Learning to Listen to Your Horse

By paying attention to behavioral issues, a rider learns to work through a horse's serious health problems and helps him lead a normal life.
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Credit: Courtesy, Laura Pennington Laura Pennington and Zazu

Credit: Courtesy, Laura Pennington Laura Pennington and Zazu

When my eventing trainer announced she was moving, I was lost. My favorite pony was sold, my group of barn friends split up and the place that had been my second home for six years was suddenly gone. I was a 20-year-old college student and had limited options. I could not afford my own horse and definitely could not afford the expensive riding fees and long commute I would incur traveling to other barns I had researched. I was losing hope when I heard from a friend of a friend about a 7-year-old leopard Appaloosa gelding who needed some ride time.

As I watched Zazu’s owner, Kelly, ride him, his tongue flopped around outside his mouth. I also heard a squeaking sound that first I thought was coming from the saddle. Then I realized it was coming from Zazu. I had to comment. “I’m pretty sure it’s a nervous habit,” Kelly said. “But I can’t figure out what makes him so nervous.” Other than the tongue and the squeaking, Zazu went beautifully. He was focused on Kelly and seemed to want to please her.

My turn was up, but the minute I sat in the saddle, the squeaks erupted and Zazu cantered off. The ride didn’t get much better. Even with a lifetime of riding jumpers and eventers, I could not figure him out that day. I was treating him as I treated every other horse. 

Despite the initial issues, Kelly and I decided to keep trying, and we quickly became friends. I was determined to figure out Zazu and rode him often. I took a lesson on him with the barn manager, who knew him well. With her help, I discovered that my typical riding style—forward seat and close contact with the bit—was intolerable to him. He continued to try hard for me because that is his sweet nature, but he was completely miserable. Instead, when I sat deep in the saddle and gave him a loose rein, he visibly relaxed. I also found that voice commands elicited a much quicker and smoother response from him than a leg or rein aid. In this “aha!” moment, I learned to listen to my horse.

Not long after that, Zazu began to have a series of severe attacks from hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, or HYPP, a hereditary disease that causes muscle tremors, generalized weakness and/or collapse. It was terrifying. He collapsed in his stall during the worst of them, and the vet told us these attacks were most likely caused by stress. We started looking into stress triggers. 

One of his attacks happened while he was having a new bridle fitted to him. The leather was stiff, and it took some time to properly adjust it after it was on his head. The bridle-fitting and his subsequent attack gave me an idea. After Zazu had recovered, I rode him in just a halter. The results were incredible. The squeaks and lolling tongue disappeared. Zazu was stressed out by having a bit in his mouth! We got him a bitless bridle, and the results were amazing. He had never fought the bit in the past, but without it, the anxiety we had previously overlooked was now totally gone.

We began keeping a journal, noting everything we did with Zazu—how his mood was, how often he was being ridden, what the outside temperature was. From this, we were able to determine the cause of another attack. He seemed to be the leader of his field mates, so we never considered he could be stressed by his living situation. Under more careful observation, though, we realized he was in a constant struggle with another gelding for dominance. He wouldn’t relax. We moved him to another field where he made quick friends with everyone, and the attacks disappeared. 

Before I met Zazu, I thought I knew a lot about horses, and I did—about their physical care and about riding jumpers and eventers. But I didn’t understand that horses are always trying to tell us things. Often what we perceive to be annoying or dangerous behavior is the result of an underlying issue. Zazu, health issues aside, is one of the most willing horses I have ever worked with. He craves human attention and affection, so long as it is given to him in the way he wants it. And he will tell you if it’s not— you just have to listen.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.