Overcoming Fear in a Traumatized Horse: Magnum’s story
Magnum—a paint Clydesdale/Stockhorse cross gelding—came to live with us at the end of 2004. We had recently moved to a large property, and my plan was to get two horses to go on quiet trail rides through the forest. I’d had a lifelong love of horses, but my entry into horse ownership was much later in life, spurred by my daughter’s enthusiasm.
We visited the local sale, and Emma spotted Magnum in a pen with three other horses. He was in the “dogger section,” destined for pet food. Emma fell in love. He certainly was handsome, but I had grave misgivings—there had to be a reason why he had come through the sale without an owner. Emma begged me to bid on him, so I gave in and was soon in a bidding war with the “dogger men.” Bidding stopped at $500 (my limit) and he was ours!
We arranged transport—he was run up a ramp onto a truck—and so he was delivered to our property. On arrival, the driver battled with Magnum to get a halter on, and escaped a certain crushing by leaping up the side of the truck! The driver was still shaking his head as I paid him and told us, “Never have I transported a horse like that before!” Magnum was shaking all over. He wrenched his head away as soon as we took the halter off, and he was off down to the farthest corner of the paddock. It would be many years before we ever put a halter on him again.
As time went on, Emma’s attempts to train with natural horsemanship methods failed. She lost interest, and in the end I thought someone who was more experienced with horses would be able to manage him. The owner of our local trail riding business saw Magnum and wanted him for his personal horse. He brought three “expert” horse people with him, and they spent hours chasing him around the paddock. Magnum was in a lather, and shaking, while Emma and I stood there crying.
I told them to leave. On that day I promised Magnum I would never do that again. I would get help for him, and he could stay on our property forever.
When we got Magnum, my knowledge of horse training was limited to Parelli Natural Horsemanship and later on to other practitioners I came across locally or via the internet. All these practitioners used negative reinforcement; however, one combined negative reinforcement with some positive reinforcement and the use of body language as cues for the horse.
After learning from this practitioner, I had some limited success with Magnum. I learnt to take my time—and also to bring a pocketful of carrots! However, I had no idea how to use these techniques successfully because I had no understanding of learning theory. My aim at that time was to get a halter on Magnum and lead him. Back then I was still of the understanding that once a halter was on he would happily walk with me…which I now know is far from accurate!
I did succeed in getting a halter on him once, but I could never make it happen reliably, and Magnum was incredibly nervous the whole time. So I simply gave up for a while.
Enter positive reinforcement!
At the end of 2011, I turned to Google Scholar to research horse training methods. There wasn’t a lot of information, but I did read about some studies that showed positive reinforcement or clicker training to be the most effective training method. I realised I had dismissed clicker training too quickly, and I then searched the internet for equine clicker trainers. I came across Alexandra Kurland, who I read had pioneered clicker training for horses. I ordered the books and DVDs. Perhaps this would work!
During the next two years, my clicker time was limited, as there were unexpected family crises. My clicker time with Magnum was like walking on eggshells. He would want to play the clicker game, but he was so on edge it was dangerous at times. I never knew which way he would jump!
I talk about my safety concerns with Magnum as he gives a good example of why I have them, in 2012.
By 2014, two things had changed. First, I had an extension put on the small horse shed we had. This provided shelter and pens for the four horses I now had, protection from the southerly winds, and a buffer from the sounds and smells from that direction. It also allowed me to have a safe place to stand. If Magnum were to run, it would be to the open area—not farther into the “dead end” of the stable. I could relax more and so could Magnum. Second, the family crises had come to an end. I finally had more time, not only to be with the horses but also to think more deeply about the training sessions.
While I had already started clicker training with Magnum before 2014, our sessions were filled with tension. I knew that I needed to change what I was doing. Instead of thinking about our training as working with Magnum towards a set of specific behaviors, I asked him a series of questions.
Can you relax your body while taking treats?
My first goal was to have him take treats without tension in his body, particularly in his neck and jaw. I looked for the smallest of moves, whether around the mouth or eyes, or just a change in his breathing, and I would click for this. However, he would jump when I clicked—the sound was too startling—so I changed my marker to “good,” said in a low, soft voice.
I continued with this for some time—short sessions, morning and evening. My aim was for my presence to be a cue for him to relax, and soon I could see changes. His eye was softer, his mouth was open a little more, he rested his leg, and most importantly, he started to nicker when I moved to him to play “the relaxing game.”Can I touch your face?
Next I very carefully moved my right hand to touch Magnum on the cheek. I was looking for that same lack of tension. I started with very small approximations, reinforcing him just for remaining relaxed when my right hand started moving. Eventually I reached his cheek.
From here my hand ventured farther—up towards the eye—then farther towards the ear. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Some days he was tense. On those days I backtracked to a place where he was comfortable. Over time, the calm days outweighed the nervous days. He was eventually accepting of my hand touching his head.
I then moved along his neck—I had never been able to touch him past the withers. If I ever moved towards that point, he would swing around to face me. I was using a high rate of reinforcement, with my right hand touching him while my left was feeding him, and keeping the sessions to just a minute or two.
He would then have a “processing” break while I tended to the other horses. Some days we had several short sessions at the morning and afternoon feed, and some days none at all. I continued like this until I could touch past the withers and stroke along his back. I added a verbal cue, “along,” so he knew I was about to touch his back. This continued, and in time I could stroke him down to his tail.
I added more behaviors to our repertoire—eventually he could follow a target, stand on a mat, move backwards and forwards again, and be touched. He was very keen for clicker time! Sometimes he presented with heightened anxiety, or I misjudged his emotional state and he would jump away, but now he returned quickly to me.
Can you stand in the stable?
I also started to get him used to being in the stable. Before that he would eat his feed loose in the stable area, while the other three horses were in pens. I started in the largest pen. I used my hand as a target, took a few steps into the stable, reinforced him, then asked him to back out a few steps. Eventually I was able to lead him towards the back of the stable. We would do a series of backwards and forwards manoeuvers—like a three-point turn— so we would be facing the opening again. I would then cue him to take several steps back from the entry and gradually eased myself out first. Then I continued several steps forward and several back at the entry.
I spent longer and longer in the stable—doing all the touching I had been doing outside, then I started putting his feed bucket in there. Gradually he saw the area as no different from outside—and good things happened in there! I didn’t shut the gate for a long time, and when I did, I didn’t latch it.
Can I put a halter on you?
The next exercise was introducing the halter and lead rope. I had recently been to one of Alexandra Kurland’s clinics, and I really liked the way the rope was used as a cue. I wanted Magnum to have a positive association with the halter and rope, rather than having a halter on him so I could hold him if he ran away—at this point I’d realised nothing would stop Magnum if he needed to run.
I started by bringing the halter out each day. At first I asked him to touch the halter with his nose, like a target. I would do this about three times, put the halter away and do something else that he knew. The halter soon became part of the environment—he would nicker when he saw it. Very gradually I asked for more, and soon I was able to reinforce him for putting his nose in the halter.
I continued the same process, moving up over his ears with the strap. This is where I was careful not to rush things. Many times I could have done up the buckle, but I took it off again instead. At the same time I had started bringing out the lead rope, beginning by using it as a target for his nose until eventually I could drape the rope over his neck. This allowed me to clip the rope to the halter without causing any anxiety for Magnum.
Because I had already walked Magnum at liberty and asked him to back up and move forward, walking with him wasn’t entirely new. I was new to this type of rope handling, however, and even though I had used it with my other horses, each horse was different in their movement. Magnum was very heavy on the forehand. We worked a lot, with me often feeling like we were taking two steps forward and one back.
The cone circle: “Why Would You Leave Me?”
Alexandra Kurland uses the cone circle regularly in her training. She has an exercise called “Why Would You Leave Me?” where the human and horse walk around the outside of the circle and stop at each cone. The horse is reinforced for staying with the human. Out of this exercise can develop more nuanced movement.
I tried this exercise with Magnum, leading him around the cone circle with a rope. This quickly became one of Magnum’s favourite things we did together. He would come away reluctantly from the cone circle—preferring it to walking straight ahead. I observed that he would lose tension in his neck during this exercise, so I inferred that it had a very calming influence on him.
The cone circle
Can I lift your legs?
I returned from another trip to Alexandra Kurland’s clinics towards the end of 2015. In this visit I had also attended a clinic with one of Alex’s “Click That Teaches” coaches, Monty Gwynne, at her property in Canada.
I was learning how to approach lifting Magnum’s hooves, as a prerequisite for hoof care. I wondered at the time, though, how I could get the farrier to do the same—after all, Magnum was only accepting of me. I didn’t have other people around for long enough. The farrier would have had to move in! I asked Monty. She said, “You can do the trimming. It won’t be hard.”
Those words were a turning point. It was liberating to think that I could do it, even though I had never trimmed a horse in my life! I just had to trust the clicker process—and it had worked so far!
I started with the left front leg, touching above the knee and clicking for any shift in movement. As time progressed, he had started to lift the hoof and I added the verbal cue “foot.” I started to touch the hoof as he lifted, then proceeded to holding it. This was completely new to him—and to me! I always looked for signs of tension, and never held the foot if he didn’t want me to.
For the hind legs, I used my earlier cue “along” to let him know I was going to touch his back. I then took my hand along his back and down his leg and he started to lift it. Always, I stopped immediately if there were any signs of tension.
Leg lifts in 2018
Can I trim your hooves?
I bought a HoofJack and Pete Ramey‘s hoof trimming DVDs, and spent time studying them while progressing with handling Magnum’s legs. Once again, I showed him the hoof stand, let him sniff it, and reinforced him. Then I brought it out each day for a short time. I started with small approximations—and only the front feet. I reinforced Magnum for leaving his leg on the stand.
Next, I introduced the hoof pick—I reinforced just for allowing me to touch his hoof with it. This progressed to brushing, and eventually picking the dirt out.
Throughout this process I used a very high rate of reinforcement. The process was slow, but there was progress. It was time to introduce the nippers. Once again, I reinforced Magnum just for allowing the nippers to touch his hoof. At first it was a struggle to make even one “nip”—a function of us both being new to the process. Then after each nip I reinforced—this gradually increased to two or three repetitions per reward.
This time was very trying for me. I was learning a new skill, with a horse who was not only fearful but had never had his hooves trimmed. The hooves were a terrible mess. The whole trimming experience took several months from when I first started leg lifts to having all four hooves trimmed. As for the state of his hooves, they were separated and cracked, the frogs were decaying, and the heels were underrun. I shed some tears the first time I got to look at his hooves properly. I felt so bad for him and I knew it was my responsibility to make things better.
However, I never allowed myself to rush the process. Some days I would spend so long trying to get the hoof in position that I would come away not making one nip at all. However, each day added up, and eventually I had a fully trimmed hoof!
I had also started on the other front hoof and the left hind. The right hind was proving difficult to get on the hoof stand. It was Magnum’s support leg, as the left hind was arthritic. By once again going through a series of small approximations over time, Magnum was able to build up some strength in the left hind to allow him to keep the right lifted for a longer period of time.
The hoof trimming was then ongoing. I would look at them each week.
I believe that it was this trimming experience that really sealed our bond. Being so close to him, I became more sensitive—I was able to learn more about his body just by noting where he was having trouble with each leg. It became a two-way conversation. I would start with the front left hoof. When it was enough for him, he would offer the left hind. I would go to that, then back to the front.
Magnum started to “drop” during the trimming—a clear sign of relaxation and something he had never done before. I believe that the slowness and gentleness of the process was enjoyable for him. This transferred to other things. He became accepting of sprays. He allowed me to touch him everywhere!
The first trim was finished in early 2016—12 years after he had first arrived here. Since then the “spooks” have become very infrequent. Unfortunately, Magnum has quite bad arthritis now in his left hind leg, so the right hind is his major support. This has led to me being creative with trimming. It takes longer for him to get comfortable on the stand—and he cannot lift the right hind at all as the left will not support him.
In 2018 I introduced a battery-operated grinder for that hoof. Again, it was a matter of turning it on some distance away and reinforcing with a treat. After that I put it away. I brought it out each feed time—getting closer each day. When I was close to him with the grinder, I positioned him so that the hind legs were on a rubber mat. Once again, I turned it on, and took it down near his hoof. I used a high rate of reinforcement for this.
For safety I made sure Magnum had a clear space to move, and I had practised with the grinder for a while so I could manage it. When I finally made contact with the hoof he stood still. With lots of reinforcement I continued—twice—then stopped and left it until the next day. He started nickering when he saw the grinder—and pawed at the ground in protest when I had finished!
What Magnum has taught me
Magnum has been my biggest teacher. This is what he taught me:
The environment matters
A safe environment for both horse and human to work in enhances the learning process. An area free from distraction allows the horse to relax and focus more easily on what the handler is asking. An area where the handler feels safe allows them to also relax and not give conflicting signals.
Clicker training by the book is the basic recipe—other ingredients may need to be added
Magnum taught me to be creative and adaptable. While positive reinforcement is the foundation from which to build, a nervous animal that has faced untold trauma needs an approach that may differ from others. This could mean looking for one small muscle movement, and then reinforcing before walking away. Even just trying to “click for calm” isn’t enough. In Magnum’s case, the actual click was startling, so I had to start with a gentle “good.”
An early fright
Less is more
The early sessions were so short. My aim was to leave him wanting more rather than making him feel pressured. Also, when I introduced something new like the halter, I usually used it as a target then put it away until the next session. I was careful not to overload him with something new.
Processing time is as valuable as training time
Magnum regularly surprised me with changes—during a session there may have been the smallest change in, for instance, his muscles relaxing, but the following day there was great improvement!
Use a notification word when necessary
I used the word “along” as a cue—or notification—that I would be touching his back. Even though he had accepted me touching his back, I always warned him so as not to startle him. Magnum taught me to develop the habit of slow, deliberate moves and calmness for all the horses.
Allow free choice
When I introduced Magnum to the stable, I wanted him to have the freedom to move in and out until he was completely comfortable with it. Only then did I close the gate.
Use a problem condition to your advantage
Magnum suffers from seasonal pastern dermatitis. In the process of treating it, Magnum relaxed and “dropped” while I was cutting and shaving his excess fur and massaging and scratching his legs. This gave his body and mind a much-needed rest from tension.
Stressors in the environment will induce a return of old habits
When there is a change in Magnum’s environment, he will revert to spooking. Magnum is more relaxed now with unfamiliar people, but because they aren’t around on a consistent basis—or if they are loud or move quickly—he will move away. However, if they are quiet and calm he will accept them touching him, and often return for more!
Others in the clicker community can support you, but you can’t expect them to have all the answers
This is one I learnt over and over with Magnum. I had so much support, but I was the one who was dealing with Magnum each day. I knew him best. I often had to challenge myself to think of my own solutions.
What traumatized horses need most
From my experience over the last six years, I would suggest that a trainer or owner of a horse with unknown and obvious traumatic past would benefit from working on these qualities in themselves:
I found that changes don’t happen overnight—it may be weeks, months, or years. Having patience, not just with how long the process may take, but being able to hold back on spending too long on each session. I learnt this the hard way. I would be keen for Magnum to try something, and it would be going well, but then I would feel his mouth tighten as he took treats. I needed to end the session earlier.
I would try to imagine the fear Magnum was experiencing. I would imagine someone coaxing me to step off a cliff onto a small ledge—they would be offering me my favourite food, which I badly wanted, but I wasn’t sure how safe the ledge would be. How would I feel then? I would go through many scenarios like this to help me understand Magnum’s fear.
I believe that having a quiet manner and voice was key to Magnum’s initial success. Talking to him in a soothing voice helped, as did keeping my body language very quiet and moving slowly. So always be aware of your body language and tone of voice.
In the world of positive reinforcement-based training, it is assumed we place a high value on being kind to all horses—and we do—but going that extra step in creating a calm environment for a nervous horse and giving them as many pleasant experiences as possible can make all the difference.
Finally, it’s important to have the mindset that every horse is valuable, whether they can be ridden or not. The rewards of seeing a frightened horse gradually accept you are so great. It has been so very satisfying, humbling, and empowering to be able to help a horse like Magnum—and in turn for him to teach me so much.
After varied careers in administration, counselling, and running a small business, Heather now enjoys training her four horses with positive reinforcement. She also enjoys writing, travelling, and learning more about animal behaviour. To learn more of Magnum’s story and Heather’s positive reinforcement journey, go to https://horsemagic.blog/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0WqVZApkMzxuN7IPrIgMQw.