for quite some time, and then continued our walk. The next time we went to the HEM corner, he didn’t react at all.

I think, at that moment, we both begin to understand that things were going to be different with each other.

I realize now that much of Alydar’s naughtiness is merely him being a blowhard. He’s an extremely intelligent, overly sensitive, high strung horse. When he acts up, it’s to try to scare me out of making him do what I am asking.  It doesn’t work with Kate, and I’ve not allowed him to do it to me, but now I understand WHY he does it.

I want him to know that I am a leader, an Alpha mare, and will keep him from harm.

The next night, he was his normal; I’m starving for treats self.

I feel a lot more confident in my handling of him. He won’t scare me anymore.


About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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One Response to Understanding a high strung horse

  1. So good that Aly is putting his trust in you from those empathetic moments when you show you understand his fears and help him overcome them as well as generally being a comforting presence. If the “Best Pony in the Whole Wide World” song was ever released it would be a sellout in the horses hit parade – they’d all identify with it!

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