Friday, December 18, 2009

Pucker Up

I couldn’t wait to see Gem. I was absolutely smitten with him. I couldn't stop thinking about him. I couldn’t stop talking about him.

In general, Gem was pretty darn good when I was getting him ready. He stood patiently, lifted his feet nicely and had no issues with the bridle. But, he was not used to being in a stall. I could tell he was on edge. LA told me she would show me how to lunge him to help burn off some of the pent up energy he had. In the meantime, I was spending as much time as I could with him. I was working on “bonding”.

Gem's bottom lip is pink. If you look at him straight on, it looks like he is smiling. So cute. One day, while I was keeping him company, he lowered his head over the stall door and let me scratch behind his ear. I interpreted lowering his head as a sign of relaxation and acceptance. His eyes started to close a little and his pink lip quivered ever so slightly. Breakthrough?! Was he accepting my company? Were we becoming friends? I stepped a little closer as I continued scratching, thinking that this moment of connection may even include some sort of hug between us. As I leaned closer, someone walked into the barn. He snapped back his head (someone's here!), hitting me squarely on the nose. I stumbled back, holding my face. I staggered around, wiping away tears and waiting for the gush of blood. I did not have a nosebleed, but my nose felt “bruised” for days afterwards. My lip was a little sore from my teeth being driven into it by the impact. Who would have thought you could be hurt by your horse when he's in the stall and you are in the aisle???

During this bonding period, I discovered that Gem was a mouther. He was constantly moving his mouth over your clothing, your hands, blankets, anything within reach. I recalled his previous owner telling me that she would treat him all the time and that he could find stuff in her pockets. Oh, boy. He kissed the air as you walked by. And what the heck is this Flehmen response thingy??? I almost had a heart attack the first time he did that while I stood in front of him. Most times the mouthing was gentle, but irritating. Sometimes, if you were not paying attention to him, his teeth would connect with flesh – not hard, but a connection none the less. Look at me. LOOK AT ME! At first, I thought it was because he was scared and looking for reassurance. Both the vet and the farrier said it was a sign of intelligence and curiosity. But, enough is enough! I don’t mind curiosity – that’s one of the things I love about my terriers. But, if connecting with flesh was an outcome of this behaviour, it was not acceptable. I did not want to have to do the Chicken Dance for the next 20 years!

When his mouthing got annoying while grooming him, I started correcting him by either elbowing him or bopping him under the chin and saying “NO!” right in his face. His eyes would widen. I could almost hear him thinking “who the heck IS this crazy person?” Amazingly, his face would get a sad little kid look, making my heart melt. Be strong! He’s playing you!

He was a celebrity at the stables. He was big and riders would come over and visit. I was still trying to figure out barn etiquette and I was a little intimidated at first by “experts” stopping by. I would warn them about his mouthing and ask that they not touch his head. They would touch his head anyway and if he mouthed them, they smacked him. What the heck??!! I would put this behaviour in the same category as me smacking their child because I thought the child was being bad. On two separate occasions I had adults tell me, after I saw them smack my horse a number of times in head, that he had to be corrected when they touched him. I said, “There is a very simple solution. DON’T TOUCH HIM.” I made my point. I did not want him to become head shy. Having others assaulting my horse did not sit well with me. LA and STA were the only two I trusted to discipline Gem in a way I felt comfortable with.

I asked LA if she could ride and evaluate Gem so that my lessons could be geared towards what he needed and what I needed. She warned me that I might not like seeing her on him, because she was not going to let him get away with anything. I was absolutely OK with that.

LA got on Gem from the ground - yes, from the ground. I am sure my mouth dropped open. She's a little taller than me (I'm 5'7"), but I swear that her foot was up around her ear when she put it in the stirrup! Wow. She rode him for about ½ hour, pushing him, correcting him. She got him up to a canter. It was wonderful to see him working; he was getting into it. After her ride, she told me that she liked him, but that he was probably going to be a challenge for me over the next while because he was an 18-wheeler as opposed to a pick-up truck; it was probably going to take twice the effort on my part to get him moving. 18-wheeler, eh?

What was I thinking….?


  1. It's nice that you spend as much time with Gem as you can if he is confined to a stall all day (at least this is the impression I get). You might want to take him outside and hand walk him instead of getting into lunging him all the time to get his energy out. In my experience all horses need time outside to rejuvenate their mind. Being in a stall for 20 or so hours a day is really not good for their heads.

    As far as his mouthiness goes, it's up to you to correct him and not everyone else in the barn smacking him upside the head, you're right it will eventually make him head shy. Stick with it and just tell everyone hands off.

    Gem may be an 18-wheeler in your trainers opinion but don't let that deter you from riding him. The only way you and he will get the connection you need is from learning together. I made the mistake once of letting my trainer sort of take over my horse and I rode him in one or two lessons a week. The trainer showed him, trained him and basically made me feel like I was the inferior rider (which I was at the time), but I was also kinder to my horse and didn't kick and yank him around courses etc... Even though I was driving a 17'2 hand Mack Truck around the arena i can tell you that he did things more easily for me than the 'experienced' trainer, who had the nerve to comment 'how come he won't do that for me', to which my response was 'because he loves me and not you'. So I guess my point in this little story is simply, don't let anybody talk you out of riding and learning and training with your horse just because they say he's difficult and you really can't handle that yet. Good luck in your next lesson.

  2. When he first arrived (last May) he was out in a the front paddock a few hours a day and the rest he was confined to his stall. He was able to see and touch the other horse over the fence. He is now outside from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. with his friends. :-)

    I appreciate your support regarding his mouthiness. I was quite shocked at the nerve of some people.

    Gem and I have been together a few months now, and we have made real progress, which I will share in other posts. I have seen what you described at the first stables I was at. Trust me, I will be the primary rider on Gem and we will be learning together! Thanks for sharing.

  3. My horse was also very mouthy - curious horses often are. If you invite the touch, I've been told, it's fine. Only bites deserve a serious reaction.

    Next time, wack those people. Tell them clearly they need the discipline.

    I have learned some horses need more firmness, but you always start soft. that way they have a chance to get it right.

    I hope to see a picture of that lip!!

  4. @Breathe - I like your idea about wacking those people! :-)

  5. You could post a sign on his stall that says, "Caution, horse bites!"

    Also avoid giving him any food from your hands, if you want to give him a treat, drop it in his bucket/food pan. My own gelding gets mouthy if I give him treats from my hand.

    Another tactic you could try is recommended by John Lyons. Every time your horse comes after you to bite, you take his muzzle in your hands and just love him up (keep your fingers out of his mouth). It's gentle so he won't get headshy and it works.

  6. @smazourek - thanks for your suggestions! I haven't been hand feeding him anything since day one. IF I treat him, I put in on the ground. I like the suggestion of loving him up when he mouths. He is much better than he was, but he still does it. I will give it a go!