Jack (at left) just minutes after moving in with Atty, his first roommate in several years. Now that's a happy horse!
Photo: Michelle Anderson
A year ago I was ready to give up on my Quarter Horse
But, first, it’s important to note that Jack isn’t just any
horse. I bred and raised him, and over the years he’s proven himself as smart and funny as he is beautiful and athletic. His rocking horse canter and smooth-as-glass jog are the kinds
you can ride all day. And as I am a 30-something childless woman, Jack has long
filled the role of my firstborn and the horsey love-of-my-life.
Yet, at 11 years old, he seemed to have completely lost his
mind—like the worst version of a horse midlife crisis. He started running
circles around our veterinarian during simple exams; continuously kicked at our
very patient farrier; and reared and spun, running backward when I asked him to
load into the trailer. Once he finally got in the trailer, he’d work himself
into an anxious lather, pawing the walls.
As one of three horses (my others include my upper-level
dressage horse, Marathon, and young prospect, Atty), Jack had the singular job
of walking, jogging, and loping down the trail on a loose rein while I chatted
with my friends and relaxed after a long day at my desk. Instead of behaving
himself, he started spooking and spinning at the smallest bird taking flight or
imagined monsters hiding in sagebrush, easily leaping 10 feet off the trail in
one bound—thankfully I have a sticky seat! We’d take the lead on our group
rides, cantering down the trail, only to have him freak out when a horse came
up behind him. Put him in the back of the pack, and he’d freak out again at the
thought of being left behind. And by “freak out,” I mean “buck big and hard,
with his brain completely leaving his body.”
None of these behaviors happened overnight. Instead, it just
kind of added up over the years and finally came to a head. And, with two other
lovely, well-behaved horses to ride, I was done dealing with Jack.
I wasn’t happy.
Jack wasn’t happy.
Now, you might be thinking he had an eyesight problem. Or
back pain and bad saddle fit. Or a dental issue. Or something else physical was
bothering him. I’m with you, and I had my vet check him out for all those
I began to wonder if I was just a crappy rider and Jack
finally had enough. But my steady progress with Marathon into 3rd
Level in dressage suggested otherwise. I mean, dressage isn’t easy, but unless
you’re an endurance rider or competitive trail rider, loping down the trail
kind of is—or at least should be. Isn’t the point of trail riding to relax and
have a good time?
At that point, I thought about selling Jack. Maybe a
teenager with more time and confidence (around my 30 birthday I
realized I’m not invincible) would take him, love him, and ride him all the
time. But how could I sell a horse who couldn’t behave himself long enough to
take a lap around the arena?
The truth is, I couldn’t bring myself to part with my beloved gelding.
Finally, I decided to implement for Jack something I’d
devised when I worked as the equine director at a therapeutic riding center. I
called it a “Horse Happiness Plan.” Whenever one of our program horses seemed
grumpy or sour with their work, I’d create a structured plan to address their
challenges. These plans included nutrition, veterinary care, training, and
often a whole lot of TLC. And they worked.
So, I sat down and did the same thing for Jack. First, I wrote down my goal:
“My goal is to enjoy my horse again. I also want Jack
to like being ridden and handled and to help him feel safe when the farrier,
vet, and other ‘strangers’ are around him. When I go out to catch a horse to
ride, I want to want to pick Jack. I
also would like to feel relaxed when I ride him on the trails and enjoy my time
with him and my riding buddies.”
Then, I wrote down our challenges:
- Stressed in the trailer, on the trail, and when ridden, trimmed, and with the vet.
- Pinning his ears and snaking at my husband.
- Flipping his head when I put pressure on his
- Bucking, spinning, running sideways, both in
hand and under saddle.
- Kicking at farrier and vet.
- Threatening to pull back when tied.
- Bolting when longed, often breaking free.
- Herd-bound, upset when one of the other horses
leaves the property.
Finally, I looked at these issues and found the common
theme: Anxiety. Jack lived in a constant state of worry, and I needed to find
ways to lessen his stress. With that in mind, I brainstormed ways to address
into paddock with another horse. Since bringing my horses home to our small
ranchette nearly eight years ago, I had kept them all in separate paddocks with
individual loafing sheds. They could see each other and sniff, touch over the
fence, and play “bity face,” but for ease of feeding, to preserve show coats,
and reduce injury risk, each horse lived alone. At the urging of a friend with
an interest in horse psychology, I decided Jack might benefit from a roommate.
Hands down, group living is the best thing I could ever have done for all of my
horses. Yes, their coats aren’t quite as pristine (no summer sheet can survive
busy-mouthed Jack), and injury is still a risk, but Jack instantly settled down
once he found himself at the very, very bottom of the pecking order. It’s kind
of like he realized peace in knowing his place. He even stopped snaking at my
husband. On a daily basis, my horses play and run together, groom one another,
and even sleep side by side. And, as a bonus, Marathon is more fit than ever
from this added activity.
Put Jack on a calming supplement with magnesium. My vet made this recommendation after
his other clients had found success with calming supplements. The thought is
that magnesium supports healthy nervous system function and encourages
relaxation. The supplement I selected for Jack has this and myriad other
I’m not one to believe in supplements as a "cure-all," but I quickly noticed a
difference in Jack after starting him on the daily supplement, especially when
it came to trailering. Jack now happily plows into the trailer like he did as a
youngster, and he rarely sweats from stress once loaded. In a year since
starting the supplement, he’s spooked fewer than five times on the trail.
Considering he used to spook every five minutes, I consider this a success. The
biggest challenge, with show season approaching for Marathon and me, is making
sure Marathon doesn’t eat any of Jack’s supplement, which includes substances
forbidden in USEF competition.
Change his bit from a (gentle) curb to a three-piece, egg-butt snaffle. I don’t know why I ever moved Jack into a
curb bit to begin with. Looking back, once he graduated from a bosal and could
neck rein, a curb seemed like the “grown up” option for him as a Western horse.
But, when I started really paying attention, I noticed that he’d panic, I’d
pick up the reins, he’d hit the curb, and then freak out, buck, or start
Result: It's like night and day. The first time he raised his head as if to spook at a
random stump monster when wearing the snaffle, I picked up the reins and waited
for him to blow up. Instead, I felt his heart beat through the saddle as he
took a slight step away from the stump as we went by it, eyes big but locked on
the stump. All this time, he’d just wanted to keep his eye on whatever he
thought was scary. Also, when we started cantering and I rated his speed a bit,
instead of putting his head down and bucking, he simply slowed down. Amazing!
He will never have a curb strap under his chin again!
“A year ago, I would’ve sooner ridden the unbroke filly and ponied Jack.”
Schedule regular rides: I now trail ride Jack with a friend every Thursday (except
during our monthly Ask TheHorse Live events) and Sunday.
Jack thrives on our new, regular routine. I have to say, I dig it too. Jack’s
gotten so good that I can even pony my filly off him on our rides. A year ago,
I would’ve sooner ridden the unbroke filly and ponied Jack.
Trim Jack’s hooves myself. I found his negative
behavior with the farrier the most frustrating, not to mention dangerous. No
amount of correction on my part, or ignoring from my farrier, seemed to help. I
have no problem handling Jack’s feet, so I bought some nippers and file and
started trimming him myself. The caveat here is that my dad shoes horses and
let me trim ponies when I was a kid, so I have enough experience to feel
comfortable doing very basic trims on horses with healthy feet. This option isn’t
Result: Jack is extremely well-behaved for me, and his feet look pretty good, if I
do say so myself. My farrier has one fewer horse to trim, but I don’t get the
feeling he minds.
Have the vet give him carrots, and see him first: Like me, my vet seems to have a soft spot for Jack and has worked
hard to make his visits more comfortable. If Dr. Nyman is here to see another
horse, he’s always willing to give Jack the carrots that I hand him. And during
routine farm visits, he sees Jack first to keep him from getting anxious while
waiting (Jack recognizes Dr. Nyman’s pickup and gets himself worked up the
second it pulls in). We also no longer administer intranasal vaccines to Jack,
because we figured out that the onset of his vet-related anxiety coincides with
when we used them initially.
Spring wellness appointment is today. I’ll let you know how it goes down in
the comment section.
Take time to groom him. Jack loves
being groomed. But, with three horses and just one of me, I often rushed
through grooming to get done quickly. I’ve now purposefully made time just for Jack.
Jack loves his grooming time, and it really seems to help relax him. I have
to admit, even with my busy schedule, it does the same for me.
Last Thursday, as my regular riding buddy, Katie, and I made
our way back to the trailer aboard Jack and her mare, Dori, I couldn’t help but
appreciate the beautiful Central Oregon evening and time spent with a great
friend and good horses. It turns out Jack’s happiness plan is also my happiness
Enjoy the ride!