Foxi doesn’t like being yelled at.
Foxi is a mixed race pony (Icelandic horse and Welsh Mountain, we think, but no one knows for sure). She’s sensitive, intelligent, and bossy. My big Jutland draft, weighing in at 800 kilos, doesn’t want to argue with Foxi. Foxi takes charge. She’s a small but very determined little lady.
At times, Foxi freaks out. While cool-headed and kind, she can flip a switch and go ballistic at two seconds’ notice. Her owners respect Foxi’s needs, keep things nice and quiet, and don’t pressure her for no reason. Foxi is fond of her humans and trusts her teenage rider. Foxi used to have a bad reputation for trying to throw her rider for no apparent reason, but it hardly ever happens anymore.
I’ve known her for three months, and I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out what Foxi’s issue is. She was bred for trail riding with tourists, at a farm where teenage girls handled the horses largely unsupervised by adults. Teenagers aren’t incompetent and most of them handle horses just fine, but they do need adults to be there, keep a clear head, and help them out when things go pear-shaped. Teenagers can be hard working and have all the good intentions, but very few have a decade or more of horsemanship experience to draw on (for obvious reasons). Foxi was judged to be too volatile and was sold off—to a pony riding club, where her story repeated, until her current owners adopted her.
The other day, Foxi was a bit upset that she was left last in the paddock at turn-in. She galloped up to me and asked to be let in—and I obliged. I don’t usually walk with the livelier horses and ponies because of my handicap, but she really wanted to go in, and she asked very nicely. So we walked. Foxi set a quick pace to catch up to the others, and I pulled lightly on her halter to slow her down.
Foxi froze, then started dancing nervously.
I told her to relax, just slow down a little, we got this.
Foxi breathed out hard, relaxed, and walked at my pace the rest of the way.
In other words, Foxi was an inch from flipping her lid but decided not to. Foxi isn’t misbehaved or badly trained. Foxi is afraid of being yelled at. She needed me to reassure her that yeah, sure, you walked a little too fast but it’s cool, we’ll just slow down and everything will be fine, don’t worry about it. What she expected was for me to yell at her, maybe even hit her, and when I just told her everything is fine, everything really was fine.
I can’t help but wonder how many times, before she was sold to her current owners, Foxi has asked a human for reassurance only to get yelled at, or hit with a riding crop.
A lot of equine anxiety bounds in humans teaching our horses to be afraid to ask for reassurance from us. We must teach new riders, young or old, to pay attention to the language of horses. To think of their horse as a partner, rather than a piece of sporting equipment. If your co-worker asks you a question, you answer it. You don’t yell at them or, heaven forbid, pick up a riding crop to make them ‘submit’. This does not change just because your equine co-worker has double the amount of legs.
I walked with Foxi to the paddock this morning. She slowed down on her own and waited for me.