Equine Behavior Questions and Answers

The Question: Why has our previously well-behaved playday horse suddenly developed a bad attitude?

We have an 11 year old mare that my 5 year old daughter has been riding and competing on in rodeo playdays/barrel racing events for the past 2 years. This mare, although strong willed and spirited, has been wonderful with my child up until recently. All the events that we have entered her in have been relatively quiet, i.e., not many spectators, no music, etc. up until recently when we entered her in our local rodeo. This rodeo had loud music, lots of horses and people, backfiring cars in the clown act, etc. She was very antsy prior to barrel racing: pawing at the dirt and moving nervously. When she went into the arena to compete, she blew past the first and would not circle the second barrel. She did this on two consecutive nights. For 5 years old, my daughter is a very accomplished rider and tried persistently to get her to run the pattern properly with no success. Since then, she does fine when we practice with her, but recently ran out of control on some of the playday events (there are 5 events, pylons (ran out of control), flags (won 1st place), pole bending (ran out of control and then my daughter was able to get her to walk through), cloverleaf barrels (my daughter chose to walk pattern and she did ok) & straight away barrels (started out ok and then ran out of control after circling 3rd barrel). This is something that we have entered her in once a month for the past 6 months. She was flipping/throwing her head and wanting to leave the arena. She has always loved people and seemed to enjoy being patted and stroked. Now she throws her head and looks at you wild-eyed when you try. We are worried that she has become arena soured. Any advice? This horse is very loved and a member of our family.

The Answer


It can feel very puzzling when a horse who has previously performed well develops a new personality. Although I suspect your horse’s problems are routed in her experiences in the arena, I would first like for you to rule out any physical issues. Have a good equine veterinarian examine your mare. Check her teeth to make sure she doesn’t need dental work as dental problems can lead to anxiety, head tossing, etc. I would also have the veterinarian check over her back and legs to make sure she’s not sore. And if she passes her veterinary check, then I check her saddle, bridle and bit fit. Although you may be using the same tack on her as before, she may have gained or lost weight or muscle, making everything fit differently.

If you and your vet don’t find anything, also consider having your veterinarian check your mare for ulcers. Ulcers are often caused by stress, which the louder rodeo likely caused. And they in turn can cause discomfort leading to behavioral problems.

If you find and correct a medical or equipment issue, be prepared to spend some time retraining your mare (described below). She’ll be expecting the pain or discomfort and will likely act out in anticipation.

If you’ve ruled out pain and equipment issues, then you are dealing with a behavioral problem you need to correct. It isn’t uncommon for playday horses to either burn out and stop performing or get so anxious about performing that they act out. You’ll need to be prepared to take time off from playdays in order to help your mare overcome her issues, and you’ll need to be the one retraining her or enlist the assistance of a professional trainer or skilled adult rider. Your five your old may be very accomplished, but she’s not big enough to physically enforce her cues.

You mention your mare is performing well at home but having problems at events. You can keep working with her on playday events at home, but I also suggest taking some time off for relaxing pleasure or trail riding: in other words, get her out of the arena. Then you’ll need to take her to some playdays but not compete. In the beginning, you may even take her to a playday, tie her to a trailer, and let her stand there. If she’s calm and relaxed, praise her and take her home. If she’s anxious, you’ll need to go to several more playdays until your mare understands you can go without making any demands or her.

Once you can haul her to an event and have her stand relaxed next to the trailer, then take her to events and ride her around. But avoid the arena and then take her home. Once you can haul her to an event and ride her around outside the arena while she stays relaxed, ride her in the arena but don’t run barrels or other patterns. Once again, take her home. Your goal is to show her that you can haul her to events without the pressure of competition. Only once she’s relaxed in the arena should you do any patterns, but start at the walk only. You can eventually trot and canter them, but only as long as she’s remaining quiet and relaxed.

You’ve got a long road ahead of you, but you can retrain her and have the mare you know and love back again.

The Equine Behaviorist

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