Dealing with the Terrible Two's (and Three's and Four's...)

Young horses are a lot like children in that they will test your authority and regularly try things out to see what they can get away with.

If you've had your horse for a while, and especially if you've owned them since they were really young, you'll know just how upsetting it can be when they decide to throw a tantrum for no reason.

I remember the first time Skye threw a wobbly because she didn't like what I was asking of her. She reared up, span round and pulled the lead-rope right out of my hands. If I hadn't have let go, she would have dragged me all the way back to the yard!  

At that point, I realised that my lovely cuddly yearling was turning into a stroppy teenager, and I'd need to really up my game if I was going to hold on to my 'head mare' status.

As Skye is a mare I somewhat expected to have to battle with her on occasion. That's just how they are, head strong, full of character and are prone to frequent and unpredictable mood swings. And that's why I like them.

But Skye was always so quiet. If you scratched behind her ears or at the top of her tail in just the right spot, she'd be putty in your hands! That's why it was such a shock when she suddenly turned into the psycho mare from hell overnight.

She became very strong, and would constantly fight me when I was trying to lunge her. Constantly testing my authority by turning in to face me on a circle - very disrespectful! Sometimes she'd refuse to move forwards, other times she wouldn't stop or slow down when I asked her to.

One time, when I was just starting to lead her out on her own to build up her confidence, she decided that she really wanted to eat the hedge, and practically dragged me in to it. Naturally I told her off and asked her to move away and she actually tried to kick me.

My friend who was with me at the time, later told me that it looked like she'd actually aimed for me.

Luckily she just managed to clip the top of my hip and I escaped with a very impressive bruise, but in reality, she could have shattered my pelvis.

After that episode. I decided that I really needed to work on my groundwork to claw back a bit of the respect I had so obviously lost!

We worked hard to build up trust and good manners and she became much easier to deal with. I thought we'd cracked it and she'd go back to being all sweet and well behaved.

Well, that lasted for a while but recently she's started playing up again. I know she's just testing me but now that I'm actually riding her, it can be pretty frustrating (and scary!) not knowing how she'll behave from one day to the next.

The majority of the time we'll have a really good schooling session. She'll listen to what I'm asking her to do, and she'll really enjoy learning new things. But some days she'll just be really un-cooperative. She'll get really fizzy and strong and won't acknowledge the bit. Or she'll throw a couple of little bucks in when I ask her to bend on a circle in canter. 

Skye will be 5 this year, and I'm hoping that we're coming to the end of the tantrums. I know that to some extent, we'll always have our little 'disagreements' so I'll need to make sure that I'm consistent in dealing with them and making sure that she respects me and that we stay safe when we're working together. 

Here are my tips for dealing with the terrible two's (and three's and four's!)

  • Be consistent - if Skye objects to something that I've asked her to do, then we stop what we're doing and focus solely on that. We'll go over it again and again until she realises that she won't win and it's actually easier to just do what I'm asking.
  • Sit back! - It's natural to lean forward when your horse starts picking up speed, but this actually encourages them to go faster! If you feel that you're losing control a little, sit right back on your seat bones, keep your heels down and lean back slightly. Your horse will find it much harder to speed up if you're using your weight properly.
  • Relax...- Your horse can feel when you're stressed and is likely to act up more. I know it's easier said than done but really try hard to focus on your breathing and keep calm.
  • Be firm but fair - If your horse is testing you, make sure you get your control back and get them listening to you by pushing them on with your legs and picking up a good contact. Pressure and release is key here. If they make even a tiny step towards doing what you ask, take the pressure off straight away. 
  • Don't make a fuss - Skye is going through a phase of spooking at everything. I know she's being silly because she's never consistent in what she does, and where she does it. Although it can catch me off guard a lot of the time, I always try not to react. Sometimes making a big deal of a spook reinforces the idea that they were right to react the way they did, and this can cause serious problems later on.

Dealing with a young horse's tantrums can be hard work, and it can be immensely upsetting but stick with it. Remember that it's just a phase, and if you manage to get on top of it and maintain your authority, they'll grow out of it... eventually (unless you own a mare of course!).

By Izzy Witts