Creating a ‘Happiness Plan’ for a Horse

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 gelding, Jack. But, first, it’s important to note

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 gelding, Jack.

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 things.

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.

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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 mouth.
  • 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 our issues:

    1. Move Jack 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.
      Result: 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.

    2. 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 ingredients.
      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.

    3. 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 running backward.
      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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 for everyone.
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 plan.

Enjoy the ride!

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