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Horse Behavior and Training

Tips on Rebuilding a Horse's Character

Hello!
I am worried that my boss mare, queen of her herd and my partner in crime for the last 13 years, has been dealing with mild depression over the last few years with a lot of moving around and being involved in two lesson barn programs when boarded and on an off-site lease. She seems to be losing her character and is not very interested in any playful behavior unless treats are involved, in which she will still look annoyed if she trots or canters after me for a treat even though I have never used a whip on her in order for her to follow me. She has also even gotten slightly girthy after coming back home from her recent, off-site lease at a lesson barn in which I am using the Dually halter and patience to fix (although to be fair I usually ride her bareback so I only recently noticed this). 

Especially since I have started focusing more on Monty Robert's teachings for a willing partner, I am looking for advice to encourage and excite my mare and to teach her how to have fun again. While she is my first partner in crime compared to my other two mares, I do want her to have more fun and be more willing than I feel that she is right now. I am worried that she is performing more out of obedience than out of wanting to and I can't help but feel guilty when I ride her lately because of this fear. 

And to be fair, I've only recently and actively joined this movement as I do come from a background where I was taught to use crops. I haven't used any in a long time and only used them when I had a horse acting out. I'm not proud of it and have already banned crops and such tactics in my barn. However, I know that the college barn that she came from with her previous lease still endorses those tactics, as many in the horse community still do. While I do not believe any such measures should've been necessary while she was on lease (she is near perfect now with years under her belt), I simply wasn't there to supervise everything. I do know that I was concerned when I brought her home and as soon as I mounted for our first ride, she shoved her head way down as if expected to already frame up and I barely even touched the reins. It even took a while for her to canter in a frame without her picking up galloping into it and breathing like a fire-breathing dragon. I have had to do a little untraining and reminding her to relax under saddle since bringing her home. When I asked if the lease had any recent video of her cantering under saddle at the barn, I was told that there was no video available so I have no way to compare if it was situational or forced-training. 

I am curious on what advice and/or experience people may have to comment about and if you agree that there is still a psychological need that I am correct in addressing or if a more-senior, alpha/boss mare, seasoned-competitor, lesson-horse mind frame character mellows out a horse to this stage more than desired. I keep thinking of the one performer who reached out to Monty about wanting to follow his teachings but was unsure how to do it without a whip for teaching tricks. Monty told him to reach back out to him when he figured it out and Monty would support him. He came back having revolutionized how he taught tricks without a whip and he even acknowledged that all of his horses now do tricks in good spirits and never have their ears backwards as they all had previously with whip training. That is the kind of character-healing I am looking at addressing here. Also note: I am only so far as on the Dually videos of reverse and release. 

For my mare's background information:
 
She's 19 years old now and is very responsive to when I free ride her. We're looking at trying to compete bareback in the local Jumper schooling shows, with a longer-term goal of eventually showing with only a neck rope. She lives full-turnout with her small herd and I mix up different riding (bareback & saddle) and ground work goals so to prevent boredom of predictable routines. She is getting better at backing up on a Monty level as I have spent a solid amount of time desensitizing my mare so she is still distinguishing when I am acting silly and when I actually am telling her something. She does have a few other riders who also work with her on occasion so it's not just me which helps her also have a different experience when I have them come out. We also try to go trail riding off-site regularly and simply take trips like Fox Hunting or Beach Swimming so she is always ready to go on the trailer now. 

ANY THOUGHTS, COMMENTS, ADVICE, OR EXPERIENCE WOULD BE HIGHLY APPRECIATED! 

JoHewittVINTA
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Hi & welcome to the Uni. I have taken some time to give thought to your situation. I don't think you can change character but I believe what you want to do is change/rebuild your relationship with this mare. Sharing your horse isn't necessarily a problem - it depends on the other sharers being like minded. 
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Don't let anyone tell you that at 19 she is too old to change because that simply isn't true. Sure, over the years she will have stories to tell & perhaps not everyone she's been in contact with has been wholly fair to her but change will happen, given the right situation. 
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Firstly, I suggest you practice your breathing. Yes, I know, you've been breathing for years, hopefully without a problem BUT have you been breathing in a horse friendly way? You'll find Monty referring to diaphragmatic breathing & horses synchronising. Breathing correctly lowers your pulse rate, helps you react calmly & all this is recognised by & adopted by your horse - calm, happy handler/rider with calm, happy horse = ideal learning situation.
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Secondly, I suggest you study Join up. I mean study it not just run through the videos. Breathing & body language are key to this. Then, when you feel you are ready, give it a try with your mare ( she was born ready for this ). It's very highly likely that the first few tries will not feel like overwhelming successes but don't be put off. You may ask why I suggest this with a horse who is already quiet to handle & ride - I assume if you ride bare back she's not a complete hot head. Simply put, it will quite possibly be the first time she has had a human say " I'm listening to you " in HER language. She will be stunned that you tried & when YOU get it right you will be stunned by the result. It is an experience like no other - I speak from experience. I look forward to hearing how you get on - whether you have immediate success or there are some bumps to negotiate. Remember, this is a long but extremely fruitful road you are on & you have, with this forum, like minded people who will help & support you when you need it. Cheers, Jo.
Reigning Phoenix
Hello!
Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply! It's taken me a while to get back to this but I wanted to make sure that I did indeed respond to you.

Breathing has definitely been one of the top development focuses that I've been trying to work on, both from a personal standpoint as well as a professional one. I admit that I've been dealing with all kinds of stress over the last few years both from work (tech world) and from personal life and I've really been working hard on leaving all of that out when I go to the barn and to not bring in any stressed or negative energy as my horses deserve to not have to put up with any of that. And to be fair, the barn itself is usually extremely helpful in dispelling some of that energy just with being in what I consider a safe space. 

Outside of focusing on breathing just from a personal development standpoint, I do still highly appreciate your attention to detail with regards to specifically connecting it to my horse, as I know that I still have much to improve in that area  as well. 

Join Up is another area that I'm slowly getting into being relatively new to the university. I've definitely already watched the Join Up lesson videos several times already (spread out as I'll need to review the material before I actually try to do Join Up with one of my mares), but I will do so again specifically with some more analytics in regards to your key points on breathing and body language. I will say that I am somewhat limited in my Join Up facilities as my mares all live full turnout in a several-acre pasture where both the barn and our designated [un-fenced] riding area are both inside of. I understand that you do not necessarily need a round pen or a fenced arena to do Join Up, but the idea of chasing (probably not the best word but I went with it from this image) my horse around a wide field with trees, small forest line, and a barn to allow many disconnect points hasn't been very appealing yet. 

I'm actively working on DIY projects to put up a round pen at my barn (hopefully soon) as the makeshift one that I made out of all of my jumps only started working with my mares after the third time all of my mares independently jumped out of it XD (I can't really blame them as they were taught to jump these obstacles). I would like to point out that I did get Join Up with all three of my mares with this makeshift round pen but I do hope that my DIY project that I'm actively researching at the moment will help make future Join Ups far more efficient from a training and time perspective. 

I've been doing a lot more ground work with the Dually halter with all three of my mares, especially the one from this forum post, and things are really starting to get better. The communication between my girls and myself seems to be getting more in sync, but of course there is still so much more that needs to be done. 

Again, I truly appreciate you taking the time to give me your thoughts on the subject! Any further advice that you have will of course also be taken into consideration. I will also plan to respond any updates that I have on this mare, as well as my others, in regards to personal development changes influencing positive results as well as Join Up, breathing, and more that I learn from the university. 

Wishing all is well!