According to Alyssa Pitts, the term "problem horse" is a misnomer for equines who have had a rough start in life. The Washington-based dressage trainer believes that many of these inaccurately characterized horses have been the recipient of unfavorable circumstances, either through unaddressed physical issues or poor training. On the surface these horses exude a bad attitude and a mixed bag of behavioral challenges, but as Pitts has found what we see on the outside isn't always the true package. Beneath a rebellious disguise the troubled horse can possess incredible talent and a lot of heart.
Unfortunately, a horse's natural enthusiasm to work can be stifled by a physical problem, and in Pitt's experience this is the most common reason for bad behavior.
(Alyssa Pitts pictured on Selestial R)
"Sometimes there's something physically wrong with a horse that keeps it from being able to perform, and if that doesn't get addressed, then it becomes a behavioral issue because the horse becomes resentful of the training because something hurts. Over time, I've learned that when a horse is not doing what I want it to do, I need to first really give it the benefit of the doubt and look things over to make sure that we aren't missing something."
The second source of "problem horses" is poor training when horses are young and most impressionable. However, as Pitts explains, this can occur unintentionally when someone finds themselves in over her head with a rambunctious horse in the adolescent stage.
"The problem is sometimes that we get a horse that was too much for someone in the beginning. Someone who shouldn't have had a young horse or the horse didn't get started in a good way. These horses can sometimes be the harder ones because they have a certain sensitivity and a certain temperament and they've learned to become a bully because they've discovered that they can intimidate people and overpower them."
Despite a horse's history and reputation, when Alyssa receives a new horse into her barn she does her best to start things off on the right foot by testing a them under saddle before making assumptions.
"If a horse has just come to me, I give it a shot. I ride it for a few weeks and put some pressure on it, and in those couple weeks, I feel like I should be able to make some positive changes, and the horse should start coming around. The second that it's not, then I call the vet. A lot of times you can have a horse that is sound, but it can have a lot of pain or soreness in the back that doesn't make it lame, but it can make it painful for them to be ridden."
"I think that lameness is easier to detect than musculoskeletal issues in the neck and in the back. Recently, I've been working with a vet whose practice specializes in physical therapy, and that has been amazing because she has her hands on my horses' bodies, and we're able to catch things really early. She can feel when they are starting to get a bit sore and compensating in other muscles, so then we really keep an eye on it. When she comes back, we take a look and can determine if the soreness is gone and if the horse was just building muscle as part of the training process, or if they are still holding a lot of tension, then we really start digging deeper."
After underlying issues have been addressed and a horse is physically feeling well, Pitts explains the next step in transforming the "problem horse" is not for the faint hearted.
"Once the horse has learned a bad behavior you have to have a certain amount of bravery. You have to have a certain amount of confidence in your aids and what you're doing. That's where it gets really hard because if you have a horse that's learned how to buck or kick when you put your leg on you have to be brave enough to put your leg on and teach the horse to go forward again."
Even if you have nerves of steel or are a professional rider yourself, Pitts emphasizes that there will likely be a horse or a situation that calls for additional help.
"For me, I can't feel like my ability as a rider is tied up in my ability to change this one horse. Because otherwise I get stubborn, and I start making poor decisions. And if I’m scared, the horse knows it, and that's how horses that are bullies are created. They learn that they can intimidate and scare somebody. So I always tell people not to be afraid to ask for help."
In these instances Pitts calls on Randy Leighton, a California-based cowboy whose horsemanship practices and ability to establish a positive training foundation transcends all disciplines. Pitts particularly admires Leighton's respect for all of the horses he works with and his capacity to understand each individual animal.
"When I come against a horse that I feel really wants to hurt me, then I send it to Randy and let him sort it through because he and his team are more experienced in that than I, and the guys that work for him are braver! For me that's really taking my ego out of the whole process and thinking, “What does this particular horse need in this particular instance?” And it's not roughness, we're not trying to make the horse fearful or beat the horse up. That's what got the horse in this situation in the first place."
Although riders considering taking on horses with behavioral issues should proceed with caution, those with experience and the guts to go with it can find a diamond in the rough on these second chance horses. Pitts has worked with two horses in particular, Jil Sander and Romischer Prinz, who had been pegged with the problem horse label before eventually finding great success at the FEI levels.
"I showed Jil Sander at her last show at Grand Prix and we won the Regional Championships where we got a 69.8% - so we almost broke 70%! Her issue was underlying: she had PSSM, which is a muscle metabolism problem. So once we were able to manage it with her diet, she was able to perform much better. With Rommie, they had already taken care of his physical problem before I got him, but then there were the behavioral issues left over. He was just really defensive, bucking and not wanting to let people ride him. But they had done the work of finding out what was wrong and had injected his SI's, and then he was fine. I showed Rommie all of the way to I-2, and he was ready for Grand Prix. At the last show I was super excited because he got a ten on his piaffe from an international judge!"
Today Rommie is clearly a changed horse and Pitts claims you would never guess that he had a troubled past. "I see Rommie, and he's a wonderful horse with a great a temperament and he's such a trier."
"That's what makes me sad is that so many of these horses that are misunderstood have a ton of heart, but for whatever reason ,they couldn't do what they were being asked to do, and they got frustrated."
Pitt suggests that people can avoid creating "problem horses" by bringing them up responsibly - listening to the animals, being aware of impending physical challenges, and knowing when to bring in professional help so that negative scenarios don't spiral out of control.
"It's like with people too - by providing good parenting, those kids have the tools to do well and really make it later in life. I would love to see every young horse get a good start in life."