when good ponies go bad

When Megan came to visit locally for a clinic I was super excited, and Peony and I quickly made plans to trailer over there together.  But part of me was a little anxious (it turns out rightfully so) about hauling Murray out for this.  In the past Murray has demonstrated an alarming lack of regard towards trailers and tying, but for the last twelve months we’ve been quite solid citizens away from home.  Unless I’ve failed to tie him correctly, I can’t actually remember the last time Murray broke away from the trailer (and a quick scan of the blog suggests it hasn’t happened in dramatic enough a fashion to warrant a mention).  In fact, in January he stood by the trailer for almost 60 minutes on his own while I watched someone else lesson, and that was before I rode him…  But I brought along a box of extra travel stuff in addition to a hay bag stuffed with alfalfa just in case (I know I’m not supposed to but… sometimes it’s worth the extra distraction).

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Let’s start off this unfortunate tale with a cute picture

The clinic venue was pretty quiet when we got there, a few people riding in the various outdoor arenas, horses quietly hanging in small turnouts and larger pastures, and not two minutes after we walked off to let the clinic organizer know we were there but we heard a little scuffle and off Murray was wandering away to go get something to eat elsewhere.  Not a problem, I thought, I just scampered up to him and held him while we checked in for the clinic.  Spot, politely, stayed at the trailer.  We headed back to the trailer, I re-tied Murray so I could get out some of my grooming equipment and as I was pulling something out of the tack room (on the same side to which he was tied) he lifted his head in alarm, pulled back, and snapped his lead rope.

I don’t usually tie Murray near the tack room by habit, as I have seen him spooking at people moving in/out of the tack room, but I wanted him on the side of the trailer closer to the arena so I could keep an eye on him while Peony rode, which necessitated having him on that side of the tack room.  Since he was clearly incapable of standing if I wasn’t immediately next to him, I took up the clinic organizer on her offer to leave Murray in the round pen near the arena while I watched Peony ride.  Murray enjoyed the round pen immensely, staring at people over the walls and kicking up his heels when the sprinklers came on.  When it came time for me to tack up, I tied him back up to the trailer and started picking out his feet.  Murray wobbled a bit and leaned away from his balance point, I held his foot up* but kept it steady, and so he leaned back, I dropped his foot and tried to calm him but nope — snapped baling twine, Murray was loose once more.

At this point I was starting to get suspicious.  I was willing to give Murray the benefit of the doubt the first time, and even the second time, but three trailer breakaways in an hour?  I tied him up one more time experimentally and continued my grooming, and sure enough while I was currying, Murray leaned back, snapped the baling twine, and broke away from the trailer once more.  Now that I was sure of what was going on, I had a plan.

I didn’t have my stud chain with me, so I settled for a good old-fashioned back-it-up beating.  I tied Murray up, pretended to stop paying attention, and grabbed the lead rope the second he pulled back (but after he’d broken away from the trailer) and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him.  I wanted to see him cry pony tears for his crimes**.  Murray was not having it.  He was feeling especially defiant.  Instead of backing (as he well knows how to do) he kept stepping sideways and turning away from me, and just stopping and invading my personal space.  Also super inappropriate.  So we continued.  Right up until I heard someone say “Excuse me.”

I was asked to stop (though stop what was left non-verbalized, though it was clear from context) as there were children present for lessons and they were concerned.  I totally understood, of course, and then proceeded to angrily curry Murray while holding him in hand and thinking about whether or not I should have felt worse than I did.  We got tacked up, the lesson was great, etc. etc., not the point.  I did take a moment to apologise to both Megan and the clinic organizer, as I didn’t want my (and Murray’s) behavior to reflect poorly on them, and both seemed to kindly understand my position.

I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should have been more contrite about disciplining my horse (I was not), offended that I was stopped from disciplining my horse in a manner that I deemed necessary (I was not), or embarrassed that people thought I was abusing my horse (I was not, on either count).  I have seen people discipline horses far more harshly and thoroughly than I was doing (not an excuse, merely an observation), and in this case it was the lesson Murray needed.  You think that you can decide to break away from the trailer at any point you feel like it?  You, sir, are mistaken.

I thought a lot about whether or not I had other options, based on Murray’s behavior  Had I the halter with me, I would have had him wearing a nylon pull-back halter, so that he disciplined himself for pulling back.  Would a lunge have helped?  Potentially.  Probably not.  Murray wasn’t overly energetic or scared, he just didn’t want to be there any more.  And any kind of lunging that would have gotten him to focus on me in a productive way that wouldn’t just be aimed at tiring him out would have required more tacking up than he had patience for at that point anyway.  A lunge as punishment after he broke away certainly wouldn’t have taught him anything about the behavior that got him on the lunge line, and I don’t really think I would know how to enact lunging as punishment.

This whole thing, as per always, leaves me feeling perplexed, foolish, and more than a little bit like an asshole.  I hated that I had created such a scene that I had to be asked to stop beating my horse, but I stood behind the decision to discipline him.  If Murray only ever gets disciplined at home he will quickly, quickly learn that he doesn’t need to behave away from home.  And I’d rather do it at a small clinic than a big show where I could actually be eliminated for disobedience.  But it wasn’t great.  It seems like every time I can get a little relaxed at home about Murray’s ground manners he springs something like this on me, reminding me that I must be constantly vigilant.

Just to finish up, I will note that the next day for bestieland schooling at WSS Murray stood perfectly by the trailer like a gentleman, even when I did his girth up.  WTF horse.

* Recently Murray has been trying a new trick where he slowly loses his balance while I’m picking out his feet, necessitating me putting his foot down.  At first I worried that he might have a legitimate vestibular issue, but after watching him pointedly not do it to our barn manager or my trainer, having barn manager and trainer in turn see him do it to me, and noting that it happens more and with greater intensity during feeding time, we decided it was just poneh trickz.  Sure enough, after a stern talking to the behavior vanished (at home).

** I feel the need to explain this a bit.  I would like to think that in the time I’ve know Murray I’ve come to understand when he’s doing something because he physically can’t not react that way, and when he’s figured something out like a little pony brain teaser.  In this case I am about 104% sure it was the latter — perhaps the first pull back was based on a spook, but once he realised how easily he could do so, it became calculated.  If a punishment is going to be delivered, it must be immediately following the behavior in question so the two can be associated, so I had to act quickly.  While I don’t want actual tears to slide down Murray’s long nasal bridge, I do want him to remember that he’s not the boss even though he is bigger, stronger, and in some ways smarter.

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16 thoughts on “when good ponies go bad

  1. The time for discipline is in the moment, and I think you did the right thing. FWIW, my horse use to LOVE doing the lean back with a foot picked up which originally stemmed from his feet hurting but later turned into a bad behavior. I’ve gotten into the habit of NOT letting go of that foot and either kicking him a smack/kick on the belly to stand up straight. He rarely does it anymore, but when he threatens a growl from me usually fixes it! *I’m certain if a random stranger or kid saw me doing this to me horse they’d be upset, but that’s what happens when people don’t understand the full picture.

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  2. Totally agree with your handling of the situation. Not putting an end to that behavior quickly could have led to a more dangerous situation.

    That said, have you ever tried The Clip? It’s a simple device that you put the lead rope through and clip to the trailer/wall/whatever. It’s designed so that if they pull back, they don’t hit a sudden wall of pressure and snap their lead or halter. It slowly allows the rope to slide so it gives gently while still applying steady pressure. Just as if they were pulling back on you, you’d resist but have some give (see: bigger, stronger horse), and when they stopped you’d release pressure. The Clip does that for you. And they’re affordable. Just a thought!

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  3. And yeah, that’s why a certain bay asshole loads, travels, and ties in his wildly unsafe thin-with-extra-knots nylon rope halter. There are things I do not need in my life and one of them is a horse pulling back/escaping IN the trailer. Yeah, he tried it.

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  4. I’ve definitely seen both: when the horse absolutely needed to be corrected and when someone was completely out of line. The difference is pretty clear to horse-folks, but I can see where the line would get fuzzy for non-equestrians (and kiddos too). Dealing with a tantrum in public is never fun (human or equine). I hope Murray learned his lesson (naughty boy!).

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  5. It sucks they made you stop and he got away with it. I’m all for correcting horses behavior. How much would he injure himself if he was just tied? I know some horses actually get an endorphin high off the release from pulling back and snapping the tie. Like, the act of doing it is enjoyable, not just the wandering off. The only way to fix it is to hard tie them so there’s no way to break away. They just have a fight with themselves and usually settle down and get over it. But, if you think he’d hurt himself, maybe not worth it.

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    • This is a very interesting idea to me because Murray doesn’t necessarily want to wander off – he wants to pull back. I’m scared to tie him to the actual trailer but I’m willing to tie him in nylon to a ring on the trailer to see if that way he can teach himself.

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      • If he wants to pull back then he’s enjoying the pulling back experience. A harsher/uncomfortable halter won’t fix that. In fact, it may just make the eventual release of breaking the tie even better feeling. Work with a trainer since I’m not one, but I’ve talked to trainers about this and the only solution is to tie them so that they cannot break the tie, let them have the fight, lose, and then they give up.

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  6. I totally agree with Emma. My mare figured out the same thing and would just calmly sit down and lean until the lead would snap. It was obnoxious. After a few chats about her behavior, it magically went away. You know your horse best. Don’t feel guilty!

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  7. I might be the minority here, but sometimes a good beating goes a long way. Shitty people think they can interject, but the way I see it, a horse is a massive creature and they NEED to learn to respect my space. If they can’t, they’re getting whupped good until they learn. Simple as that. Don’t be ashamed and feel the need to defend yourself. You can’t have a horse on your hands who lacks manners and discipline. I say good job

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    • Meant to also say because said horse is so massive, a person beating them generally isn’t more than reminder to behave. We all know there are tools and behaviors that are abusive…but this wasn’t.

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